War Horse follows the tale of a remarkable friendship between a young colt named Joey and Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), a Devonshire lad who tames and trains the creature after he is foolishly purchased at auction by his alcoholic father (Peter Mullan). After the pair are forcefully parted by the beginning of the First World War, Joey sets off on an extraordinary journey across the battlefields of Europe, inspiring the lives of all those he meets – including the British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter – before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man’s Land.
As a cinematic spectacle, Spielberg’s War Horse is undeniably breathtaking. From the thundering cavalry charges of the British cavalry – headed up by stiff upper-lipped officers Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) – through to the despair and desolation of the trenches, the veteran filmmaker has managed to near-perfectly realise the world of Morpurgo’s original text.
The production design is first-rate throughout, and there’s a thankful scarcity of digital effects in the film (only three seconds of CG horse were used for several ‘impossible’ shots) which only further enhances its living, breathing vibrancy. As with any Spielberg film, creating believable, emotional characters is key to its dramatic impact, and the Spielbergian dysfunctional family once again rears its head through the uncomfortable relationship between Albert and his drunken, crippled, war veteran father.
However, War Horse is at its very best when tackling the subject of armed conflict, a topic that Spielberg knows all too well. An apocalyptic battle scene which takes place in No Man’s Land during the film’s final third brings back memories of Saving Private Ryan’s (1998) visceral beach landing, albeit a bloodless re-staging.
The film’s overly long run time (at least one subplot could be removed entirely, without revealing which) and occasional stumbles into Hollywood schmaltz just prevent War Horse from claiming a place amongst such classic cinematic epics as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but the film remains one of Spielberg’s most inspiring, enjoyable efforts of the last twenty years.
War Horse is released in UK cinemas on 13 January, 2012.