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With my old school chum Simon paying me a visit for the first time since crossing the Thames to live in North London the two of us took our customary trip to take in a movie at my local cinema, which, sadly, is not so local that it doesn’t involve a bus ride or a forty minute walk to reach.
Our choice of picture was War Horse the latest from Steven Spielberg, based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel which also inspired an extremely successful West End play against which the film will surely be critically judged. Having never seen the play I can’t compare but I did see one of the extraordinary horse puppets in action during an event in Trafalgar Square last year and can quite understand the enthusiastic reception they have garnered. The question is can a real horse prove as loveable?
Spielberg’s no stranger to war or sentimental stories about a boy’s unconditional love for a non-human but even he has never combined the two until now. With War Horse he has hit upon one of the most emotionally charged tales he has ever told on screen as he crosses the abject horror of the First World War with a story of separation. The title character is Joey, a magnificent young thoroughbred who wins the heart of simple Devon farm boy Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). When Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullan), a drinker with a heart of gold and a bad limp, irresponsibly blows thirty guineas on him to put to work as a plough horse Albert is overjoyed and quickly forms an unbreakable bond. But when war breaks out and with the landlord breathing down his neck Ted cuts his losses and sells Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who swears to Albert to look after his friend through the ensuing conflict.
What starts out as a gentle story about wholesome, innocent friendship develops into a series of heart-rending episodes as we follow Joey’s journey through a futile and wasteful war passing between caring hands again and again and it’s not only Albert who will have to endure a tearful farewell to his horse. Furthermore it’s not just the characters who’ll be shedding a few tears. War Horse is unashamedly a weepy and there are plenty of moments to encourage sniffles from those of us prone to them. I’ve never cried at a film before (at least that I can remember, I might have blubbed a bit at Bambi or The Lion King when I was a tot) and I didn’t cry at War Horse but there were enough people around me having a good sniff at the appropriate times. You don’t have to weep to have an emotional reaction to a film and while I wasn’t anywhere near as involved as I was with 50/50 the film is unquestionably accomplished in its tug-of-war with audience heart-strings. It’s transparent emotional manipulation and the way the sentimentality builds up into the final act is well and truly saccharine but this is only a problem if you don’t like the taste of sugar.
The 12A certificate is a safe indicator that we’re not getting Saving Private Ryan levels of distressing images of warfare but for a film a three-year-old can legally watch (properly accompanied by an adult of course) the film is quite tough. If the sight of a shell blast launching two young soldiers out of the British trench doesn’t get you the film’s most effective image of German machine-guns firing with dozens of riderless horses galloping past probably will. It’s all bloodless but only because the movie director’s advantage is in being able to choose exactly where to point the camera. Spielberg is tough on Joey too, particularly in one scene in which any real horse would surely be torn to shreds.
The interesting debate is which is more affecting, such sights as a soldier being gassed or the central story of a boy’s personal quest to reunite with his beloved horse. The impersonality of mechanised war is set against the deeply personal nature of individual humanity and the film is packed with important relationships both obvious and subtle. The changing nature of Albert’s connection with the landlord’s son who tries to outdo him by showing off to a girl in his dad’s car in peacetime, finding civility in the trenches is a nicely played example of the latter. Another interesting bond that runs through much of the long running time is between, not a horse and his boy, but a horse and a horse with Joey and black mare Topthorn who shares the former’s experience. It’s an equine connection that gets plenty of mileage in the midst of all the human relationships.
There are some for whom the sentimentality will be impossible to get past but there are more problems besides. The episodic nature of the Joey’s journey through the war asks us to form a rather brief attachment to a sequence of human characters in turn before moving on which is a slightly jarring form of narrative, Joey serving as a framing device for a succession of small, personal stories of human struggle. Having a dumb animal for a main character means we’re always having to divert attention away from him which leads to him being somewhat side-lined at times and yet it’s strangely necessary thus pointing to a fundamental flaw in the concept.
At this point I’m inclined to refer back to my review of The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword in which I made the point that giant birds aren’t as loveable as horses. Despite this the fact is that horses aren’t necessarily that easy to engage with either compared to dogs for example. Incredibly it might be that the magic of remarkable puppetry is more special and memorable than watching the plight of a live horse. It will probably hinge on how much you like the animals, which we all knew anyway. I’ve always liked them and enjoyed thinking of Joey as the protagonist but I sense some might struggle with him.
It’s also very predictable, particularly when it comes to the question of who dies, not to mention the leisurely pace and extensive running time might prove problematic for anyone expecting something else. But in spite of all these flaws the film ultimately succeeds and it does so because it achieves what it sets out to achieve. The acting from a cast that includes Emily Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch sell the tragedy well and John Williams provides reliable emotional guidance with the score. If you’re in any way cynical about the film going in chances are it won’t change you but anyone looking for what the film is quite obviously offering won’t be disappointed.
Though flawed in many ways War Horse ultimately triumphs with its powerful story that remembers humanity in a story about an animal. A tough tearjerker that could become a family classic but one sure to divide opinion.