In Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, you will not find sexual addictions, murderous cults, criminal sociopaths, not even a single vampire. You will, however, find a compelling story of one boy’s incredible bonding with a high-spirited half-thoroughbred who becomes trapped in the nightmare of the First World War. Based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and the 2007 stage play by Nick Stafford and adapted for the screen by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, War Horse features the acting debut of Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott, a sensitive youth from Devonshire, England who raises and trains the horse he names Joey and, even after they are separated, never gives up hope that they will one day be reunited.
Superbly shot by cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, the film opens on a farm in Devon, England. Albert (Irvine) is a farm boy whose father Ted (Peter Mullan), a heavy drinker, buys an Irish horse at an auction as a message to his landlord (David Thewlis) who is also bidding. The horse is described as “miraculous” because of his speed, stamina, and physical beauty. The price, however, is steep, and unless the horse can plow the rocky fields, the family will lose the horse as well as all of their property to the avaricious landlord. No one including his father and mother Rose (Emily Watson) believe that it can be done, but Albert perseveres through sheer determination and an uncanny ability to communicate with Joey.
In 1914, however, when Britain declares war on Germany, his father is forced to sell Joey to the British cavalry. A broken hearted Albert vows to enlist when he is of age to find Joey and bring him home. Sent to France, Joey passes through several hands including the kindhearted English Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who vows to look after the horse. However, in a scene of extraordinary power, hard charging British soldiers attack a German camp, thinking they will overcome them easily with a surprise raid, but are met with heavy resistance from German cannons and hundreds of men are killed including Captain Nicholls.
After a brief stint pulling an ambulance, Joey connects with a black stallion named Topthorn. Both find a small degree of comfort in the home of young Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) but it is short lived. Emilie is captured while riding Joey and he and the stallion are taken away by German soldiers. In another powerful sequence, when Joey is speeding away from a danger zone, he is cornered by a German tank but makes his escape by leaping over the tank. Sadly, however, he is caught in a barbed wire fence between the British and German trenches and becomes hopelessly entangled until a German with a wire cutter comes forward to help a British soldier free the suffering horse.
Underlined by the soaring tones of John Williams score, War Horse can at times be saccharine, manipulative, and predictable, yet it is ultimately irresistible and a film that connects us to our essential humanity, evoking a simpler time when values were more important than box office and where entire families could watch a film together. Like the donkey in Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar, the fictional horse stands as a symbol for the purity and innocence we have lost, and serves to remind us that real horses have been brutalized in wars throughout history from Alexander the Great to the 20th century, and continue to suffer today from those who profit from their sacrifice.