where the writers are
War Horse

a film review
by Jeanne Powell

“War Horse” is a spectacular adventure story, with a touch of fantasy, set against the canvas of the Great War (1914-1918). 

Director Steven Spielberg’s latest film is adapted from an acclaimed children’s book written by Michael Morpurgo, an award-winning British author who received an OBE in 2006 for his services to literature.  His novels have been adapted for film and stage.

Horses were not a fantasy back then; they were very much a part of that long-ago war.  They pulled heavy supply wagons and hugh howitzers through all kinds of terrain in all kinds of weather and often died in the process.  Cavalry officers rode into battle at full gallop.  When rations were depleted, horses served as food for desperate troops.  Later in the Great War, there were airplanes, tanks and primitive submarines.  However, the use of horses was pervasive on both sides at some of the many battlefronts – western front (Verdun and the Somme), eastern (Tannenberg),  Gallipoli, Italian, Palestine (Suez), Mesopotamian (Kut), the African wars, and the far eastern front.   Years later the Great War was renamed the First World War.

The cast of actors in “War Horse” is European, with British, French and German actors playing characters from their respective countries.  Consequently the filmmakers avoided those embarrassing “accent” challenges which have plagued other epic films.  Cast members also underwent training in handling horses before filming began.  Thanks to imaginative camera angles and the use of animation in one or more battle scenes, no horses were harmed.

A troubled war veteran turned farmer (Peter Mullan) purchases a thoroughbred instead of a Clydesdale or Percheron; he knows the difference – he just falls in love with the horse Joey and risks losing his small farm to buy the beautiful creature.   His son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) develops a closeness to the animal and is devastated when his father sells Joey for money to pay the mortgage. Emily Watson is marvelous as the strong-willed farm wife loyal to husband and son, and who keeps the peace between them.  The military is gathering supplies for the Great War and Joey is sold to an cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston).  When the officer dies at the front, Joey winds up in French hands and then with the German army.  Celine Buckens is enchanting as the fragile French girl who discovers Joey and keeps him as her own until the war catches up with them.

Once Albert is of age, he enlists in the English army and is sent to France, where he experiences the horrors of trench warfare on the western front.  The Battle of the Somme is infamous for the loss of nearly 60,000 British troops in 1916.  Such carnage was common during this first 20th century war, led by generals who had been trained for combat in the 19th century.  In Spielberg’s film we experience these trenches, the living conditions of the troops, see noncoms and junior officers walking back and forth reassuring the youths who have to climb out of the trenches, walk through barbed wire and into withering fire from enemy machine guns.
However, the emphasis is on the story of the horse and how it adapts to rapidly changing conditions --  dragging a plow through rocky soil, riding full out in a cavalry charge, pulling howitzers up a muddy hill while broken-down horses around him are being shot, running wild when the big guns roar.  The cinematography throughout is impressive.

Spielberg keeps bloodshed to a minimum and emphasizes storyline instead.  Even the execution by a firing squad – desertion cannot be tolerated during war – is shown from a distance. 

The relative innocence of the time continues to stun throughout this war tale – the speaking of truth in little but telling ways between villagers, the significance of making a promise one to another, the complete lack of experience with war.  The novelist Michael Morpurgo hated the obscene waste of life in the Great War, and he told his story well.   Richard Curtis does a fine job adapting the children’s book, remembering that scenes from the horse’s point of view must be clear to the audience but including the narrator viewpoint for other crucial moments.

The one disappointment is Spielberg’s depiction of nurses at the front.  Has he not read  Vera Brittain’s memoir, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, or any other book on the subject?  Nurses' roles had changed greatly from the days of Florence Nightingale’s pioneering effort in the Crimean War.  These women were actively engaged in treating wounded, both Allied and enemy troops, during the Great War.  Nurses were under fire when front lines shifted too quickly.  And many suffered PTSD upon returning home.   To show the nurses as faceless extras in designer uniforms is to do a great disservice to them and to history.

Callum Armstrong is the bagpiper in the trenches on the western front.  British soldiers were piped into battle in both world wars, in keeping with a tradition of long standing.

“War Horse” holds your interest and is well suited to family viewing during this holiday season, despite the subject matter.  As a matter of fact, the subject matter is a excellent reason to see it.  The film opens Christmas Day.

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