The title of War Horse appears onscreen twice during the film, once at the end and once near the beginning, where it follows the image of a newborn colt that looks too beautiful ever to be involved in a war. The horse, later named Joey, grows bigger, but even as he heads into the thick of battle, he never looks at home in his surroundings. Humans make wars. Animals get drawn into them. And in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s 1982 children’s novel (and of the popular play it inspired), the horse’s essential innocence offsets the horrors of war around him. Joey was born for something better than this. Maybe we all were.
War Horse opens in Devon, England, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, a conflict that will cleave off a chunk of a generation of young men and leave those that survived scarred by the experience. Newcomer Jeremy Irvine plays one of the war-bound, even if he doesn’t know it at the time. Seen first as a teen entranced by the young horse, he’s delighted when his father (Peter Mullan) purchases Joey at auction, even though they need a workhorse, not a thoroughbred, to work their difficult land and avoid eviction at the hands of their cruel landlord (David Thewlis). Irvine’s mother (Emily Watson), though used to living with a man more comfortable drinking than talking, questions the decision as well and, in time, the family is compelled to sell Joey into military service as the mount of a handsome young captain (Tom Hiddleston) who promises to take care of the animal and return him at the end of the war. He finds he can only keep the first of those promises.
From there, the film follows Joey’s episodic tour of World War I. As he passes from owner to owner and from one side of the conflict to the other—shades of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar—the horse observes one inhumane spectacle after another, often ending up on the receiving end of war’s cruelty. He may not understand what’s going on around him but his eyes—and the horses used to portray Joey are remarkably expressive—convey an instinctual sense that life has been thrown out of balance. Kindness becomes a liability for the characters of War Horse and, like Joey, they sense something has gone wrong and feel powerless to change it. The film offers one example after another of how war not only erodes our best instincts, but also punishes them.
To create his disarmingly earnest film, Spielberg draws from the past. Its tone is humanistic and its technique classic. For the Devon sequences, Spielberg borrows from the language of John Ford, depicting home as a place of shelter that needs constant protection, one populated with characters for whom love is bound to fractiousness. Once in Europe, his technique opens up, and the film around Joey shifts in tone as his path takes him from the front lines to the quiet places in danger of falling before the war machines. Spielberg exercises stunning control behind the camera, never more than in a late-film sequence that all but erases the distance between the viewers’ perspective and Joey’s. His exactitude always serves the film’s emotional directness, however, as do the openhearted performances of the actors (both human and otherwise). All play characters swept up in global currents they can’t control, forced to partake in bloodshed they never desired, and struggling to hold onto the things—whether beast or idea—that reminds them of who they were.