When Stephen Spielberg directed “War Horse,” he set out to make an epic in the mold of “Dr. Zhivago” or “Gone with the Wind.” Like those films,”War Horse” is a war movie that is a celebration of the power of loyalty and commitment.
But mostly it is a love story of the old-fashioned kind: boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy and horse find each other and ride into the sunset. The story is simple and sentimental, as you might expect from a film based on a children’s novel. “War Horse,” the book, was written by Michael Morpurgo and published in England in 1982. It was also the source of a successful play staged in London and New York.
The movie gets the full Spielberg treatment, with gorgeous photography by Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s favorite cameraman, and sweeping music by John Williams, his favorite composer. The countryside and small towns of England provide the most picturesque scenery imaginable for a story set in Devon for about an hour before Spielberg gets around to the war. The war scenes are by turns stirring and shocking when they are supposed to be, but fortunately Spielberg leaves out the bloodshed and carnage so typical of war movies today (and TV shows, for that matter), with suffering and death more implied than shown.
The cast is solid throughout, with splendid British actors in the major roles. It’s lucky that so many Europeans speak perfect English, because Spielberg recuited his cast on national lines, with German or Danish actors playing the German soliders and a Frenchman playing an old French farmer caught in the war.
The horse of the title is Joey, a high-spirited Thoroughbred colt purchased at auction by a boozy Devon farmer, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), who really needs a plow horse. His son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), trains the horse to both the saddle and the plow. Albert trains Joey to come when he whistles, a trick that will come in handy later.
But Ted needs money to save the farm. When the war starts, he sells Joey to a cavalry officer. So begins Joey’s wartime service, in which he changes hands several times before ending up trapped in no-man’s land, which soldiers on both sides help him escape. Albert is in the army by then, and if you doubt that Albert and Joey will be reunited, you are not a student of the obvious.
The twists and turns in the story are predictable, and the interest is in seeing how the happy ending gets worked out. The experience is satisfying if not challenging.
The British are so fond of their horses, dogs, cats and other critters that there is a huge monument in London to the animals who have served their country in war. “War Horse” is a cinematic memorial to the enduring bond between man and beast that brings out the underlying humanity in men even when they are busy trying to kill each other.