Exceptional Equine

Steven Spielberg’s spectacular adaptation of a British theater epic gallops into your heart

Steven Spielberg at the top of his powers as one of the most successful and creative film directors of the last century is the best reason I can think of to get off your duff and head for the cinema. You will not believe the epic splendor, sweeping drama and heart-stopping passion he brings to War Horse. It’s a rare and genuine movie masterpiece that deserves the label in a thousand ways.

Spielberg is a visionary with unflinching faith in his own instincts. He must have known going in that he couldn’t satisfy the myriad fans of the London and Broadway hit about the cruel things the British did to their horses in World War I. Onstage, the familiar theme of a boy’s unshakable love for his horse was innovative in its use of life-size puppets with expressions that moved like Tinkertoys. The film uses actual horses to tell the story of a colt named Joey, sold to the cavalry to lug the cannons of war through the German trenches, and a farmboy named Albert Narracott who enlisted to travel halfway across Europe to rescue him.

Onscreen, Albert is played by impossibly handsome newcomer Jeremy Irvine, whose career is already reaching rocket force (he follows War Horse as Pip in the new production of Dickens’ Great Expectations). Instead of puppets, Joey is played by more than a dozen horses, but the one featured most prominently is American equine Finder, who starred in Seabiscuit. Finder is a four-legged superstar who can do everything but talk, even though he has a way of communicating with Albert that is awesome. What he goes through in War Horse is so rending that never before has the disclaimer “No animals were harmed in the filming of this motion picture” carried so much badly needed reassurance. Finder deserves an Oscar for—well, for being the best and most beautiful horse on the screen.

Based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpugo, War Horse is an elegiac film that clocks in at two hours and 26 minutes, but I treasured every second. Spielberg brings so much decency and integrity to the film that I didn’t miss the puppets at all. The humor and spirit that had such a profound impact on audiences young and old are not only preserved, but enhanced by the personalities of real animals. The result is a personalized experience that inspires the kind of love audiences used to have for Lassie.

The vast screenplay respects the story enough to leave it unchanged. A hardscrabble sharecropper named Ted Narracott goes to auction to buy a plow horse, but instead he outbids his mean-spirited landlord (David Thewlis) for a magnificent animal of no real value to a crop planter. His besotted son Albie names the horse Joey and vows to teach him how to till the soil. Joey is stubborn and willful with a mind of his own, and when the crops fail, the only way to pay the rent is to sell Joey to the military.

The next hour is told from the horse’s point of view as the camera follows him through the French battlefields in 1914, where he bonds with a headstrong black stallion, a German deserter and a Dutch girl who protects him. Captured by the enemy, Joey ends up in the Somme where Albie finally sees combat at last. In one particularly sensational sequence, Joey is trapped in barbed wire and rescued by two soldiers, one German and one British, who put aside their differences through a mutual compassion for an injured animal, use wire cutters to save the horse’s life. If you are not moved to tears by that scene, then you need to see a doctor.

The logistics are overwhelming. According to the Imperial War Museum more than four million horses perished in the so-called Great War, and Spielberg puts you into the middle of their terror in sequences using as many as 5,800 extras and 280 horses without computer-generated images. What an accomplishment.

Like the play, the emotional high point of the film is when Albie finally finds Joey. By this time, you’re so weary from the gas masks, the grenades and the cannon fire that you can hardly summon the strength for tears. But when the two wounded soldiers go home together, you feel the values horses and humans can share through love. It left me emotional.

War Horse is a don’t-miss Spielberg classic that reaches true perfection. It’s as good as movies can get, and one of the greatest triumphs of this or any other year. For maximum enjoyment, I recommend both a box of tissues and a box of popcorn.

War Horse (PG-13) ★★★★★

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