A Steven Spielberg film about the enduring relationship between a boy and his horse, and the terrible war that sunders them, can be guaranteed to showcase this director's signature moves. It will come at an epic sweep, and length; it will be swaddled in dramatic colours and a surging John Williams score; it will exalt the human struggle to survive. And, collectively, it will lay siege to the audience's tear ducts. There will be blub.
War Horse will deliver all of this, and yet nearly every frame of it had me clenched in unhappy resistance. Neigh, neigh, and thrice neigh! Indeed, I think it will dismay anyone who has seen the National Theatre's unforgettable stage production, still running in London. A quite flimsy play, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, it is redeemed by the magical coup de theatre of a puppet horse, its articulated limbs projecting something so lifelike and noble that one's heart aches for it. Who knew that a puppet could do that?
Spielberg, attempting to translate the story to the screen, drops this wonderful mechanism for an actual horse, losing both the theatrical majesty of the creature and the storybook quality of the tale. It is woefully misconceived, an object lesson in why certain narratives are suited to one medium and not another. To fit the analogy to the subject, he has put this horse up for the wrong race. Those who haven't seen the stage play will possibly wonder why such a plodding, unfocused story was considered ripe for film.
Those doubts set in early as it transports us to a Devonshire village sometime before 1914. Peter Mullan plays a feckless farmer who in a moment of befuddled pride buys at auction a thoroughbred he admires, instead of the plough horse he needs. His wife (Emily Watson) despairs of it, but their teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) loves the very bones of the animal and trains it up to work the land.
Everything from the play has been literalised, from the pastoral setting to the adorable puppet goose that patrolled the farmyard. When war is declared the farmer breaks his son's heart by selling the horse to a cavalry officer bound for the Western Front. As the army moves out, Albert promises his faithful steed, "Wherever you are, I will find you", weirdly echoing Daniel Day-Lewis's words to Madeleine Stowe in The Last of the Mohicans. The screenwriters, Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, have been set the puzzle of adapting the play's theatrical language ("my splendid boy") to its newly realistic setting, and they never solve it. I'm not sure who could.
Meanwhile, the middle section of the war pursues the horse into the killing fields of France. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston have a few telling scenes as officers preparing the cavalry for battle, only to find themselves in a grotesque mismatch with German machine-guns. Spielberg still knows how to orchestrate big set-pieces, and the suicidal charge of the horses into a storm of keening metal is one of the best things in the film. It makes you wonder what he might have done with a more realistic account of the First World War – Her Privates We by Frederic Manning, for instance – the sort of challenge he met head-on for the D-Day carnage of Saving Private Ryan. A later battle scene on the Somme, where the frightened horse runs the length of a parapet while gunfire rains down from either side, is another striking example of Spielbergian artistry, a gruelling fresco of mud, blood and barbed wire.
The uneven episodic rhythm of the story was noticeable on stage, too, but there, almost like a conscience, was the puppet horse, sometimes in the background but always present. Saddling an actual horse with the lead is doomed; despite all the sprinting and rearing and leaping, it hasn't any great expressive potential. Needing a central performance to anchor it, the film can't stay with a character long enough to secure one. The likes of Cumberbatch and Hiddleston are no sooner commended to our interest than they vanish from the scene, and the film gallops off down another avenue. Now the horse has been requisitioned by the German army, and becomes the object of affection to two young brothers in the infantry; then it passes into the ownership of a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) whose granddaughter (Celine Buckens) makes the same adoring connection with the animal as our Albert did. They too fade from view as the fate of the horse takes another turn.
Newcomer Irvine is perfectly fine as Albert, though he remains out of the picture for long stretches. Not enough of his life in Devon achieves an emotional traction: we gather there's been a rivalry with the son (Robert Emms) of the mean landlord, but it doesn't resonate at all during their later encounter in the trenches. Toby Kebbell has a significant role in the concluding section, displaying British pluck as he staggers through No Man's Land on a rescue mission. This act of heroism, however, doesn't earn him so much as a proper name – he's listed in the credits only as "Geordie soldier".
The emotional finale that follows returns us to the original problem of theatricality – of a whistle being heard across a chaotic field hospital, of crowds of soldiers parting as though in a stage musical, of a recognition scene that's straight out of panto. The conventions of the stage keep grinding against the rock-hard realism of war. Of course, you can't help welling up a bit when the pieces fall into place. The film makes sure you can't help it – hell, you've just been Spielberged.
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