Based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse charts the life of a horse born and raised in Devon who gets drafted into military service. It was initially adapted into a highly successful stage play before Steven Spielberg announced his intentions to turn it into a Hollywood film. Hiring Richard Curtis and Lee Hall to write the screenplay, Spielberg himself took directing duties. The trio decided to adapt the structure of the stage play rather than the novel but using real horses instead of the now famous War Horse puppets.
In Devon, England Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) works on a failing farm with his parents Ted (Peter Mullan) and Rose (Emily Watson). One day at market, Ted gets into a bidding war at an auction with his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) over a stallion horse, later named Joey. Improbably he wins, but pays so much that he can’t afford to make rent. Before they can be evicted war is declared in Europe and Ted is able to sell the horse to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who takes it as his own steed in the cavalry. Albert, heartbroken at the loss of the horse he loves, signs up to join the war in hopes of one day being reunited.
If Saving Private Ryan is the stripped down, raw interpretation of war, then War Horse is the children-friendly, sentimental version. War Horse is full of rich, warm colours and despite the setting, the narrative and the events manages to maintain a sort of fantasy quality to them. There are recognisable events throughout, but they are toned down to suit the younger audience and so while people die, it is never gratuitous or particularly harrowing. Sadly this becomes a failing rather than a blessing.
Without the edge of truthfulness to the action, it becomes more like a fable than a drama and despite the constant mentioning of threat, it never actually materialises. Combine that with the episodic format and you’re left with little to care about for large portions of the film. Where War Horse is at its strongest is the light moments of humour in among the warfare. You can clearly see Richard Curtis’ fingerprints all over it as these moments often lead to the films most poignent scenes. There’s even an homage to the final episode of Blackadder Goes Fourth at one point, although it has to be said it isn’t half as effective.
The acting on the whole is good, with Hiddleston, Mullen and Benedict Cumberbatch all doing sterling work. Sadly there is not enough time spent on any single character to be able to build a solid narrative, which leaves only the war horse itself to link the action together. It’s a bold move and one that will work for those with a love of animals. For those who dislike the personification of animals will find these scenes frustrating. Luckily, with Spielberg at the helm there is some truly standout scenes that lift War Horse above mediocrity. Notably the scene with Joey running through the trenches into No Man’s Land, which leads to one British soldier (Toby Kebbell) walking after him to free him from being wrapped in barbwire only to discover a German soldier trying to do the same thing.
Sadly these scenes are too few in number to drag War Horse into classic Spielberg territory. What’s left is the worst excesses of his sentimentality and a general sense that he really could have made something remarkable, but has settled for simply passable.