War Horse lives up to all the rave reviews – it’s a daring and bold war epic filled with heart and spirit that will leave you deeply moved.
This film is all about the PALs brigades, a system of recruitment in the early years of the First World War where men could volunteer to go to the frontline with their friends (“pals”). War Horse is a story filled with deep friendships between the characters: it is not only the friendship between Albert and his horse, Joey, but also his abiding friendship with his childhood friend from Devon, Andrew. These two major human characters on the British side are mirrored by the two German brothers, Gunther and Michael, who are also struggling to survive in the madness of war. As Joey is sent to be in the cavalry, he strikes up a deep friendship with Topthorn, an impressive black stallion who shows him the ropes. As we follow the adventures of Joey and Topthorn throughout the main narrative, we grow to empathise with the sufferings of the human characters through the eyes of the horse, and his friendship with Topthorn and the hardship they endure together. The choice of portraying Topthorn as a black stallion is a bold nod towards previous famous horses in children’s literature. Spielberg effectively takes the Black Stallion and Black Beauty and, combining them in the noble character of Topthorn, places them in the mud of the Somme as Joey the war horse’s loyal companion.
As we follow Joey and Topthorn through the First World War, the main narrative becomes primarily episodic, reflecting the way that the story is focalised through the eyes of the horse and not a human, abandoning the usual three-act structure which films usually conform to. This is a daring move away from the conventional depiction of war narratives in modern film. However, there is another structural device in War Horse that provides a sound and unifying underpinning to the whole narrative, which astute viewers may recognise from Spielberg’s days as a horror director. The golden rule of a Spielberg horror film is that you never show your monster straight away, you delay revealing the whole monster for as long as possible. War Horse follows this golden rule and doesn’t show the whole monster straight away. Little by little, bits and pieces of the horror of war (death, mutilation and the loss of loved ones) are revealed, but we don’t get to see the frontline itself until well beyond the half-way point in the narrative. Thinking of a war film in terms of a horror production is a bold new move, and it is extremely effective in conveying the reality of war to the audience. The monster itself is later revealed to us in the form of the Somme – a wrenching, tearing and snarling devourer of men. The battle scenes in War Horse are incredibly impressive, and are the most realistic (and terrifying) modern images of the trenches I have ever seen. Using the structure of a horror film to reveal war as a monster is a daring new interpretation of the horror of combat, and will no doubt change the way that war is conceived and depicted in film and television in years to come.
A major advantage of the episodic nature of the film was that we get to follow the horse’s life as he is traded and bartered as cavalry and gun-puller. This means that we get to see the First World War from all different angles – British, French, German, officer and infantry. This paints a picture of people who are neither good nor bad, but are just caught up in the machine of war and are struggling to survive.
The episodic narrative also means that Joey the horse is kept firmly centre stage. It was the best choice to use a little-known actor in the lead human role, since this allows the audience to pay more attention to the undisputed star. While the human actors put in stellar performances, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch, the best actor in this film is the horse. It’s a feather in the cap of such a talented director who can persuade an equine talent to shine.
Ultimately, this isn’t just a ” one man and his horse” story; it tells the story of all the men who went to war and fought alongside and lost their friends in foreign fields, and came back irrevocably changed from their experiences. It also tells the story of the millions of horses who were sent to frontlines, known as the “forgotten army“, most of whom did not come back.