How on earth does one direct a film from a horse’s point of view? This is the question fans of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book will have asked themselves. I think we can be thankful that there are no speaking horses in this picture, although necessarily this means that a powerful narrative technique is lost. In the book, Joey, the eponymous war horse, makes a unique storyteller, depicting life as he sees it from the market place to the farmyard to the battle fields of World War I. Critics have warned of the sentimentality of this film, but this is only in keeping with the book. Joey is as sentimental a narrator as I have met. He rarely meets anyone he does not believe to be the noblest, kindest and truest amongst men (or horses). Perhaps we are more forgiving of this open-heartedness in an animal. Without the horse to tell the tale, the director must take on the generous world view himself.
The film makes a disappointing start. The story begins on the farm in Devon, where Albert Narracott’s (Jeremy Irvine) parents Ted (Peter Mullan) and Rose (Emily Mortimer) struggle to pay the rent. Ted Narracott is a wounded war veteran who drinks to numb the pain of his haunted past and lost future. The script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis feels too deliberate, telling where it should show, and the direction can be downright clunky. The panning vistas of Devonshire countryside, gorgeous as they are, are at odds with the hard toil of rural life in the story. Spielberg takes 30 minutes to set the scene and build the friendship between Albert and Joey. Morpurgo gives over a similar length of his book to this period of life on the farm, but in the author’s hands we don’t feel he is just biding his time until the action begins.
I had almost written off the film when war breaks out and suddenly the picture lurches into gear. The wide smiles and camaraderie of the new recruits are immediately contrasted with the unexpected reality of a war for which they appear so ill-prepared. The cinematography in the war scenes is the real star here and in its richness outshines the novel. Yet Spielberg is careful not to glamorise war, which looks as frightening as it is bleak.
Although the book gives his character longer to develop, Tom Hiddleston still makes an excellent Captain Nicholls, the clear-eyed cavalryman riding to his certain death. German brothers Gunther (David Kross) and Michael (Leonhard Carow) are next to care for the horse. The two boys, brimming with life and youth, just as quickly meet their fate. Spielberg is incredibly strong on the cruel randomness of war. Deaths are dealt with efficiently and the dead are not revisited lest they drag us under. We move on. Survival is shown to be just as arbitrary; just as much a twist of fate.
As in the book, the war is told in episodes, with most characters gaining just a short portion of screen time. During the war Joey passes from English to German to French hands in several scenes which are unique to the film but nonetheless capture the non-partisan essence of the original story. The effect of these strong snapshots of characters is extremely powerful, underlining the pointless and savage waste of lives cut short. Many of the roles are well developed with a strong sense of fully-formed individual people, even given the episodic nature of the film. Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) are two who seem to crave longer screen time. Nicolas Bro may have few lines as Friedrich, but uses them to speak volumes. Toby Kebbell excels as the unnamed soldier who risks his life to save Joey from no man’s land. In the final war scenes, Matt Milne (playing Andrew Easton) and Robert Emms (playing David Lyons) are superb as Albert’s fellow soldiers, demonstrating that what we call courage is but one step from cowardice.
Although Jeremy Irvine makes an impressive lead, there are no heroes in this picture. When victory is declared, there is no glory: we know that really everyone has lost. ‘The war has taken everything from everyone’ is a key line (repeated, in case we didn’t pick it up the first time). Unusually, it is the film rather than the book which strikes the bleaker final note. While Morpurgo’s version ends with Joey brought back to fitness by his beloved Albert, Spielberg chooses to end with a reunion between father and son. That the two Narracotts now understand each other is clearly the prize, but it has been hard won. Now they are both broken men.