War Horse is an epic World War I tale of friendship set in Devon, England and France, during the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918. An alcoholic war-veteran farmer named Ted spots something special in a thoroughbred foal and bets the farm on him (literally), hoping he can transform him into a work horse to plough the fields. Through seemingly fruitless training, his son Albert develops a deep connection with Joey, only to have the father have no other choice but resell the colt to the British army.
With Ted’s regimental pennant tied to his bridle, Joey embarks on a journey that becomes The Sisterhood of the Traveling Horse. Each new person who takes his reins can recognize something special about him as he carries the through-line from the start of the war until the finish.
Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morprugo’s 1982 novel in 2007, which Steven Spielberg then turned into a feature film. He provides plenty of harrowing moments, most particularly an action sequence involving Joey’s escape from one pickle only to find himself in another. The painful sequence ratchets up the cringing stages of helplessness. Spielberg knows how to sweep his audience away for a few hours and press all of the emotionally wrenching buttons that twist them dry of their tears.
Filmed primarily in the English counties of Devon and Surrey, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is efficient and gorgeous and Michael Kahn’s editing keeps things going at a clip. Ubiquitous composer and frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams hits all the expected notes at key sentimental moments.
The cast is full of mostly English faces new and old who are expertly cast including two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan (Tyrannosaur), Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Tom Hiddleston (Thor, Midnight in Paris), David Kross (The Reader), Niels Arestrup (Un Prophéte) and Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky, Sherlock Holmes franchise). But, most importantly, one has to appreciate the majestic horses, fourteen of which were used to portray the main horse Joey, and four others cast as Tipthorn. Even in the age of CGI, as many as 280 horses offered their services in any given scene.
Although he touches on war themes such as the ambiguity of social class in peril, as well as the valor or arrogance reflected in leadership by their troops, Spielberg isn’t so concerned with recreating the visceral brutality of Saving Private Ryan. The focus isn’t so much about historical fact or the actual war itself. World War I is more of a backdrop then anything else, a dark canvass to themes of hope and redemption one would find in such tearjerkers as E.T. and The Color Purple. Separation from love and the faith it requires to endure is also common in those films as well as Ryan and Empire of the Sun. War can easily extinguish the ability to connect and harden the softest hearts, but with wisdom and instinct, the more mature can be vehicles to something greater.