As Steven Spielberg’s old pal George Lucas once said: “Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded. Get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.” By my count, someone threatens the life of the horse (in War Horse) roughly every half an hour. That’s a lot of mortal jeopardy. Cynics will argue that Spielberg endangers the animal for the sake of the box office. But I don’t think cynics should be allowed to see this film. For while it may well be corn-fed sentimental hokum, every bit as contrived as Lassie Come Home, there’s something undeniably moving about War Horse. Spielberg is fascinated by our capacity for good. He might be a sap, but my God he knows how to make a movie.
Early twentieth century England, as envisioned by Spielberg, is a land fit for Hobbits. Emerald hills stretch to the horizon, tiny hamlets sit nestled among the fields. A farmer’s son, who looks like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, gambols through pastures, blissfully unaware of the oncoming First World War. This boy is in love with a horse. Not in an unwholesome way, like the kid in Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus, but in a nice way, like Elliott and E.T. or Tintin and his loyal terrier, Snowy. The boy is called Albert. The horse is called Joey. After a lengthy prologue where Joey saves the family farm, WWI begins and Joey is sold to the cavalry. No more gymkhanas for this brave nag. This war horse is headed for the Somme.
Man’s inhumanity to animals can never really match the horror of when, in my job as English teacher, I once saw a 15-year-old boy spell the word “horse”: w-h-o-r-u-s. Obviously, no act of inter-species barbarism could hope to match the senseless cruelty of what that boy did to a word (Whore-us? Really?! Was that kid trying to drive me insane?!) However, there is plenty that will set animal-lovers weeping in War Horse. In three separate scenes, a different actor levels a gun at Joey. That’s not to mention the bit where the horse gets tangled in barbed wire. Anyone who found Marley and Me hard going will be experiencing Watership Down levels of anguish for much of this movie. Be warned: fictional horses do suffer.
This is not to say, mind you, that every human in War Horse is anti-equine. It’s not as if this is a remake of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, where all humans are portrayed as weak-willed and petty. The guy who made Always isn’t known for his cool appraisals moral failure. So there are plenty of instances in the film where human decency is celebrated, and both German and British soldiers are seen being extra-nice to Joey. Even if the horse does seem a bit of curse on his owners (you’re better off petting a vial of anthrax for all this horse does for your lifespan), people seem to be queuing up to save the poor beast. In one scene, two soldiers climb out from opposite sides of the trenches to rescue the animal. This scene is also the source of the movie’s most risible line of dialogue, when a British soldier calls Joey a “war horse”, just in case anyone had been left wondering about the obscure provenance of the title.
The cast is a who’s who of British thespians…that didn’t get cast as wizards in Harry Potter. Despite his resemblance to a male model, newcomer Jeremy Irvine brings a plucky naivety to his role as Albert, the boy who can’t say no to a horse. Weasel-faced David Thewliss is well-cast as a villainous landlord. If Peter Mullan was any more salt-of-the-earth, as Albert’s dad, you could use him to flavour crisps. Emily Watson is effortlessly lovely as Albert’s saintly mum. The guy who played the baddie in Thor gets at least four scenes where he, too, loves Joey (before they’re parted by a German machine gun). And Benedict Cumberbatch summons every ludicrous syllable of his name to bestride the role of an ill-fated cavalry officer.
The main question I had, after all the hooves had finished thundering, was: would anyone really look at a picture of a horse before they went into battle? I know Albert loves Joey and all, but… a picture of a horse? Really? Such criticism may be overly harsh. Lord knows, I took my E.T. pencil case everywhere when I was a boy. But how much you’re able to swallow that detail (or not to register it) may well determine the extent to which you enjoy War Horse. For Steven Spielberg, innocence is the bedrock of his career. He looks at the world with the eyes of a child. And maybe that’s what’s needed to properly appreciate this movie: a little less jaundiced realism. Like it or not, sugar cubes make this horse run.