Frolicking hooves across the rolling pastoral fields of England kick off the epic film War Horse, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel and directed by Steven Spielberg. For a story about “the war to end all wars,” the first quarter of the film teases with gorgeous landscapes, muddied tweeds, and euphonious music composed by Spielberg’s frequent accomplice, John Williams.
It is not until the relationship between the boy protagonist Albert Narracott and his horse are torn apart by the First World War that the audience is jolted out of serenity. Joey, the haughty thoroughbred protagonist, is sold to the British Calvary and confronted with the transformative aspects of warfare. Spielberg shows World War I through the eyes of the dying breed of cavalry horse. It is estimated that Britain lost about 500,000 horses over the course of the Great War. The film is abundantly laden with stark contrasts, such as the juxtaposition of nature versus man’s “modern war.”
The romantic vision of the war is tarnished with every fallen body. The audience becomes Joey’s cheerleader as he struggles through the manmade wreckage. There is nothing more heart wrenching than a heaving, sweating thoroughbred coming into contact with a steel,German Tank. With low lighting and striking images Spielberg reminds us of the power in emotional storytelling. He does not use blood and gore to encapsulate the horrors of WWI, as he did with WWII and Saving Private Ryan, but he uses Joey to demonstrate the gravity of war in terms that can be understood by a younger audience.
With balance and recovering optimism Spielberg ends his triumphant film in a silhouette that is sure to leave any audience in a fit of snivels.