War Horse is the latest family fare from Spielberg, the big-screen adaptation of the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. In essence, War Horse is the perfect vehicle for Spielberg, whose stories often deal with separation or the pursuit of a goal, the journey between, and of course the eventual reconciliation. Films such as Saving Private Ryan, Indiana Jones & A.I are all deviations of the same story, a story which neatly reflects the narrative of War Horse.
So, if you’re still unfamiliar with the story then think of the childhood classic *ahem*, Homeward Bound. If the memories dredged up from the foggy recesses of my mind are correct, then the story of cherished pets separated from their owner, and their subsequent courageous journey home is very similar to War Horse. If I’m wrong of course, then ignore the whole Homeward Bound reference, you get the point. Our protagonist in this case is Joey, the horse that is befriended, trained and loved by his young human master, Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Together they traverse, and overcome a number of challenges that cements their relationship and reaches its zenith with both horse and master ploughing a field that by rights, should have been impossible. This act bestows upon Joey the epithet of a ‘miracle horse’ and life seems promising for the pair. Predictably, some force must arise that compel their separation and befitting the English location in which it is set, a torrential rainstorm ruins the fortunes of Albert’s family and his father, Ted (Peter Mullan) must sell Joey to make ends meet. Purchased by the English cavalry during the onset of World War I. Heartbroken, Albert too enlists in the army and so begins a journey for a boy to find to his horse, and vice versa.
War Horse is one of those great war movies that deals with the subject matter a little more realistically and goes beyond the simple good versus evil paradigm. Joey, as a war asset is able to traverse the boundaries of wartime that mere men can’t, and the characters he comes in to contact with constantly reinforce that. For Joey, the war begins with a major charge as part of the English cavalry, but is then captured and used by the German medical services. Later he becomes the key to freedom for a pair of young deserters, and then finds himself in a peaceful sanctuary beyond the fringes of war. It’s not long before the war catches up with him and he is used to pull artillery before finally making his escape and rushing headlong in to no-man’s land. Through all these experiences, he encounters good and decent people on either side of the trenches, regular people that are neither deified or villainised but all a part of a pointless struggle.
There are some touching scenes within the film, and of course, Spielberg’s trademark family-friendly direction and storytelling is ever present. Joey, is often the subject of adoration, or even love and so miniature stories of happiness, or decency outshine the guns, gas attacks and killings. That’s not to say the scenes of war are considerably white-washed, though obviously don’t expect anything on the level of Saving Private Ryan. People continue to die but with a notable difference; whole bodies fly through the air after an explosion rather than body parts. Some of the war time scenes are absolutely stunning, and they must be applauded for the sheer effort that went in to them. Long, action-packed shots accompany a galloping Joey as he races through a hail of bullets, mortars and mud, and to think of the time, patience and expertise guided an animal, not an actor, through those scenes is remarkable indeed.
The film in its entirety though, is very much of the traditional Hollywood ilk. Adapted from a children’s story and helmed by Spielberg, the story is expertly told and feels truly epic without being mythical/supernatural etc. For the more mature audience member, there isn’t really anything new to experience and you are faced with the predictability of the narrative and the gentle hand-holding emotional cues that are always right on time. However, your appreciation of the challenges faced directing a horse, will surprisingly enhance your enjoyment of many scenes and you’ll often find yourself revelling in the film a lot more when humans are absent from the action.