18 January 2012


The Searchers is reputedly one of Steven Spielberg's favourite films, and one of the films he revisits before each of his directorial efforts. With this in mind, I've been waiting for some time, to see if Spielberg would make a Western, and it sort of puzzles me, that he hasn't. He's one of the great American filmmakers, and yet his only real involvement in the great American genre has been in his producing duties on the Coen brothers' version of True Grit and Cowboys & Aliens.

For that reason, I don't believe I'm reading too much into War Horse, which is based on the children's book by Michael Morpurgo, to say that its epic journey is very much influenced by Westerns, and The Searchers. The obvious differences are that it doesn't take place in the Old West, but in the West Country, and latterly the Western front, and Ethan's quest is replaced by the odyssey of a horse called Joey. This horse is pretty much the loveliest and most resilient beast that ever lived, but the spectre of the First World War divides him from his trainer and, I say it without irony, his friend, Albert. Survival becomes an adventure to Joey, in a tale that spans the whole length of the war.

Bob Moss, who occasionally contributes to our Double Take show, said something to me just before Christmas about animals in movies, and how they're often more sympathetic than people. It struck a chord when it came to the end of the year, because that's arguably the reason why Rise of the Planet of the Apes is such a success, as a reboot of an exploitation B-movie franchise that can now be taken completely seriously. For that reason, I was very interested to see how Spielberg would handle War Horse, seeing as how Morpurgo's book takes place from the horse's perspective.

Because we're watching Joey change hands and even switch sides throughout the course of the First World War, the human cast is also pretty changeable. The first act centres around establishing the close relationship between Joey and Jeremy Irvine's Albert, but after that, the film turns into what feels like a series of vignettes, barely giving Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch the time to establish themselves before they make way for the tale of two young German soldiers, frightened of dying in battle. The criss-crossing from one side of the war to the other is unusual, and a brave move for a historical genre that tends to land on one side or the other. It's a cinematic milestone, for Germany, that Spielberg finally portrays some of their countrymen as... well, not evil.

As much as I stick to my guns with "animals are more sympathetic than people", the only reason the slightly episodic structure really works is because all of the cast bring their A-game, to a film that is principally about the First World War. Hiddleston and Cumberbatch might not be in the movie a lot, but they make a hell of an impression. If you were following a man through the war, there'd be something to latch onto in terms of a leading performance, but for an animal, Joey is so remarkably characterised that I never missed Irvine during his long absences as the human protagonist. If you're not an animal lover, War Horse very clearly isn't for you, but even so, Spielberg weaves the emotional throughline in such a way that he can still make a hell of a good war movie.

As with Tintin last year, Spielberg gets away with quite a lot and still keeps things relatively suitable for the family audience. He's capable of dealing out effective and sincere emotional blows while still flinching away from actual violence. I think that the people who are calling it manipulative have prepared themselves, in many ways, to not be moved. In the same way as you won't jump in a horror movie or laugh at a comedy movie, if you're really braced against those things, there's no point in closing yourself off to an emotional response to any film. In many parts of War Horse, the things that moved me were actually quite funny, like the relationship between the characters of Niels Arestrup and newcomer Celine Buckens.

The script comes from Billy Elliott writer Lee Hall and romcom maestro Richard Curtis, and its best scene comes quite late on in the film, bridging the gap between the Allies and the Germans in a way that could so easily have been risible. Instead, the dialogue between Toby Kebbell as a Geordie soldier, and Hinnerk Schönemann as one of his disarmingly helpful adversaries, makes the scene as memorable as any I've seen in a long time. It relies, like much of the film, upon the audience buying into Joey's unique appeal to all who encounter him, and particularly Albert, who marches to war with the aim of recovering his pal. But in that particular scene, Joey barely figures- it's about the meeting of the two men. So, even if you don't buy that this is a special horse, the film still succeeds because the war is what happens to the horse, and the war is what the film is really about.

You're welcome to sneer at the combination of Hall and Curtis, with a filmmaker as precisely sentimental as Spielberg, topped off with a typically evocative score by John Williams, but War Horse remains a mature and moving adaptation of a children's book, which tries to entertain everybody and largely succeeds. Tintin was a film with adult nostalgia behind it, that was primarily aimed at kids, and Spielberg's latest works similarly, as a children's film that will have extra resonance with adults. It's another war movie, but it's also a life-affirming, globe-trotting Western- superficial, yes, but big-hearted and stirring.

War Horse is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen War Horse, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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