Steven Spielberg has, of course, made many war movies over the course of his career including such films as Saving Private Ryan (1998), Schindler’s List (1993) and Empire of the Sun (1987) – which were all set during the Second World War. War Horse is set during the First World War and he describes it not as a war movie, but rather a love story.
War Horse is based upon the 1982 novel written by Michael Morpurgo which was later turned into a successful stage play. It’s ideal subject matter for Spielberg as it addresses many of the themes that recur throughout his films –depicting the horrors and individual crises that war demands not only of those who are directly involved but also those who are left behind, as well as leaving plenty of scope to wring as much emotion from the audience as possible, and film it all in grand Hollywood style.
Our protagonist is a foal who lives in the rolling hills of rural Devonshire and is less inclined towards engaging in agricultural activities and more towards horsing around with his mother. But he has to grow up and is parted from his ma when he is sold at auction for a hugely inflated price, even if his inebriated new owner is not entirely sure what to do with him and really can’t afford him anyway. The purchaser’s son Albert Narracott decides to train the horse, naming him Joey, and develops a strong bond with him. It turns out that Joey is a rare beast, a thoroughbred with strength, tenacity and dedication. But unfortunately war is imminent and the army requires many horses to engage in battlefield duty. Joey is sold to the cavalry and Albert later signs up to play his part too – as a soldier. Their wartime experiences deeply affect the two of them as they encounter so many around them, be they horse or human, slaughtered in an impassionate manner for futile purpose.
Spielberg makes the point that this is a love story primarily because the film is about the bond between a young man and his horse, but actually Joey has another role: as a catalyst for telling the tales of the many people with whom he comes into contact – from both sides of the conflict –in the most terrible of circumstances. Because there is so much plot to get through, many of these encounters are brief, but their purpose is to fulfil a role telling a war story from multiple perspectives. Horses, as much as men, had to endure all the dangers and awful conditions that the soldiers did during the war that was, at the time, described as ‘the war to end all wars’. The battle footage notably shies away from the visceral excess that had such impact in Saving Private Ryan and this was a deliberate decision on Spielberg’s part, but this is to not say that the film sanitises the ghastliness of war or denies its horrors. Indeed in two key scenes Spielberg depicts the severity, brutality and injustice of wartime deaths – on the battlefield and off – but through careful use of editing, hence not denying events but also not wallowing in a spray of effects laden gore. The film is aimed at a family audience and, as such, depicts very little blood.
Spielberg’s films have often been accused of being overly sentimental and, combined with Morpurgo’s source material, the film had plenty of opportunities to depict ghastly scenes of mawkish soppiness, tugging at the audience’s heart strings. However, while there are moments of typical Spielberg sentimentality, there are also many instances where he exercises restraint. The most moving scenes are surprisingly underplayed and demonstrate that War Horse’s strength actually lies with the humanity in a story told through the eyes of a steed. Yes, many elements of the plot are preposterous, but this is a film that clearly depicts the horrors of war – as well as the sacrifice, honour and perseverance of those involved – in a way that is suitable for family viewing.