Starring: Jeremy Irvine,Peter Mullan,Emily Watson,David Thewlis,Tom Hiddleston
Directed by Steven Spielberg
A,intelligent pause there,between the “war” and the “horse”. This is no story about warhorses,of any kind. What it is is a story about a war and all that it sweeps in it,including a horse.
Based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo as well as a play adapted from it,Steven Spielberg’s War Horse,despite the temptations,keeps itself focused on this task at hand. From the beginning,when ‘Joey’ (played largely by the same animal as portrayed Seabiscuit in that film,along with 13 other similar-looking horses) is born,Spielberg doesn’t leave its side. It is bought by Ted Narracott (Mullan),who can hardly afford the 30 guineas he pays for the thoroughbred,particularly what he had set out to purchase was a ploughing horse. His wife (Watson) makes her displeasure known,but young son Albert (Irvine) is sold out on the horse.
Threatened by their landlord to pay up their rent,Albert vows to train ‘Joey’ so that he can be “useful”. As the boy learns how to feed the horse and to get it to respond to his calls,there is boyish enthusiasm and innocent curiousity on both sides. This bond is severely tested when Albert has to get Joey to plough their stony field,a task that everyone is convinced will be almost the end of the horse. Over the course of a rainy day,with a whole village cheering,Albert has the field ready for planting and Spielberg us hooked.
This,however,is the easy part. Where the film enters more difficult terrain is when Ted eventually sells off the horse to the army at the beginning of the First World War,to repay his debts. This film could have so easily lost its way in the war zone,but one way or the other,Spielberg and scriptwriter Richard Curtis find a way to tell the story of the battle from a perspective hardly ever seen before. Joey has to adjust to a changed life,learn new tricks,find use for some old ones,strike friendships,handle danger,see death and be loved even as the film imagines the war as a situation where almost everyone is a victim,away from somewhere or somebody.
It goes one step further to question the benchmark of bravery,whether it is being proud of killing or being able to make one’s way home. One horrific night has a terrified Joey streaking across the battlefield,from one enemy trench to another,through firing that lights up a devastated landscape,eventually getting entangled in barbed wire on non-man’s-land. But it concludes with two enemy sides stepping forward together to give him a chance. It’s a scene that could so easily go corny but the film keeps complete command of it,ensuring it’s simple and short.
With its traditional tale of war,loyalty and bravery,with an animal at the centre of it,its sweeping cinematography and a moving-cum-cheery score,War Horse’s six Oscar nominations are not a surprise. Where the film would have gained is in giving Joey a little more personality,a little more temperament as he passed hands from one owner to the other — the British to the German side. Spielberg also determinedly steers clear of depicting any real suffering.
However,as the Narracotts say in the film,there are big days and there are small days. And if War Horse is about something,it’s about the small days,the days when nothing more happens than a boy on a horse racing a car down a village road,or a small girl teaching the horse she finds to jump over a hurdle. Both learn something about themselves that day and about the animal standing beside them — quietly,one suspects,chuckling inside.