From literary success to stage sensation: the question is whether WAR HORSE can pack the same emotional punch on the silver screen. The answer is yes and no. Spielberg, renowned for two of the most celebrated war films ever made, SCHINDLER’S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, does not add a third war classic to his list by any means. Yet, behind the inevitable sentimentality, there is a surprisingly harrowing and beautifully shot story which doesn’t fail to tug on the heartstrings.
The film kicks off in the heart of pre-war Devon, where an old, weary man becomes the first to fall for Joey the horse’s charm, and purchases it well above what he can afford. Then horse meets boy, and much of the first part of the film is Albert and Joey forming a relationship that will remain unwavering, even as they are torn apart by a world war. Although this part of the film is stunningly shot, with sweeping, rich cinematography of the lush abundance of the countryside, this is the weaker part of the film, for we get little more than a conventional and rather over-milked human/animal relationship which is not powerful enough to fuel the film alone.
However, as war sweeps Joey and Albert onto their separate paths, the film gathers momentum and dramatic gravitas as Joey gallops from battlefield to battlefield and encounters an array of characters along the way, including two German brothers whose loyalty leads to tragedy, and a Belgian grandfather and daughter isolated and exploited by alien forces. All these stories are intertwined with the journey of Joey through battle, and each one echoes a different perspective of the world of warfare, beginning with the first ride into battle, where cavalry meets artillery.
…there is no central protagonist to whom the viewer can relate, as everyone else is cast into the shadow of, as it turns out, a one trick pony.
What is put across so well on film is the terror of war, with a murky greyness of the trenches and the jagged apocalypse of no-man’s-land perpetrating deep into an unprecedented type of horror experienced by those who fought. Yet it is difficult to transform a book written in the first person from the horse’s perspective, to a realistic film environment; and consequently there is no central protagonist to whom the viewer can relate, as everyone else is cast into the shadow of, as it turns out, a one trick pony. Yes, the horse can act, but so can Jeremy Irvine.
Nevertheless, there are some poignant, beautiful moments of cinema which do justice to Michael Morpurgo’s story, such as a scene where a British and a German soldier join forces in the middle of a desolate no-man’s-land to cut the horse free from a trap of barbed wire. The war horse is a clever story-telling device which certainly has a tale to tell, and what Spielberg delivers is a beautifully shot, touching accolade to the triumphant story.
To mark the release of WAR HORSE, The Blue Cross has opened its archives for the first time to reveal the real-life stories behind the animals who fought and died in the First World War. The Blue Cross has been helping animals since 1897 and cared for sick and injured horses during World War One. Here you can explore images, memorabilia and stories from the front line. If you enjoyed this article please consider making a donation to The Blue Cross.