I must really start this by admitting that I did not go into the screening of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse with huge expectations. That’s in no way because I’m not a fan of Mr Spielberg, I am. He’s made some truly awful films in the past but, obviously, he’s created some of the greatest films ever made and I pretty much trust him to always produce something worth watching. So, yeah, I do think he’s an important and solid director.
The reason I wasn’t particularly excited was that I couldn’t really imagine how the film could bring anything more to a play which was so spectacularly inventive. War Horse is a very sentimental story by Michael Morpurgo about the lasting bond between a boy called Albert and his horse Joey, which begins on a farm in Devon and takes them through the French trenches of the First World War. I haven’t read the original children’s book but I’m really not at all interested in horses or that specific kind of children/animal bond thing, see also Lassie, etc. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The National Theatre’s production which uses amazing puppetry and staging to bring the horses to life. The story is overly soppy but it was so well told that it just didn’t matter and I found myself moved by the sheer brilliance of theatre.
Anyway not even the master of cinematic spectacle managed to turn this into a brilliant film. It is a rather lacklustre affair though there are positive things to say about it; the cinematography is, for the most part, wonderful, evoking the War with terrifying clarity and picking out the beauty of England’s rural landscape. At times it is overdone and the final scene features such a ricidiculously melodramatic sunset which brings to mind the last few shots of Gone with the Wind so much so that it borders on hilarious pastiche.
All the supporting cast from Emily Watson to Tom Hiddleston are great. There is a stand out scene where a German and English soldier (played by Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schonemann) make peace for a while as they cut Joey free from some barbed wire on no-mans land which is both touching and funny.
I suppose my main problem with the film is that since the narrative is rather dull and episodic, we don’t ever get to know most of the characters and so we need something more than just a horse and some beautiful shots. I just wasn’t emotionally involved and with a running time at over two hours what we’re left with is a monotonous and sadly, empty film.
There was a very interesting and thought provoking Q&A with Tom Hiddleston after the screening in which he talked a great deal about his thoughts on the First World War; the cavalry against the machine guns and the end of chivalry which made me wish even more that the film had focussed more on the ‘War’ than the ‘Horse’.