It’s very easy to get cynical when faced with a film as overtly emotionally manipulative as War Horse. This could be because many overtly emotionally manipulative movies are utter trash. We forget to notice talent and fine filmmaking when they arrive dripping in the syrup of sentimentality. But although War Horse is sentimental, and very adept at opening an audience’s tear-ducts, it’s also a superb war film and a fiercely passionate story of friendship. It also happens to be directed by Steven Spielberg, a man whose name needs only to be uttered in order to bring memories of thrilling adventures, heartbreaking sacrifices and heart-pounding action sequences flooding back to one’s mind. He is a genius, and War Horse ranks up there with his greatest achievements.
At the start of the film I was a bit worried. The acting from Jeremy Irvine as teenage farmboy Albert, who trains and befriends the horse of the title, seemed a bit ropey, and the dialogue a little too story-book. But, of course, the film is based on a children’s novel, and although it moves away from the book’s narrative style (Michael Morpurgo’s novel is told from the horse’s perspective) it stays firmly in the realms of childlike fantasy. And what a lush, sumptuously told fantasy it is.
Joey, the horse of which Albert is so fond, is bought by the army who are gearing up for what would become the First World War. His father and mother (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, respectively) desperately need the money to pay the rent on their Devon farm, so Albert says a teary farewell to his beloved animal. We then follow Joey’s journey through the years as the war progresses, as he moves from different countries to different owners, from the battlefields to windmills and fields.
Although marketed as a family film, there are some rather dark moments in the story, particularly when Joey and Albert find themselves caught up in the ugliness of war. But many younger viewers will be familiar with either the book or the successful National Theatre stage production, and Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’s screenplay sensitively mixes the seriousness of war with good-natured humour and memorable characterisation.
Although I had my doubts at first, Irvine did win me over with his touching portrayal of a boy so in love with an animal he would he lie about his age and risk his life in a brutal war in order to find him. The ever magnificent Emily Watson steals the show at the start of the film as Albert’s stressed but loving mother. There are numerous other brief but excellent supporting turns, including Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Marsan, both soldiers, and Niels Arestrup, who plays a French farmer who also has an emotional attachment with Joey.
Big, moving, well-made family blockbusters don’t come along very often. But when they do, they remind us how wonderful it is to be caught up in a thumping good story with characters (including animals) we can connect with and care for. In the age of big brainless 3D franchise films (Pirates, Transformers), it is wonderful to see good traditional storytelling and warm, affectionate filmmaking brought back to our cinema screens in such a stirringly successful way. I’m sure, as the years go by, War Horse will come to be regarded as a cinematic classic.
War Horse (2011), directed by Steven Spielberg, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, certificate 12A.