The reaction of friends when I announced that I had bought the DVD of War Horse for last Saturday evening’s entertainment for Adam and myself was almost unanimous: get in boxes of tissues, they said, you’ll weep buckets! You wonder why this should be in a drama about a horse called Joey, but then several reasons become apparent: we are soft about animals anyway, particularly tragic and courageous animals; this is essentially a human drama, regardless of the horses; it was written very much with the intention of being a tear-jerker; and of course the direction is by the master of Hollywood schmaltz, Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg’s source material was Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, later made into a stage play at the National theatre, to great acclaim. Everyone who saw the stage horses, each operated by two stagehands, remarked how you instantly forgot these were contraptions made for the stage and saw only horses, in much the same way as the stage version of Peter Schaffer’s excellent Equus.
When making a movie of said book, you could develop a stylised version but there will always be a keen expectation for a naturalistic look with real horses, which is entirely the style of Spielberg anyway. So Joey here is a real horse, trained for the job and doing a magnificent job. Bearing in mind that this movie came out in the same year as The Artist, film critic Mark Kermode suggested the best actor Oscar should be a toss-up between the horse in War Horse and the dog in The Artist, but there must be a whole host of worthy animals who were overlooked against some pretty wooden human rivals. The pig in Babe, maybe?
The bay thoroughbred here knows every move in the book, then some. He never misses a trick to hog the limelight, looks defiant and noble when required, cheeky at times (you can almost imagine him giving the camera a sly wink) and is clearly the most intelligent actor in the cast. Joey and Topthorn interact so beautifully, you wonder what training went into the filming, and how many shots were required for some scenes, though strangely I didn’t see any horse-whisperers credited among the crew.
Never work with animals or children, so says the old showbiz motto, but the ensemble of actors do a solid job with this material, and avoid being upstaged too far by their equine co-stars. A fine cast it is too, headed by Jeremy Irvine as the young lad, Albert Narracott, who raises and trains Joey the wonder horse. He is ably supported by Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch (a name I still believe can only be fictional), Niels Arestrup (a wonderful performance) and Eddie Marsan, among others.
Spielberg was always a master of the big set piece shots, and so it proves once again – even the ploughing of a Devon field becomes an epic piece of filming, but the best is reserved for the magnificence of a disastrous cavalry charge and the horrors of trench warfare, particularly the moment that gets many a tear-duct trembling as a shocked Joey makes a mad dash across no-man’s land and is tangled up in barbed wire, yet somehow is miraculously rescued and survives to meet young Albert, now in the army and blinded by gas.
All told, a well-made, beautifully shot and sensitive movie, though not one that will appeal to everybody. Adam, for one, chose to go upstairs and watch something different on the other TV roughly half way through the DVD, which I can only put down to the fact that teenage lads are uncomfortable with movies designed to elicit an emotional response. Give him action or horror and he will be happy, but the idea of crying at a movie is a total no-no to him!