A Different Sort of War

Can Steven Spielberg’s film version of War Horse win its spurs?

It’s only because the First World War was nearly a hundred years ago that we can approach it in the way that War Horse does. Sad though the treatment of animals during the conflict was it pales into irrelevance when you consider the human cost. Distance allows us to embrace other sorts of war stories though, just as we do for conflicts of an even older vintage. Also, it is worth remembering that War Horse is a children’s book so as a way of introducing younger people to the horrors of war, you can see the importance of Michael Morpurgo’s story.  So critics who mock the idea that war is being sanitised by the story or in particular by this film should really know better. True, there is no blood, the moments where people are killed cleverly disguised and the entire narrative has the glossy sheen of family friendly entertainment but the message is there strongly enough.

"The catering truck's open!"

You don’t need the whole `realism` of the same director’s Saving Private Ryan battle scenes to be shocked by the trenches as a cavalry charge shown proves. We see the patriotic thrill of the charge, the vicious melee of the impact and then, in a manner that makes as much impact as if we saw soldiers being shot off their animals, the sight of dozens and dozens of rider less horses on the other side.

Spielberg is equally capable of making something as domestic as ploughing a field into an epic moment. We’ve seen farmer Ted Narracott (an intense, near wordless Peter Mullan) pay well over the odds for young horse they call Joey simply to out manoeuvre his landlord Lyons (a ferrety David Thewlis) only to receive the scorn of his wife (Emily Watson, superb as ever). Their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine, believable) vows to make the horse capable of the farm duties for which is appears ill equipped while the family are threatened with eviction by Lyons unless they can make the fields fit for purpose.

So, at the last minute in the pouring rain and watched by a sceptical village Albert and Joey manage to plough the difficult land. Like much of this film the scene is rich in symbolism and poor in dialogue, but the actors sell it with their effort and the great director makes it work. The story has a simple, old fashioned belief in heroism, friendship and loyalty that should strike a chord with people of all ages and is definitely Spielberg’s milieu.

"You're a remarkable 'orse you know."      "Shut up kid and get me my oats.

There is a cavalcade of people that Joey encounters, each managing to encapsulate their characters in a comparatively short time.  The best performances come from Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls, an officer who would be the hero of another film, Robert Emms as Lyon’s son who ends up in the trenches with Albert, Niels Arestrup as the eccentric farmer dispensing pearls of wisdom and whose grand-daughter hides the horse and the always reliable Toby Kebbell as the Joey’s unnamed and unexpected saviour who brings a down to earth quality to proceedings.

Unlike the acclaimed stage play, the scenes on the Narracott farm and surrounding village are more involving than the subsequent wartime travails, largely because Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’s script chooses to follow Joey exclusively rather than, as the play did, show Albert’s war experiences too. The latter only returns to the story for the final half hour or so by which time the narrative has become too episodic. Another unexpected element is that, while the puppets in the stage play became characters, real horses cannot quite achieve that so the whole thing becomes less involving as it moves along.

That being said, Spielberg never misses the opportunity to show something powerful or interesting whether a small detail like seeing someone through Joey’s eye or the drama of the horse’s solo flight across No Man’s Land. The ending is obvious even if you don’t know the plot beforehand and, kid’s story or not, the idea that an entire company of battle hardened soldiers would put themselves to such trouble over an “orse”, however “incredible”, does not quite ring true.

Spielberg optioned the story after being bowled over by the stage play but in moving away from some of the latter’s strengths, the end result does not quite convey the story’s bond between horse and boy as well. War Horse is definitely worth seeing though - flaws and all, it shows that Spielberg still has few peers when it comes to big films.

"Hey, I found another remarkable 'orse. Tenth one today!"
Words: John Newman

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