A scene from War Horse ©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Back in January, no film carried a greater weight of expectation than Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of this children’s book by British author Michael Morpurgo. It has become one of Britain’s greatest, most adaptable modern stories. Following its astonishing staging at the National Theatre, with ingenious equine puppetry, Spielberg turned it into a Hollywood epic.
War Horse was certainly a hit at UK box offices, grossing £18 million. But interestingly, it won no major awards. The Oscars and BAFTA voting bodies nominated it six and five times respectively, but it was widely thought not to be quite on a par with the very best films of the past year.
Viewing it again, one can see why. War Horse has its moments, certainly, but in many ways it’s a curate’s egg of a film. Spielberg’s sweeping big-screen treatment stays faithful to the story of Joey, the horse of Devon farm boy Albert, who is sold into the military in World War I, and ends up serving both sides.
It’s both a combat story and a heart-rending human drama: and the combat scenes are more effective. Spielberg offers thrilling cavalry charges, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston in splendid form as dashing British officers. There are stunning sequences of trench warfare, and Joey’s frenzied gallop across a ravaged, deserted, hellish no-man’s land is breathtaking. Such is the skill with which he brings off these scenes you find yourself wondering how he pulled them off. (View the trailer, right).
The problems lie away from the battlefield, where Joey’s story has to bear the burden of metaphor. The poor horse is a vehicle for reconciliation between Albert (played by the promising newcomer Jeremy Irvine) and his damaged, alcoholic father (Peter Mullan), himself a veteran of war. Spielberg plays these scenes for all they’re worth, often drifting into sentimental excess: a Devon sunset at the film’s admittedly moving and emotional climax is shot so garishly it looks like a special effect.
There are other problems too – notably the surfeit of subplots on foreign soil. Particularly weak was Joey’s encounter with an annoying little French girl living with her grandfather. War Horse could easily have lost 20 minutes, and would have been all the stronger for it.
It’s still a film I’d recommend seeing. At its best it features film-making of the highest quality by a team of talented professionals. Yet there are stretches that make you wish it moved faster and with more narrative purpose.
(Disney, £17.99. Available May 7)