War Horse

Recently, cinema has been rediscovering its own history; something up to now it has always tried to do covertly. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist are inspired by the early days of movies, recreating key moments of the classics. Steven Spielberg’s latest film War Horse is based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo (and the smash-hit stage adaptation) but it is also a tribute to the filmmakers that have inspired him; from Lewis Milestone’s WWI epic All Quiet on the Western Front to his friend Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and from John Ford to David Lean. War Horse is an old fashioned film, and I’m not certain that I mean that as a compliment. It is pure Spielberg; emotional, uplifting, richly photographed and carefully composed but it is a film that might have been made at any time in the last hundred years. This old warhorse is, by title and design, a traditional standard.

The film opens with pastoral views of the Devonshire countryside and an equally cloying flourish from John William’s ever-present score, as a young foal is born in a field. Looking on is poor farmer’s son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), who falls in love with the horse at first sight. When his father Ted (Peter Mullan), stubbornly outbids his landlord Lyons (David Thewliss) at an auction to buy the horse, Albert gladly takes on the seemingly impossible task of turning the thoroughbred into a working farm horse. With the help of his long-suffering mother (Emily Watson), Albert fits his prize with a bridle and, in a tediously overplayed prologue, teaches the slim-ankled horse to plough a rain-soaked field.

Then 1914 rolls around and war is declared against Germany. The horse, now called Joey, is sold to a kindly cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston) and shipped off to the green fields of France. From that point on, Spielberg tells the story of the war from the point of view of the horse, with vignettes from the recently-enlisted Albert’s experience in trying to track him down. Even less suited to battle than to pulling ploughs, Joey is soon deployed in an ultimately disastrous dawn raid on a German camp in France.

Captured by the enemy, Joey begins a journey across the frontlines of the war, where he encounters a spread of likely types, each with a different view of the conflict. There are two German brothers (David Kross and Leonard Carow) who use him to escape their fates as infantrymen, a French grandfather and his precocious granddaughter (Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens) whose fruit farm is in the way of the advancing Germans and a brave Tommy (Toby Kebbell) and a German sharpshooter (Rainer Bock), who rescue the horse from a tangle of barbed wire.

There are times when Spielberg’s touch with emotions and show-stopping individual moments still pack a wallop. An early cavalry charge might recall a better one in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, but it is still heart-stoppingly intense and heart-breakingly futile. Later, a moment when a group of horses react when a fallen horse is put down is simple and brilliant and one of the rare occasions when the film feels genuine and alive.

But as Joey gallops from one set of hastily-sketched characters to the next, War Horse loses clarity and focus. Because the film is aimed at a young audience, Spielberg cannot show us the real horrors of the First World War, even if they might struggle to sit through the entire 2 hour and 20 minute running time. At the same time, the film is too broadly played and dramatically unsophisticated for adults, who might find themselves questioning the wisdom of following the fortunes of an animal at war when millions of men, with wives, children, fathers and mothers, are dying in the trenches.

Heavy on homage and thick with carefully-crafted atmosphere, War Horse is an admirable attempt to find another way in which to tell an old story but Spielberg’s fuzzy storytelling and sentimental embellishments make for a gelding where there should have been a stallion.