War Horse would not be my first choice of film. Neither horses nor wars are really my bag. But Spielberg’s cinematography has never proved to be anything less than a visionary delight and his latest film is another epic.
So early Saturday morning, accompanied by an ex-boss, I galloped across Devon’s rolling hills, fought in the trenches, charged into battle and, most crucially, appreciated the intense love a brave, young soldier feels for his steed. Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, and more recently a multi-garlanded blockbusting theatrical adaptation at the National Theatre, tells a beautiful and intense story of a boy and his love for his horse. This beloved animal, Joey, has been shipped to France to serve in World War I and the young and courageous boy tries desperately to track him down.
Despite the renowned horrors of the Great War, Spielberg artistically shoots the story, starring newcomer Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch and Emily Watson, without an unnecessary amount of blood and gore. And, while there is pain and sorrow, I was relieved that he shields us from the real vision of a massacred battlefield. The 65- year- old director has been described as a ‘peerless constructor of battle and fighting scenes’ and this film bears all his hallmarks. The result is a vivid, powerful, ambitious and breathtaking take on the carnage of war.
There are numerous heartbreaking moments, but one that stood out was when ( without spoiling the story) Joey, galloping through gunshot, is confused and suddenly horribly aware that he’s missing his rider.
The performances are as grand as the story is epic. It is hard to believe that Jeremy Irvine’s outstanding performance as Albert is indeed his professional debut. An enthusiast of working with actors with little experience, Spielberg comments: ‘I looked at hundreds of potential Alberts. I was looking for a particular heart and spirit, someone who could communicate, even without speaking. Irvine did a wonderful job just playing himself’.
At first glance, War Horse, its screenplay co-written by Richard Curtis, is centred around the love of a horse with the dreadful loss of lives, both equine and human, as a dramatic backdrop. However a curious fairytale unravels with toxic levels of emotion as the horse miraculously soldiers on. Clearly it will go on to become a classic of our times, not least for the poignant messages it carries. Asked why Spielberg chose to direct this unusual film, he answered: ‘I had an undeniable feeling; the film chose me. And, we live in a time where history and the effects of war cannot be forgotten.’
Many have questioned whether War Horse is best suited to the stage, the big screen or simply should have been left to the novel. I am convinced that Spielberg only takes on what he knows he can achieve. And the film has longevity; it will travel well to countries far and wide and live on for generations to come as a stark reminder of the brutality of war.
War Horse opens across the UK this Friday