All great filmmakers have one thing in common: they expand on ideas that worked for them in the past. From there, they create new and unexpected works of art. Steven Spielberg is no exception: he is our finest poet of communication breakdowns. We remember, from his films, Elliot, Gertie and Michael teaching E.T. how to talk; Nettie teaching Celie how to read; Adams, Joadson and Baldwin teaching Cinque about American customs; Viktor Navorski teaching himself how to speak English. But War Horse is a horse of a different color, and in more ways than one. Spielberg has always had a penchant for challenging his audiences to invest their care in the narratives of unusual protagonists. This time, he has mounted his most compelling narrative challenge for us since A.I., by centering his latest film around a teenage boy learning to communicate—intimately—with a creature that doesn’t talk at all.
Jeremy Irvine plays Albert Narracott, a young English lad growing up on his family’s farm in Devon in 1913. In the opening passages of War Horse, Spielberg and his world treasure of a cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, soar over the lime-green fields of England, in a merrily nostalgic evocation of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, before settling down to a starry-eyed Albert watching, through a fence, while a pregnant mother horse gives birth to a baby fawn. The boy can hardly hold back his excitement. This could very well be the first time he has ever born witness to an event of profound, natural beauty.
The newborn horse is not as amused with its own surroundings, which Spielberg makes palpably felt in a harrowing little scene where it is taken, kicking and screaming, away from its mother, whom it will never see again. It has been purchased by Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan), who snagged it at an auction for no good reason other than to smite his bourgeoisie landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis), while they were both flexing their muscles in a futile game of prewar class warfare. Spielberg, indeed, bookends War Horse with two sequences set at auctions: the first one, a bet for the horse’s ownership, and the second, a bet for its life. His basic point is that horses, no matter if they’re impressive or unimpressive creatures, will always be at the mercy of us. We are the ones who determine whether they are destined for happy lives or as fodder for the meat grinder, and sometimes, he argues, we do it in the names of greed and masculine pride. In war and in life, just because horses are beings of a lesser intelligence, they are not afforded the luxury of choice.
What Albert Narracott does want to establish, between himself and the new horse, is a system of trust. Remember Elliot having to bait E.T., with Reese’s Pieces, in order to lead him into his house? Spielberg replicates some of that magic here, when Albert realizes he’s going to need to bait the new horse, somehow, in order to earn its friendship. Why not turn his back, and allow the bucket to resonate more like a breakfast waiting patiently for its customer, instead of like an intimidating instrument of force-feeding and torture? Albert tries this out, and it works. The horse quietly steps up, eases its snout into the bucket and chows down, and remains admirably calm while Albert pets it and bestows upon it a name: “I’m gonna call you Joey.”
Albert’s family, the Narracotts, is one of the most lovable movie families in recent memory. Albert is an idealistic young lad; Ted is alternately a drunken fool and an observant farmer who knows what to do in a time of economic panic; and Rose (Emily Watson) is a headstrong wife and mother (the most fully-realized heroine in Spielberg’s career since, well, ever) who maintains the family’s sanity even while struggling to maintain her own. In one of the funniest and, at the same time, most touching shots composed by Spielberg in the film, the director places Rose in the foreground, allowing her to have a private moment all to herself while the farm goose waddles in the lower right-hand corner of the frame, minding its own business. This goose likes to act as man of the house in Ted and Albert’s place, and has the freedom to do what they are in no position to do—that is, chase away unwanted authorities, like Lyons, whenever they descend on the Narracott homestead and give the family a hard time.
The first hour of War Horse is a joyous one, allowing the audience to get to know the Narracotts, and the rest of the village, as they slowly but surely rally behind Albert’s efforts to raise Joey as a farm horse that can plough through even the hardest of stone and mud. But this barely even begins to describe the range of Spielberg’s film, which reaches a turning point after Ted realizes what must be done to save the family farm: sell Joey to the English cavalry. Over the course of the film, Joey will fall into the custody of a host of different characters, all of whom are impressed by the power and strength of this horse, and many of whom, no doubt, would like to take it home with them after the war is over. We follow Joey and, later, Albert—when he enlists in the war in hopes that Joey will be recovered—as their adventures carry them from forests to hillsides, windmills to No Man’s Land, against a nightmarish depiction of trench warfare that invites comparison to Kubrick and Paths of Glory.
The film remains true to the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, which I have already read and covered, and also, presumably, to the recent London stage play by Nick Stafford, which I haven’t yet seen. To adapt Morpurgo’s complicated story, Spielberg has hired two of England’s most talented screenwriters, Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, whose resumes look almost tailor-made for a project of this emotional magnitude. Hall was the one who located the human story in Billy Elliot, making that film one of the surprise indie hits of the late 1990’s. Curtis is more well-known in the industry, perhaps because of his enjoyable romantic comedies (Notting Hill, Love Actually, The Girl in the Café), although it wasn’t until 2009’s Pirate Radio when I thought he finally managed to reach a kind of cinematic brilliance. Spielberg may have also hired Curtis because of his involvement with the 80's television show Blackadder Goes Forth, which I haven’t watched, but which, evidently, was the work of a filmmaker who already knew a thing or two about the first world war.
Together, Hall and Curtis lay the ground plan for Spielberg’s vision: to make a film about the war in which all sides are granted their dignity. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) are gentle, commanding officers of the British cavalry who treat Joey and his eventual horse companion—a black beauty named Topthorn—as fellow soldiers deserving of their respect, while the young, sickly Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her doting grandfather (Niels Arestrup) represent the spirit of France, welcoming Joey and Topthorn into their windmill home with open arms. But there is a sympathetic portrait of Germany here, too; Spielberg does not fall into the same trap Howard Hawks and John Huston fell into, in Sergeant York, when they inadvertently reduced Kaiser helmet-wearing Germans to a nameless, anonymous enemy. Gunther (David Kross) and his 14-year old brother Michael (Leonhard Carow) attempt to free Joey and Topthorn from the madness of the war, while risking their own lives in the process. And it is the jolly, bearded gunman Friedrich (Nicolas Bro) who remains by Topthorn’s side at a crucial moment, and screams for Joey to run for his life just when a Panzer is about to unleash all hell on No Man’s Land.
There are no villains in this film. Why would there be? World War I was a superfluous, pointless war, and it would have been a mistake to demonize any of the world powers because none of them were guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors; the war was fought not for world freedom, but for class and politics. As Lyons, David Thewlis plays an antagonist who, despite being an upper-class bully, allows the Narracotts their chance to raise Joey, even while he remains somewhat justifiably skeptical of the horse’s skills. Lyons has a son, David (Robert Emms), who intimidates Albert with his cars and hot babes until he finds himself being rescued—by Albert—in the heat of battle, later on in the film. Brandt (Rainer Bock), the cigar-smoking German major who makes life difficult for Joey and Topthorn, is really just a hardened soldier who has taught himself to adhere by a commonly-accepted rule: don’t ever dote on horses and give them names, or else you’ll get too carried away with grief once you've seen them die on the battlefield.
Spielberg has cast every actor in this movie to perfection. I am tempted to describe how much I admired the performances by all of them, but that way madness lies. I’ll limit to myself to the Narracotts. Jeremy Irvine is quite a refreshing new discovery as Albert; he’s the kind of younger actor that directors like David Lean loved to work with, so I guess it’s not a surprise to learn that Mike Newell has cast him in an upcoming Great Expectations remake. Peter Mullan is an actor who’s never made a great impression on me until now. I don’t seem to recall his role in Braveheart, although I well remember him as the corrupt cop in Children of Men. Here, he bravely takes upon the role of a father who has kept his own memories of war heavily-guarded, and finds himself sometimes having to go against the wishes of his wife and son in order to protect the family. And Emily Watson, perhaps my favorite living actress, is a true blessing in the canvas. In one of the film’s most quietly moving moments, when her husband asks her how she will react if he does the unthinkable, she pointedly replies, “I may hate you more… but I will never love you less.” Even she is prepared to condone that decision which she fears the most.
In the past, Spielberg and his usual team of technical collaborators (Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, John Williams) have managed to tackle extraordinary narratives of an awesome variety, but here they face a considerable challenge: how do you mount an epic in which the main protagonist is an animal? The original Morpurgo book relied on narration from Joey’s inner thoughts, but Spielberg has resisted that approach here, perhaps because the last time DreamWorks distributed a film narrated by a horse (2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), it was a resounding box office flop. Spielberg has taken a wiser approach, I believe, by trusting his audience enough to let us figure out, for ourselves, what Joey is thinking in key sequences. When Albert, for example, teaches Joey, through clever visual expression, that there’s nothing dangerous about putting on a harness, Joey is able to silently pass this knowledge onto Topthorn later on, in a wonderfully understated moment. Or consider the climactic scene in which Joey finds himself cornered by the approaching Panzer (in a startling quotation of Saving Private Ryan’s finale), and his frightened neighing conveys to us what narration wouldn’t have needed to. In fact, Spielberg enlisted no less than 15 different horses to play Joey, but you wouldn’t know it from the finished film. By the end, Joey has emerged as the most three-dimensional character in the story.
I went into War Horse expecting Spielberg to mount a war odyssey on the scale of Empire of the Sun. I did not anticipate a film that would both remain true to the source material and surprise me with scenes that came out of left field; the pivotal sequence in which an English and German soldier (Toby Kebbell and Hinnerck Schonemman) must put aside their differences to rescue Joey from a web of barbed wire in No Man’s Land has already been much discussed in other reviews. I went in already familiar with Morpurgo’s story, but was amazed at how captivated I finally was with the way Spielberg had reimagined it. He closes the film, fittingly, with a visual reference to Gone with the Wind (his first tribute to Victor Fleming since Always in ’89) that, I believe, will be remembered as a classic movie ending in itself: one that asks us what Joey and Albert have finally accomplished, even as we are already cheering them on for their accomplishments.
War Horse is Spielberg’s Christmas gift to us. More appropriately, it’s his reward to us—a reward for our natural wisdom as moviegoers. To fully appreciate Spielberg's achievement, however, there is catch: you must see this film with a mass audience. Watch how everybody in your theater falls under its spell, one by one. I know I did. I saw it with an audience that broke into applause after it was over, and I never wanted the applause to end; movies like this deserve all the applause in the world. After the past decade, with the failures of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what a relief it is to have this film, which states that most wars are not a question of good guys and bad guys. More often, they are a clash of human beings, unsure of why they fight each other and unaware of the common universal ideals which could ultimately unite them. Joey the horse is a represention of that ideal, and it doesn't matter that this story is set during another period in our world's history. War Horse is a movie for our time.