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, ...1
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