It began life as an acclaimed children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, and then became an award-winning stage play in London’s West End and on Broadway. Now, War Horse is a movie, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg, and it’s a grand, tear-jerking, sweeping drama, too.
Just before the start of World War I, farmer Ted Narracott (Mullan) drunkenly buys a horse at auction that’s not the strong, heavy-set Shire horse he needs to plough his tough, stone-strewn land. Ted’s son Albert (Irvine, managing to play incredibly sweet and naïve without laughing), however, is determined that beautiful steed Joey should not be given away, so together boy and horse dig up the land and form a man/animal bond over the rocky terrain. Awwww. War separates them, however, when the cavalry come and buy Joey against Albert’s wishes, and while officer Captain Nicholls (Hiddleston) promises to write to Albert about his horse and take good care of him, the boy decides that he wants to be reunited with his horse so signs up to join the army himself.
The focus of the story is the horse’s journey – which takes him to the front lines on both sides of the war – and it is told in an old-fashioned Hollywood style, complete with golden sunsets and emotional orchestral music swirling over the soundtrack. Spielberg, who embraced the newest technology with his most recent movie, The Adventures Of Tintin, here delivers something far more traditional for the family, a movie that celebrates the Golden Age of cinema. Like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, it pays homage to films past (in this case, everything from Gone With The Wind, National Velvet and Lawrence Of Arabia to the films of Frank Capra and post-war Disney), unashamedly tweaking at the heart-strings throughout.
Of course, some viewers may find it all a bit cheesy and sappy as Joey’s adventures take him to two young German brothers, a sick French girl and her grandfather (the story’s dullest chapter), and later to a German army horse wrangler, but that’s part of the movie’s charm. Even in times of peril, the story has a heart – a scene in which a Geordie Brit and a German come together to help Joey in No Man’s Land is just superb – and the central theme of friendship and love makes a nice change from the explosions, robots and smart alec jokes that seem to be de rigeur for most other 21st century family movies. Yes, it’s clichéd, yes, it’s manipulatively weepy… but who said that has to be a bad thing? And, erm, can you pass the tissues?…
Is War Horse suitable for kids? Here are our parents’ notes...
Younger children (and animal lovers) will get upset when Joey the horse is in danger. The following scenes are particularly upsetting (CONTAINS SPOILERS):
While you do not see anything, what happens to the two German brothers will upset younger children.
When captured by the Germans, Joey and his fellow horses are abused.
Joey runs through No Man’s Land as bullets fly and there are explosions around him. He becomes tangled in barbed wire which is very upsetting.
The scenes of Albert and his friend in the trenches is also tense.