This astounding action cinematography saturates the film, as does the theme of innocence versus violence. Steven Spielberg has turned the spare, minimalist play of War Horse into a sweeping, schmaltzy epic movie, but its power is undeniable.
This First World War story — seen through the eyes of a horse and his handlers — is an old-fashioned family film that you sink deep into for 2½ hours, leaving irony behind. If only there were equine Oscars, Joey — and more than a dozen different horses in matching make-up who played him — deserves one. The ensemble best-of-British cast cannot touch the drama of Joey flashing the whites of his eyes, rearing in terror and galloping across the no-man’s land of the Somme, trailing barbed wire through the battleground.
Spielberg saw War Horse at the National Theatre and there and then decided to make the film, astounded that puppets could leave an audience in floods of tears.
Michael Morpurgo’s novel cleverly serves up the Great War in palatable form for older children, and so does Spielberg’s movie: a moving windmill hides a death by firing squad; there are flying bodies but little blood. But for those with younger children: sometimes the terror levels of Saving Private Ryan seep through.
Spielberg does war superbly. Yet in some ways this is Babe meets Band of Brothers, with a comedy cast down on the farm and a pantomime-style goose. The story begins with a drunken Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buying Joey, an expensive half- thoroughbred horse with a white star on his forehead. Ted’s teenage son, Albert, falls in love with Joey and starts tenderly to train him.
Albert is played as an innocent, simple soul by Jeremy Irvine, but he is constantly upstaged by his parents — Mullan and Emily Watson — who don’t waste a single line. A wicked landowner wants to take Joey, a horse in constant peril, it seems, of being shot, shelled or sent to a glue factory.
Eventually, Joey is recruited by the Army, one of a million horses, most of which perished in France. He ends up in the capable upper-class hands of Benedict Cumberbatch, who is Major Stewart, with a moustache made for military service. Along with Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), they execute one of the insane last charges of horseflesh into machine guns.
It’s impossible to hold back the floods, amped up by John Williams’s pastoral score, and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography. I teared up seven times, and cried twice. In the audience grown men were biting their lips, while women wept streaks into their foundation. With War Horse you just have to go with the (very damp) flow.