The adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel is heartbreaking and gracefully illustrates the true calamity of the First World War.
Released in 2011, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is an adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo novel of the same name, following the story of Albert and horse Joey as they are split apart by the First World War. War Horse will have you in tears by its conclusion: the emotional connection forged with Joey, as he is sent across the battlefields and beyond, proves overwhelming. From the stirring soundtrack, provided by the always fantastic John Williams, to the stunning scenery (the vast majority filmed in the UK), War Horse moulds beauty with barbarity and creates something essentially captivating. CGI is used in moments of action which would place the animals in too much danger, but you can’t notice it. Joey’s sprint through No Man’s Land, evading certain death, mixes real staging with a computer-generated equine. All you see, though, is a horse trying to escape – that’s what your emotions latch onto.
It’s clear that care and attention has been placed into every aspect of the film. Even minor details, such as the changes in military clothing as the war continues, are appreciated. In comparison to other films that use World War I as their historical setting, War Horse tries to emphasise the love that shines through all the fear and desecration. German brothers try to protect one another, whilst the men who serve alongside Albert come to care about Joey just as much as his owner.
The celebrated cast is filled out by big name stars, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston, but also a number of terrific character actors like Peter Mullan, Toby Kebbell and Liam Cunningham (Davos in Game of Thrones) in a minor role. Hiddleston’s performance as Captain Nicholls, leading the cavalry on an ultimately fatal charge, is heartbreaking. In a single shot Nicholls goes from confident captain to fear-stricken boy, de-aged and laid bare in an instant. The war isn’t what these men were anticipating; his face says everything it needs to say. In the trenches, we are witness to the true mayhem of the Great War. The fear of an unknown enemy is potent, death from above a constant threat, with close camera angles really pulling us into the sense of tension amongst the despairing group of Tommies.
Not everything in War Horse is doom-laden. There are some wonderful moments of optimism. The interactions of the French girl Emilie and her grandfather with Joey are gentle and wholesome. All the grandfather wants is to make Emilie happy. When he can no longer do that, he does the next best thing – honouring her legacy, the grandfather returns the horse to its original owner. Humanity prevails in this film. The scene in No Man’s Land sees Joey become a shining beacon of hope during a war that makes little sense; with Joey trapped in barbed wire, men from both sides of the trenches move forward to set him free. There’s even a brief moment of levity as the men call for wire cutters, and at least seven pairs suddenly come flying over to them.
Watch the trailer below: