by Leo Owen
Writer, Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), ensures a smooth transition from stage to screen while Richard Curtis (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Bridget Jones, Love Actually) guarantees a very British script full of memorable and tear-jerking moments, eons away from Spielberg's last 3D animated action flick, Tin Tin: The Secret Of The Unicorn.
Once a decorated proud officer, Ted Narracott, is now plagued by war injuries and as a result, a drinker. Buying a horse to spite his landlord, Ted jeapardises his family's stability and leaves his son, Albert, with only a month to break in new family member, Joey, in order to plough the field and avoid eviction. Bad weather leading to crop failure and the announcement of war result in Ted selling Joey to an officer about to be shipped to the front line.
The green rolling hills of England, brilliantly blue skies and cobbled streets of optimistic folk starkly contrast to Spielberg's scenes of war.
From comedic geese and close-ups of the plough churning the earth, we're plunged into an ever-greying landscape. The French skies are already blackening in the first corn field charge scene when a surprise attack on the Germans initially seems brutal and callous. Slowed-down shots, close-ups of guns and heightened breathing sounds make it all the more moving. Bodies of slain soldiers and their horses are strewn across the landscape. Tanks and horses pulling cannons contrast to traditional calvary warfare and highlight the power of the mechanisation of war. The sheer force of the cannons is perfectly highlighted by the self-perpetuated dust clouds they're shrouded by.
In the background an array of small expendable characters combine to help illustrate man's humanity in the face of adversity. A kind man of scruples, Captain Jim Nicholls, acts as proof not all higher ranking men abused their power. The ingenuity of animal-loving German soldiers saves Joey's life when he becomes an ambulance wagon horse rather than simply being shot. The mantra of the “Devon Boys” touches on comradeship (“stick close to the gentry – we have the pluck but they have the luck”). Reminding us of the misery and loss of innocence faced on both sides, two young German brothers are executed for desertion, while Albert is the first to reach corpse-ridden German trenches only to be gased.
One of the most moving climactic scenes mirrors the infamous football ceasefire of Christmas 1915, as the Germans and the Brits cluck and whistle in unison to try to save Joey. Spielberg manages to make our horsey lead, every bit as human - early on he's shown playing “Grandma's Footsteps” with Albert and racing a car. Through clever use of close-ups, he almost seems to have a personality and close attachment to his pal, Topthorn. A survivor against all odds, Joey becomes a symbol of hope for the men.
War Horse may be a tad drawn-out with a good 50 minutes before the main premise of the story begins but it's a film difficult to remain unaffected by. Even those skeptically entering are likely to find its sentimental tone pulling at the heart strings. Spielberg doesn't shy away from the horrors of war with epic battle scenes and bleak shots of No Man's Land but also keeps the film true to its source material, using accented English rather than subtitles to cater for younger audiences.