Towards the end of the 1990s Saving Private Ryan grossed half a billion dollars, spawning a host of pretenders looking to cash in on the renewed interest in World War II. Films set in World War I have never been as popular with Hollywood, but with War Horse Spielberg may have once again sparked resurgence in the genre.
Based on Michael Morpugo’s bestseller, War Horse has a story that could have been tailor-made for Steven Spielberg. It begins as the Narracotts buy the wrong horse for their farm and their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) quickly forms a bond with the beast he names Joey, culminating triumphantly in the ploughing of a field against a village of naysayers. However, all too soon the First World War sets in. Joey is sold to an officer despite Albert’s protests, and from here the film really kicks off as we follow the horse’s progress through the war; from foolish assaults to time as a German stretcher carrier and tank dragger. Perhaps most touching is the brief respite he finds as the plaything of a young French girl. The story is perfect for Spielberg because it allows him to play to so many of his strengths. There’s room for grand scenes detailing the spectacle of war (one sequence at The Somme emulates the scope of his Normandy landings in Saving Private Ryan but in a far more dynamic manner that draws you in with the action), and enough screen time is dominated by a non-human that he can pull off his old trick of surprising the audience by how much they end up empathising with the character. Spielberg’s forte has always been to humanise dramatic situations, to start with something grand and make it personal. Here the multiple narratives allow him to do that to the full. As the horse flits through the lives of soldiers and civilians you may only spend a few minutes with some of them, but Spielberg uses that time to explore a different perspective. Consequently you see good men and bad from both sides of the war, bravery, fear, sadness and hope.
The storytelling is combined with a breathtaking cinematography by long time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński. Shots are framed to maximum effect, with details everywhere providing stark context to the action. When Joey is enlisted by the Germans to pull artillery, there is not just the implication of danger but evidence, as the camera pulls back from the horse to show the hastily dug mass grave filled with animals. There are sharp contrasts throughout the film, and one of these is the sudden shock of isolation. Throughout many of the scenes the backgrounds are filled with motion and noise, but when Joey finds himself tangled in barbed wire needing to be cut free by a German and a Geordie, the atmosphere is one of complete desolation.
The acting is excellent throughout, with every character highly believable and multi-dimensional. Of particular note is newcomer James Irvine with a strong performance that makes it hard to believe this is his first cinematic outing, and veteran Niels Arestrup (previously in A Prophet) as a complex French grandfather.
War Horse has something for the entire family, in much the same way as the book and stage versions. Spielberg teases out the stories and performances in very moving ways, and provides a stunning backdrop to match. It’s a bold claim, but this may just be his masterpiece.