By James McLaughlin & Mihaela Ivantcheva

War is probably only surpassed by love as one of the most common and favoured themes in the movie industry. The genre ranges from epic movies such as Apocalypse Now and Life is Beautiful to more trivial features that flood the movie charts.

And although you might think you have seen all the possible aspects and angles of war on the screen, ‘War Horse’ will probably prove you wrong. Having produced a number of World War II epics, director Steven Spielberg’s first World War I feature pays tribute to a war hero, which has been neglected until now. The horse. 

On the face of it, viewers will no doubt be skeptical that a horse can generate the same depth of emotion as war time epics unless it is Black Beauty but this new venture for the acclaimed director packs the punch we’ve come to expect from him. After all, this is the man who made aliens lovable; a horse garnering sympathy is well within his capabilities. 

The silver screen adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel sees Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) bond with a feisty colt, Joey. Fortunately for Albert, his alcoholic veteran father, Ted, (Peter Mullan) lets a personal rivalry force his hand into risking his livelihood and family to purchase the horse. 

As Albert and Joey create an unshakeable bond, World War I reaches England and, with no other option to save his farm, Albert’s father reluctantly sells Joey to the army under Captain Nicholls’ (Tom Hiddleston) protection. 

As battle rages, Joey is captured by the Germans and looked after by a kindly French girl in the lead up to the film’s tearful climax as Albert enlists to hopefully be reunited. 

Set amid the carnage of World War I, the story starts in Britain before war breaks and roams through the European battlefields until a climactic reunion of human and animal. Highly emotive and touching, some of the scenes will soften even the hardest heart. 

Spielberg said in a recent interview with Empire magazine: “I’m faced with the challenge of making a movie where I not only had to watch the horse, I had to compel the audience to watch it along with me.” 

Embedded in this challenge is the crux of what makes the film so special. Essentially, Spielberg has to create an empathy with the non-speaking animal through its interactions and relationships with its human screen counterparts. 

Here, the director achieves the improbable. Although the cast includes names such as Emily Watson and David Thewlis, the best actors in the movie are undoubtedly the gorgeous animals eloquently set up by Spielberg’s eye for the subtle yet emotive camera angle. 

Fourteen different horses were used in the movie to portray the brave, strong and devoted character of Joey and he remains the dominant force throughout with the humans providing the background. 

A number of scenes offer the emotional backdrop for sympathising with Joey and a humorous turn from a scene stealing goose adds some welcome light relief. Here, writers Lee Hall and Richard Curtis have succeeded in ensuring the actors have enough individual screen presence to have sufficient character depth but not enough to distract the audience from Joey and the animal cast. 

This is furthered by John Williams’ score, which is expectedly eloquent and delicately weighted to heighten the tone of key scenes without even being noticeable to the audience. This subtlety has already been recognised with a Golden Globes nomination in the bag. 

Under Spielberg’s steady hand, the cast of relatively unknown Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch – perfect as the well-spoken English Officer and Watson as the long suffering wife to Ted excel in their respective roles with Thewlis in an unaccustomed spiteful role that is as convincing as any of his previous portrayals. 

‘War Horse’ is undoubtedly fresh ground for Spielberg to venture into but he delivers a feature with real emotional impact, while highlighting a number of the futilities of World War I’s trench warfare. However, some of the humorous trench scenes do seem a little out of place in the serious tone surrounding them but do not detract from an otherwise accomplished dramatic piece. 

Spielberg’s offering has already secured two Golden Globe nominations and is sure to receive more at Tinsel Town’s other award ceremonies.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.