"They must be mad,” said Michael Morpurgo, when he discovered plans to adapt his 1982 children’s novel into a stage play. But when it comes to Steven Spielberg taking it on, you’d have to say, “They’d be mad not to.”
War Horse feels almost purpose-built for the director to whom heart-plucking moments come oh-so-naturally. Factor in its Great War setting, and you can understand why the Saving Private Ryan director went wild when he first saw Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation.
Compare it to Spielberg’s recent Tintin, a breezy-but-hollow exercise in blockbusting, and this is in a different league. Wholesome with a capital W, it’s the sort of film you can take your mother, aunt, grandmother – hell, even your great-grandmother – to, without fear of offending delicate ears.
A nostalgic throwback to films of yesteryear – teatime telly classics like Black Beauty (1971) and The Black Stallion (1979) – it’s little wonder Spielberg brought Brits Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Mr Mainstream himself, Richard Curtis, on board for scripting duties.
Set on the eve of the WW1, War Horse begins like a bucolic Thomas Hardy short. After what feels like an eternal set of establishing shots of rural Devon, we join the Narracott family as cheerful drunk Ted (Peter Mullan) gets caught up in a bidding war for a workhorse with his landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis) – but pride comes before a fall, Ted blowing all their hard-earned on a nag that looks unbreakable, let alone willing to pull a plough across the family field.
Stand by gee-gee
Naturally, Mrs Narracott (Emily Watson) is livid, what with Lyons threatening to re-possess their farm. But when wellmeaning son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) begs to train Joey (as he christens their new steed), so begins a spiritual bond between lad and horse that spans a lifetime – or 146 minutes, anyway.
No prizes for guessing that Joey and Albert churn that stony field and save the farm. This first chapter trots at a tedious pace – though Mullan, complete with thick yokel brogue, has fun wading through the mush.
It only truly gets underway when war breaks out, and Ted cracks Albert’s heart by selling Joey to upstanding Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston), who promises to “return him to your care”. From here, War Horse becomes a picaresque, Henry Fielding-like tale, as Joey journeys along and across the war-torn trenches, all things to all men.
In the possession of a French farmer (A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup) and his sick daughter, he’s a gift from God. In the hands of the Germans, he’s a workhorse straining every sinew to haul artillery.
In the eyes of Spielberg, he’s a metaphor – a stunning scene where he enters No Man’s Land, causing a temporary ceasefire, recalling the famous Christmas Day football match in the trenches. All the while the newly enlisted Albert searches for his Joey.
Needless to say, if there were an Oscar for horse wrangling, this film would win hooves down – Spielberg wisely eschews digital trickery wherever possible, which lends the story a genuinely old-fashioned feel.
Likewise, the battle scenes are enthralling. In particular, a surprise attack on a German encampment really gets the blood pumping. And the trench-set tracking shots are every bit as gob-walloping as the Normandy landings in Saving Private Ryan – meaning this isn’t entirely the quaint nostalgia-blast you, or those aged relatives you took along, were expecting.
The only strugglers are the actors; playing third fiddle to wartime pyrotechnics and a bloody great horse mean that few leave an impression. Benedict Cumberbatch’s British Major has a bally good go, and Toby Kebbell’s soldier adds some simple humanity amid the carnage.
Other Brit stalwarts – Eddie Marsan, Johnny Harris, Geoff Bell – offer only glimpses of what they’re capable of. Irvine, best known for Disney show Life Bites, is saddled with the most earnest role (bordering on the ridiculous) but has just enough charm to pull through.
Where the film stumbles is in Spielberg’s indulging of his oldest collaborators. In what marks his 25th feature with composer John Williams, the director seems to celebrate their silver anniversary by raking his score all over War Horse like straw in a stable.
Trouble is, it’s hardly the most memorable music Williams has produced (tough call when you’re up against Jaws and Raiders), yet Spielberg seems in love with its syrup-soaked sounds to the point where it detracts from the narrative.
You won’t shed E.T. tears, but War Horse shows Spielberg back in the saddle, in full command of story, setting and characters. If only he laid off that incessant score…