On paper, an uplifting film about the First World War sounds like the work of the devils’ own planning meeting. An uplifting war movie about one of the most notoriously grim conflicts in history, about a touching friendship between a boy and his horse. Directed by Steven Spielberg. The mind boggles.
Except of course, that War Horse has a far more convoluted history than that. Based upon the acclaimed stage play, itself based on Michael Murpurgo’s children’s novel, Spielberg’s historical epic reaches the screen already something of a modern fable. And while it is indeed possible to be cynical about this movie, you’d have to try pretty damn hard.
The plot: In the early 1910s, young Albert’s (Jeremy Irvine) father, a drunk Boer War veteran and barely-surviving farmer, goes out to market to buy a horse to plough the family’s farm. He comes back with a handsome but unfit young thoroughbred, and all appears doomed. Against the odds, Albert trains the horse who he has named Joey, the field gets ploughed, and a touching interspecies best-friendship develops.
However, when a rainstorm destroys the turnip crop, the family face eviction. If things weren’t unfortunate enough, the Great War is breaking out. To avoid eviction, Albert’s father sells Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a soldier so honourable and kindly you just know he’s doomed as soon as you meet him. Captain Nicholls promises to do his best to return Joey to Albert if he can – just one of many scenes that hammer home quite how nobody involved in this conflict really had a clue what they were letting themselves in for.
What follows is an epic traversal across both sides of the war from a horse’s eye view in which the kindly steed, through his relationships with those he meets, shows both great courage and utter stupidity on both sides. The whole thing ends in a blockbusting, if not a little bizarre re-imagining of Black Beauty in the Battle Of The Somme, and since naïve young Albert signs up to fight as soon as he is old enough, it’s not really a spoiler to reveal that a miraculous reunion of sorts does end up taking place.
War Horse is heroically sentimental (I’m not above admitting that I cried on at least three occasions), elegantly shot on film (Devon has rarely looked more beautiful) and, with its largely British cast (Hiddleston plus Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson and a career-building performance from newcomer Jeremy Irvine as Albert), quite wonderfully delivered.
The horseplay (sorry) is almost as impressive as the performances from the human actors. But War Horse succeeds in how skillfully Spielberg pushes your emotional buttons. It’s Spielberg at his most ultimately Spielbergy. Conscious to deliver a family picture, there’s no blood and very little actual battle. The horrors of the Great War are hammered home in subtler, no less devastating ways. The sheer lunacy of its circumstance is never far from the surface. Few of the main characters make it to the end. And it ultimately comes off as up there with Spielberg’s best.
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Yes, it would be hard work to keep your heart hard to War Horse. The truth is, it’s harder work not to leave the cinema a blubbering wreck.
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis