It may seem a stretch to believe that a war story based on the experiences of a horse could capture the attention of an audience but not only has it made a successful novel and subsequent West-End show, it now appears that it can work just as effectively in film format. Adapted for the screen by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall War Horse is a touching tale of war seen through the impartial eyes of a spirited stallion.
Raised and trained by young Albert Narracott (A wide-eyed Jeremy Irvine in his first film role), Joey the horse exhibits courage and valour from the second he is born and indeed nearly every human he comes into contact with is drawn to him. At the outbreak of the First World War, Joey is sold to the military to pay off Albert’s father’s debt. Albert, initially too young to enlist, joins as soon as he is old enough, hoping to one day be reunited with his beloved companion. Told almost entirely from the horses point of view, he passes from a British captain, two German brothers and a young French girl, allowing an insight into many different perspectives.
Some of the more cynical viewers out there may find the earnest sincerity of the film too overly sentimental though personally I found it a genuinely touching film suitable for all the family, and no more sentimental than many of Spielberg’s other works. During certain scenes there was barely a dry eye in the cinema though there are many laughs to be had too. One of the most memorable scenes is one in which a German and British soldier work together to come to the horse’s aid, echoing the infamous true-story of the football match between enemies on Christmas Day.
The cinematography is absolutely stunning and the English countryside has rarely looked so lush and vivid, the Gone With The Wind-esque silhouettes and sunsets are just beautiful and even amid the chaos of the No-man’s land sequences the mud and smoke are deftly shot. Pairing up with long-term collaborator John Williams the score is suitably uplifting and poignant in equal measure.
All the cast give strong performances and showcase a wide array of British talent from the often understated Emily Watson to Eddie Marsan in a brief role. Irvine is so endearingly innocent, you immediately warm to him. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston also make a good pairing as two British majors leading a cavalry charge into a German camp. This again is beautifully shot and powerfully highlights the waste of war as well as the gallant naivety of the British forces as they use horses against machine gun fire.
Even with a fairly substantial running time (146 mins) one of the only faults with the film is that many of the characters are too engaging for their own good, you wish you could spend more time with each of them. Albert, after his initial beginning training Joey, is then not seen until much later in the film and the young French girl and her grandfather are again only given a limited time with him. Having said this, the film is well paced and giving each character more time would most likely have made the film overly long.
Some may find the opening is too drawn out and suspension of disbelief is required. If you dismiss the protagonist as ‘just a horse’ then it will be difficult to feel the emotional impact. Overall however it is a visually delightful tale, told with sincerity by Spielberg and it is difficult not to be won over by it’s fairytale quality. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll have a great movie experience.