Film review: War Horse

24 January 2012

Written by: Matthew Smith

The latest production from the Steven Spielberg stable of war movies is War Horse. It is often described as the story of a boy who goes to war to find his horse, but it is far more the story of a horse and his encounter with the beginnings of mechanised warfare.

The story is now in its third incarnation. It was originally a children’s book, written in the vein of Black Beauty from the horse’s point of view, before being developed into a stage show with puppet horses big enough to ride. Now as a movie, it represents Spielberg’s first entanglement with World War I.

The story begins in Devon, with the birth of a foal on a picturesque hillside. He grows into a classy looking Thoroughbred colt named Joey, and when tenant farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) pays thirty guineas for him, Ted’s wife Rose (Emily Watson) is dismayed: Ted was supposed to be purchasing a draught horse to plough their rocky fields. Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), on the other hand, is thrilled.

The film gets off to a very slow start, trying far too hard to establish an almost mystical relationship between Joey and Albert. It’s over-acted, over-dramatised and the horsemanship is woeful. Anyone with horse know-how is likely to raise an eyebrow at Albert’s attempts to train Joey through some very dodgy horse whispering.

Nonetheless, the pair become firm friends, and it’s easy enough to see where the film will head. War has just been declared and cavalry mounts are in demand. When the crops fail and Ted faces being turned off the land, he sells the horse to an officer. Albert, too young to enlist, can only watch as Joey is led away, destined for the front.

From here, the story belongs to Joey for most of the film. He is lucky, as any survivor in war must be, but to some extent he makes his own luck. He is a beautiful, strong and willing horse, and throughout the film his appeal to humans helps to save him.

Before long, Joey passes from British hands to German. After an interlude on a French farm, he is retaken by the Germans and used to pull heavy artillery. Although cavalry forces were phased out during the war, horses were essential for transport and logistics.

At this point the story returns for a short time to Albert, now fighting in the trenches of the Somme in 1918. It is in the scenes of war that the film takes off; ironically the shocking depiction of trench warfare is more believable than the peaceful Devon hillsides of Joey’s youth. The predictable musical score still tells the audience what to feel, but this is not as annoying in the larger, louder theatre of war.

At a time when lines were drawn and lives lost based on nationality, Joey is a talisman of beauty and goodness. Those who love him don’t care if he’s English, German or from the moon – horses are not bound by the arbitrary distinction of nationhood.

It is a poignant reminder, amongst the scenes of trench warfare and of horse and human bodies confronting machine gun fire, of the futility of war and of the innocent lives lost.

Joey’s confrontation with a tank and his journey through no-man’s land shows clearly that this is a place no living thing should have to experience. His brave, living beauty is dwarfed by grey, desolate landscapes.

War Horse is overdone in many ways, though not in terms of violence, much of which is kept off-screen. The saving grace of this movie is the horses. Approximations suggest that eight million horses died in World War I, and War Horse tells a dramatic story on behalf of these forgotten players.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and a former member of the upstart editorial team. She blogs at equineocean and you can follow her on Twitter: @equineocean.