Back in 1983, I read Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book War Horse for a fifth grade book report based solely on the fact that I had pulled it from the library shelf at random. I remember that its narrative seemed odd to me in that it was the first book I had ever read that was narrated by a horse (I considered Black Beauty to be a girl’s book and wouldn’t touch it). “War Horse” was a touching story all about a horse named Joey who is sold to the army in World War I France and the attempts of young Albert Narracott, his owner who raised him from birth, to bring him safely home.
I kind of figured, though, if anyone were to adapt it into a film it might be a big mistake. The narration would seem silly off the page and the massive coincidences of the story would be just a bit much for a modern audience. Having seen Steven Spielberg’s film earlier tonight, I am impressed by the results. Spielberg and his screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis have removed the narration and let the story flow from circumstance that, while implausible, don’t seem completely far-fetched.
Released just four days after Spielberg’s 3D animated feature The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse came out to wide critical acclaim and later a Best Picture nomination, but it made a soft showing at the box office and today it’s one of the very few of Spielberg’s films that has been forgotten.
That’s really too bad because this is a lovely film, the kind that The Walt Disney Company use to make. It presents the kind majesty for the American landscape that John Ford might have imagined. Spielberg never forces anything; instead he allows the natural world to be the backdrop for the story and employs Januz Kaminski, his Toujours Fidèle Cinematographer, to photograph it with colors that bring out the expressiveness of the natural world. He knows that a horse is a majestic creature and we not only see it but we feel it. Joey’s fate is intermingled with the men he serves with so we feel that the emotions that the story brings about are honest and true.
The movie has an interesting structure. We meet Joey on the day he is born in 1912, and watch him grow up under the loving training of young Albert, an Irish farmer’s son. But fate intervenes and the family farm is hemorrhaging money so Joey must be sold to the army to pay the rent. The duel paths of Joey and Albert are fascinating. Joey, now property of the British Army, is charged into the full brunt of World War I, and is passed from owner to owner, from English owners to French owners to English and back again. His fate is destined, we know, to bring him back to Albert. Years later, when Albert is old enough, joins the army to fight for king and country but also with the wan hope that he might be reunited with his friend once more.
What is special about this film is how natural this impossible story plays out. Spielberg doesn’t force the story, he allows it a kind of naturalness that would make another filmmaker nervous. He trusts our intelligence and eases the story into its emotional highpoints. With that, we are invested the whole way without being manipulated. He also pulls back on the violence. Yes, the movie takes place in World War I, but this isn’t Saving Private Ryan, there is no blood and guts here. This is a different kind of story – in that respect its perfect for kids. The war is terrible, but the movie doesn’t illustrate that in blood, it illustrates it in the great drama of the situation. War Horse is one of the more forgotten of Spielberg’s great works (I had never seen it before) and that’s too bad. I hope that a generation will discover this lovely film.