Steven Spielberg is not a director who has done too many bad ones, so when one sees his name attached to the marketing campaign for an upcoming summer holidays film-going event you can safely bet it will be money well spent. His new story War Horse is no exception.
Set against the backdrop of World War One, War Horse begins with a clear and crisp sunset over the hills of the English countryside where a farm owned by the young strapping Albert (Jeremy Irvine, in his feature film debut) and his parents (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson) are in dire need of a good strong horse to plough the fields so they can pay their cynical and upstart landlord (David Thewlis) what they owe. Albert's father buys a young horse and to the astonishment of many, Albert manages to train a seemingly useless investment. Then comes 1914: England has declared war on Germany. Albert's father must sell back the young horse – whom Albert has named Joey – to the Army. Albert vows they will find each other again, and although the horse changes hands many times over the course of this bloody four-year period, we all know his vow will be fulfilled.
Taking place over the period of the Great War, Spielberg is very careful not to tell a war story, but rather a journey, an adventure through the trials and tribulations of human conflict, whether it be in the context of war or not. In choosing to tell the story this way, the few battle sequences are brilliantly orchestrated and not excessively violent. A more humanistic approach is taken which is very suiting to this very humanistic story, which is very beneficial here because it has worked before (see Gallipoli ). It is not a portrait of war or a study of conflict, but rather Joey's inner battle with courage and endurance in the face of adversity that showcases the magnificence of this remarkable animal. For this, animal lovers and especially horse lovers will really find strong connection. Also, because it does not glorify or spend a lot of time on monotonous and deadly battles, it is suitable for younger audiences, making it a worthwhile outing for the family these holidays.
The film is shot beautifully by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (a frequent Spielberg collaborator), illustrating the raw brutality of conflict with epic beauty in contrast with stunning landscapes that will remind Australian viewers of The Man From Snowy River . This is complimented brilliantly with a highly emotive and searing score from five-time Academy Award-winner John Williams, all under the helm of master-filmmaker Spielberg. He is a director who tends to exploit our basic emotions with his material and by doing so milks it for all it has, but a story of such epic proportion need only be presented this way as it has brought him some of his most successful work such as Schindler's List  and Saving Private Ryan . At a runtime of 146 minutes, it covers a vast scope of places and people (perhaps a little too many) and a lot of plot, making it a little long-winded and overdone. Nonetheless an epic story must be told in an epic way – according to Spielberg at least.
War Horse is an ambitious and emotional tale about a young man's love and admiration for a very special horse and how that love perseveres through conflict, struggle, heartbreak and death. It is a great achievement for all concerned and should not be ignored by Academy voters.
I went to see the movie when it came out. I had read the book about a year before, and was impressed at how the film was done. I think my favourite scene was when the two soldiers were tossing a coin in No Man's Land to see who took Joey.