Very few filmmakers could get away with making a film like War Horse—a film with the scope and sincerity of 50s-era Hollywood with the pacing and unconventional structure of a European art film. Only a powerhouse in the Ford/Capra mold like Steven Spielberg could pull it off, and he nearly does with this effort. War Horse is a beautiful, daring, old-school family friendly film about a boy, a horse, a family, and a war.
Spielberg's first cinematic foray into World War I, War Horse is based on a 1982 children's novel by Michael Morpurgo about a boy whose beloved horse is sold to the British cavalry and sent off to fight in France. Though not really a "war film" in the Saving Private Ryan sense, War Horse is nevertheless a film very much about the tragedies of the Great War—the trenches, the mustard gas, the brutality of modern technology laying waste to the pastoral ideal—albeit centered upon the narrative arc of a horse.
The film opens on a rural farm in Devon, England, after farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys a horse at auction to help till the rock-strewn fields of his family's farm. His son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvin) immediately bonds with the horse, naming him Joey and training him to pull the plow. Aside from some father/son disagreements and a minor conflict with a landowner villain (David Thewlis) threatening to seize the farm if they can't pay rent, the first third of the film is a idyllic pastoral experience: lush green hills, a horse that can (almost) outrun newfangled automobiles, and the lovely Emily Watson as a cheerful British mum.
But then war comes. Most of the local boys enlist in the army but Albert is too young. Hard up for cash, Albert's father sells Joey to the British cavalry, and Albert must tearfully say goodbye to his four-legged friend. As schmaltzy and wide-eyed innocent as this (somewhat overlong) prologue seems, it serves an important contextual purpose. For the story of WWI is very much a story of transitions—from the pastoral and agrarian past to the technological and modernist future. It was the last war where horses and tanks both played critical roles, and in vividly portraying the transition from romantic agrarian vistas to the horrific muddy trenches and barbed wire of No Man's Land, Spielberg makes the most of the striking juxtaposition.
Where the beginning of the film focuses on the Narracott family, the latter two-thirds focuses primarily on Joey the horse, as we follow his unlikely journey of survival in the war. Joey outlives many riders and finds himself fighting on both the British and German front lines. In episodic fashion we watch as Joey charms a pair of young German deserters, gets worked to near death by a cruel horsemaster, and finds brief respite with a young girl and her kind French grandfather (Niels Arestrup), who provides some of the film's most poignant lines. As scores of humans die in all sorts of horrible ways all around him, Joey fights on, his survival driven by natural instincts rather than partisan nationalism.