On a small farm in Dartmoor, on the eve of the First World War in 1914, a foal named Joey is born and grows up under the watchful eye of farm boy Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). Young Albert dreams of riding his own horse someday and gets his chance when his father Ted (Peter Mullan) outbids local landlord Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis) for Joey instead of the plough-horse he and his long-suffering wife, Rose (Emily Watson), so desperately need. With their home at stake, Albert vows he will teach Joey how to plow the field. Against the odds, he accomplishes this miraculous feat but come the outbreak of war, his father sells Joey to the British army...
There can’t be many instances where a filmmaker’s own artistry and mastery of cinematic storytelling were cause enough for severe criticism, but strangely that is more or less what happened when Steven Spielberg adapted War Horse for the big screen, based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s bestseller though equally inspired by the hugely acclaimed and innovative stage production. Although a box office success, accusations of emotional manipulation dogged the film and threatened to obscure its many genuinely thoughtful, lyrical and spiritually uplifting qualities.
What is manipulation? At least, what does it mean in the context of what we broadly consider “good” filmmaking? In this instance, it stands as the calculated abuse of our highest ideals and humane feelings for crass and cynical ends. Or, if one takes the argument a step further, the exploitation of a real-life conflict in which millions lost their lives for the purpose of selling cinema tickets. Even were one cynical enough to contend Spielberg is as black-hearted as all that - and granted, there are some people who feel that way - the argument is profoundly flawed, not least because the nature of cinema is to craft engaging characters and arresting situations in which we, the viewers, invest our hearts and minds. Storytelling, whether popcorn entertainment or idiosyncratic art-house, involves the manipulation of time and space for poetic ends. It aims to trigger an emotional and intellectual response. What matters is whether that aim stems from a sincere place hoping to uplift and enlighten or simply the desire to sell Coca Cola. Spielberg is a populist artist, who paints using all the colours in his palette, but crucially he is also sincere.
Anyone who doubts Spielberg’s sincerity should first closely examine what War Horse is most assuredly not, namely a film where a cute and cuddly animal goes to war. That certainly would stand as something saccharine and crass. War Horse is not a film about a horse. It is a film about people: spirited, tenacious, hard-working and courageous. People whose collective soul is embodied in the horse. Joey the horse is the spirit of man, continually struggling to rise above his baser nature, to escape the bonds of violent conflict even as circumstances conspire to trap him within it. Shot in lush MGM colours drawn from Spielberg’s childhood memories of Lassie Come Home (1943) and National Velvet (1944), the film leans towards the more spiritually-inclined Au Hasard Balthazar (1966).
Some objected to the episodic narrative, but this remains a crucial facet of a multi-perspective, all-encompassing approach none too dissimilar from Black Beauty, only considerably more dramatic and affecting. Having been torn from Albert’s care, Joey is entrusted to kindly Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who promises he’ll keep him safe. Hereafter the tone shifts from MGM family fare towards something akin to David Lean tackling All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Spielberg’s flair for arresting set-pieces reaches full bloom without going gung-ho as he spreads our sympathies evenly between the British and the Germans. Nice to see the Indian regiment’s contribution to the war effort recognised in a major Hollywood film too. Meanwhile co-writer Richard Curtis layers the script with some dry humour not a million miles away from his Blackadder Goes Forth. An exceptional British and pan-European cast bring an array vivid characters to life, while newcomer Jeremy Irvine delivers a performance of such open-hearted honesty he almost overshadows the remarkable war horse itself.
Thereafter Joey passes through a succession of characters whose dreams are crushed by the war: Gunther (David Kross), a young German soldier struggles to prevent his younger brother from being sent to the front line; Emilie (Celine Buckens - whose ebullient spirit recalls the young Elizabeth Taylor) an endearingly determined young French girl living alone with her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) who yearns to ride a horse in spite of her brittle bones; and a compassionate German horse trainer. As German guns bombard British trenches we spy a familiar face just as Spielberg unveils his most potent parallel: soldiers are bullied over the trenches, herded like animals. There are of course those big, cathartic, Spielbergian moments but perhaps the most moving scene comes straight from the play, one that briefly unites both the British and German camps in common purpose. War Horse is less concerned with the animal than the compassion it invokes, a communal experience Spielberg attempts to draw the viewer into and succeeds.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.