War Horse. Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis and Tom Hiddleston. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 146 minutes. Rated M (War Violence and Themes).
War Horse has been a very successful theatre drama (with actors using masks for the horses). It has been adapted by Lee (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings, Love Actually) and directed with his usual fine craft by Steven Spielberg.
Most audiences will find this a very moving film and not just those who like stories which feature horses.
The first forty five minutes show ordinary farmers, landowners and tenants, on impoverished properties in Devon. Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) and his wife (Rose) are in debt to the wealthy Mr Lyons (David Thewlis). They have a teenage son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Spielberg obviously loves the countryside and immerses us in it. And we share the anxieties of the farmers, especially when a horse is auctioned which Ted sees as having great potential – when all he really needs is a draft horse for ploughing the hard fields. Albert volunteers to look after and train the horse, naming it Joe. They develop a great bond which is tested when Albert volunteers to guide Joe in ploughing. The neighbours and Lyons gather to watch and we are all moved by the spirit of the horse in succeeding in ploughing the whole field.
The World War I begins and Ted Narracott decides to sell the horse to the army. The friendly Captain Nichols reassures Albert that he will look after the horse. He does, even sketching Joe to send to Albert. The young English officers, like their French counterparts seen in so many films critical of them, are caught up in spirit and pride so that when they charge a German camp at dawn, presuming they have the upper hand, they are led into a forest where they are mown down. Joe and the other horses are taken – and almost destroyed when they are judged as too fine and too useless for the work of transporting weapons and goods.
Joe has several adventures during the war, episodes set in France and Belgium, which also illustrate how the war affected soldiers and ordinary people. A young horse trainer decides to desert to protect his younger enlisted brother. They ride away and hide in a windmill, but to no avail at all.
A grandfather who makes jams (Niels Arestrup) cares for his granddaughter who some across Joe and takes him in. However, the German troops come to the farm demanding food and, tragically, the horse is taken.
As the war goes on, Joe is involved with transport. Spielberg creates a powerful sequence where the exhausted horses drag large cannons up a hill. He then tops that with an extraordinary sequence where Joe breaks free and gallops wildly through the lines, through the barbed wire, tangling it around his body and comes to a standstill in no man’s land. There is a fine sequence where a British soldier comes out of the trenches and enlists a German soldier and his wire-cutters to free Joe. This is one of those scenes where the futility of the hostilities is dramatised as each side works with the other and join in a common cause which is peaceful.
The war ends. Will Joe find Albert again?
Beautiful to look at, with a moving John Williams score, an emotional film that appeals to the best feelings in us. It does not aim at the critique of World War I as in films like Paths of Glory. But, it offers some of the best of British heritage and a reminder that World War I is passing into history as modern warfare is so technological compared with the human endeavour and suffering in the trenches. A story where we focus on the horse’s heroics symbolises the harshness of the human experience as well.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 26th December 2011.