“There are big days and there are small days”
Thirteen years since Saving Private Ryan and six since his last ‘serious’ work in Munich, Steven Spielberg pulls out all the stops for his newest WWI epic War Horse. Based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo that was recently adapted into a Tony Award-winning stage play earlier this year, the title deceives as far as explaining the true subject of the work. While we follow Joey the horse from birth to the savage conditions of the Great War, he is merely the lynchpin connecting us to the myriad of tales enveloping him. Eventually fighting for the British and the Germans, this horse becomes a miracle beast signifying hope for all. Seemingly invincible, compassionate to friends, and as magnificent as old Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) imagined when buying him for thirty guineas, Joey’s experiences on the battlefield and beyond serve as a riveting return to form for the film’s auteur.
Screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis orchestrate the two and half hour runtime brilliantly as its end came surprisingly quick despite feeling overlong at times. Graced by a sweeping, emotionally manipulative score from John Williams like most Spielberg work, its hard not to drag during the quiet interludes of spectacular Devon countryside shot but Janusz Kaminski. The cinematographer eventually harkens back to his masterful sequence on the shores of Normandy from Ryan with a stunning pan through no man’s land that serves as a cornerstone vignette. But while it is great—as are the softer moments of humanity sprinkled throughout—I do believe it is the farmland and dusk sun of South Western England that sticks with me the most. Devon becomes a peaceful bookend containing the horrors Spielberg and company have no problems showing in full force.
Beginning at an auction, no one but Ted Narracott could have believed anything would come from the young calf he found himself in a bidding war to acquire. Sent to find a strong beast able to haul a plow through a field covered in rocks, something about Joey captivated him in his morning drunken stupor. With his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) only half-trying to buy the animal for son David (Robert Emms), the powerful man’s villainy forces his weak-willed tenant to overspend and dig a whole too large to climb from. Rose Narracott (Emily Watson) can’t believe her eyes when her husband brings the useless horse home, but their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is in heaven. Having watched it grow in the surrounding Devon fields, the chance to break the animal he’d already learned to love and make it his own is the only motivation needed to save his family where its troubled patriarch could not.
This boy’s love teaches Joey to wear a harness, answer to a whistle’s call like the Native Americans Albert read about, and cultivate a never-quit attitude—all things eventually proving crucial to staying alive. Intricate in the character paths its story weaves through, War Horse becomes populated with tiny details such as these that become much more important than initially assumed. Joey’s ownership changes hands often as he is swept into a war of men yet those who care for him never falter in their steadfast love. The gimmick—as it were—to the film’s entire plot structure, this horse never finds itself in a situation we in the audience can’t fully believe in. It’s journey makes sense in terms of the chaotic war leading him astray and young Albert’s promise to find him again lingers above it all even as the horse’s path takes it farther and farther from home.
A gorgeous creature made more so by its handling of the material—the horses that play Joey could seriously earn an Oscar nomination and I wouldn’t yell blasphemy—you do need to believe in his magnificence to appreciate the care those who find him give. Bought at discount from the desperate for money Narracotts, we watch with a smile as the wide-eyed Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) assuages Albert’s sadness with his own promise to return Joey after the war. Egged on by Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his equally beautiful horse Tophorn days later to lead the charge on an unprotected German base camp, the animal experiences the horrors of death and destruction ravaging battlefields all across Europe first-hand. We unflinchingly watch troops mowed down, civilian land pillaged by foreign enemy forces, and the brutal working conditions of horse-drawn artillery killing the animals without remorse.
Interspersed with the pain and suffering, however, are brief respites with two teenage Germans, Gunther (David Kross) and Michael (Leonhard Carow), using Joey and Tophorn as a means of escaping the front lines and later on with a young French girl Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) surviving the best they can alone. For every heavy cannon dragged up a hill on tired legs and crippled hooves there is the welcome work of propelling a German ambulance or standing tall as a beacon of survival amidst a hellish reality. Caught in the barbed wire of the brutal land between enemy bunkers, it is Joey’s heart and spirit that compels a British soldier’s (Toby Kebbell) humanity to don a white flag and accept the help of a German with wire-cutters in order to free an animal worth saving. We experience just as much life and joy in War Horse as we do death.
And above everything is Albert doing what he can to find his lost friend. Enlisting to fight under the command of Lyons’ son, this Narracott finds the ability to serve his country with the honor his father once showed in Africa. Stories of pride and heroism are told and mimicked as Albert shows no fear running through a war zone with bodies exploding and soldiers falling dead from bullet wounds around him. The carnage of such a dirt-covered scene shows but one aesthetic as we remember earlier instances of tall grass shrouding men and horses in a sneak attack or the kinetic majesty of Joey galloping through trenches as bombs ring out and soil blasts into the air. The fast-tempo crescendos of war offset the more manipulative soars at the start—violence taking the place of hamfisted shots like Matt Milne‘s ever-widening, almost simpleton, grin that screeched certain moments to a halt.
No matter the more schmaltzy scenes we’ve grown accustomed to with Spielberg over the years, War Horse‘s whole gives an all-encompassing, invigorating experience. World War I is shown in its graphic destruction while the sentimentality of Albert and Joey’s tale survives as more than a contrived bright spot in hell. We pull for a reunion both as a result of the Kaminski’s picturesque imagery of the horse and Irvine’s innocent confidence. The young British actor is always composed against some stellar work from Mullan, Arestrup, and Hiddleston, earning their disparate forms of respect towards him and our empathy in his struggles. As war destroys us and shows our capacity for self-genocide, there will always be those figures to portray hope and the desire for good to triumph over evil. Joey is such a visage, his journey mirroring planet Earth’s struggles through adversity and its strength to survive.
 Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey are featured in this scene from DreamWorks Pictures’ ‘War Horse’, director Steven Spielberg’s epic adventure for audiences of all ages, and an unforgettable odyssey through courage, friendship, discovery and wonder. Ph: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP. © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
 Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his Mum (Emily Watson) with Joey are featured in this scene from DreamWorks Pictures’ ‘War Horse’, director Steven Spielberg’s epic adventure for audiences of all ages, and an unforgettable odyssey through courage, friendship, discovery and wonder. Ph: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP. © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
 (left to right) Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch), Lieutenant Waverly (Patrick Kennedy) and Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston) are featured in this scene from DreamWorks Pictures’ “War Horse” director Steven Spielberg’s epic tale of loyalty, hope and tenacity set against a sweeping canvas of rural England during the First World War. Ph: David Appleby. ï¿½DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.