War Horse feels almost purpose built for the director to whom heart plucking moments come so naturally. 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, that I thought was 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, grandmother, even your great grandmother to, without fear of offending delicate ears.
A nostalgic throwback to films of yesteryear telly classics like Black Beauty (1971) and The Black Stallion (1979) it's little wonder Spielberg brought Brits Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis, on board for scripting duties.
Set on the eve of the WW1, War Horse begins like a 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.
Naturally, Mrs Narracott (Emily Watson) is livid, what with Lyons threatening to repossess 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 a spellbinding 146 minutes, anyway.No prizes for guessing that Joey and Albert churn that stony field and save the farm. This first chapter may trot at a tedious pace though Mullan, complete with thick yokel accent, has fun wading through the mush.But give it time as it 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 on, War Horse becomes a brilliant jaw dropping adventure, 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, it seems 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.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. The battle scenes are outstanding. 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 great big horse mean that few leave an impression. Benedict Cumberbatch's British Major has a good go, and Toby Kebbell's soldier adds some simple humanity amid the carnage.John Williams again does the swelling music score and although great is not one of his most memorable . These slight niggles do nothing to spoil the overall effect of this fantastic old fashioned adventure that Spielberg proves he knows exactly what the viewer wants!
This is a classic adventure that has to be seen!