Horses came galloping across the screen in the very first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), and it was a horse that Eadweard Muybridge photographed in the 1880s in still frames that, strung together, pioneered the illusion of motion pictures. Even without National Velvet, The Grifters, and Sea Biscuit, thousands of "oaters" — enough Westerns to make any viewer saddle-sore — have made horses the most popular non-human species in movie history. In trotting out his new War Horse, Steven Spielberg adds to the cinematic stable with another of his lush trademark melodramas about innocence lost. Set during World War I rather than II, Spielberg's favored war (1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List), it might be called Saving Equine Joey.
The film begins in verdant, idyllic Devon, where Albert Narracott (Irvine) bonds with a handsome, spirited horse he names Joey. Though he teaches Joey to plow a rocky, hilly plot, Albert's tippler father sells the horse in order to keep their house. The buyer is an officer in the British army about to go fight Germany. Albert pleads with him to spare his steed and even volunteers to accompany Joey into battle. But war preempts personal attachments, and Albert is a tad too young to enlist. "I solemnly swear that we will be together again," he tells Joey as the horse is led away. Despite the horrors of the next four years, it is an oath we know will be kept. Joey's stubborn devotion is matched by the gumption of other characters, British, German, and French, and by the fortitude of a peerless pony.
Based on a 1982 children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse smoothes away nuance to provide a vehicle for a few simple truths — war is hell, opposing soldiers are equally human, don't be cruel to animals, etcetera. A 2007 stage production that won five Tonys when transferred to Broadway was highly stylized, with a life-sized puppet impersonating Joey. Spielberg opts, instead, to organize his film around elaborate, phantasmagorical scenes — a British cavalry charge into a German ambush; a riderless horse galloping through an infernal No Man's Land; the gassing of a bunker. The film is irritatingly monolingual: French and German characters signal their nationality by their accents speaking English among themselves. Through it all, cavalry warfare is always calvary for the mighty beasts conscripted into battle. Out of compassion for exploited quadrupeds, Spielberg has crafted an endearing sermon on the mount
Dir. Steven Spielberg; writ. Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo; feat. Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis (PG-13)