Stubborn determination, a relationship ravaged by war, an underdog faced with impossible odds; Michael Morpurgo’s novel was made for the Spielberg treatment. After seeing the stage adaption of this tale of a boy and his horse, the director was adamant in bringing it to the big screen. The result is slick and engrossing, but somewhat lacking in the originality or depth of an enduring epic.
The film opens in an idyllic Devon, all rolling hills and gentle country folk. These initial scenes can drift into tedium. Our interest is held by the growing bond between Joey, an unusually powerful horse, and Albert Narracott, a farmer’s son. Ted (Peter Mullan), Albert’s father, buys Joey in an auction, much to the dismay of his wife Rose (Emily Watson). Jeremy Irvine makes a solid film debut as Albert, who admirably persists in training Joey.
Faced with money troubles, Ted sells Joey to the army in 1914 and he is sent off with the WW1 cavalry. Albert vows he and Joey will be reunited and enlists as soon as he is of age. Albert is of such good nature, there’s little shade to his character. But Irvine works well with what’s available, effectively portraying Albert’s devastation when Joey is led away.
The horse’s strength and intelligence win over characters on his journey. Each meeting reveals a different experience of the war. The parting between Joey and the new owner is often cruel, not least with two German boys, Gunther (David Kross) and Michael (Leonhard Carow). The boys flee their army camp on horseback, finding shelter in a windmill. The price they pay when discovered is the film’s most brutal moment, one of a few saving it from over-sentimentality. The presentation of horses’ plight in battle is also poignant, particularly the image of Joey tortuously tangled in barbed wire on no man’s land.
Filthy trenches and rows of men venturing over the parapet to their death are more familiar images of WW1. Yet the vulnerability of soldiers battling at close quarters still strikes a stark contrast to conflicts that we see today. Spielberg touches briefly on this trauma and, in doing so, reminds us of the bravery and naivety of men sent to the Western front.
Given a Hollywood gloss, this adaption lacks artistic subtlety and shies away from the true hideousness of battle. But only the most cynical of film goers won’t be rooting for a reunion between Albert and Joey. And, for a family film, War Horse admirably avoids saccharin sentiment. While it won’t enjoy the adoration of E.T, Spielberg’s latest offers some strong performances and polished entertainment.
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