In Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel War Horse, Joey — a spirited horse drafted from an English farm to serve in World War I — narrates his own story. In War Horse, the 2007 London theater sensation adapted by Nick Stafford and now on stage in New York, Joey is a giant puppet built of wood and metal, manipulated in an amazing semblance of lifelike movement. Now comes War Horse the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. For the first time, Joey is a real horse. He doesn’t narrate books. He is, in the way of real horses, awesome to behold. And Spielberg, attuned to the power of that equine eloquence, gives Joey and his human costars exactly what they need to run free. This is a beautifully built, classically framed movie, shot with the unshowy natural expressiveness of a John Ford Western by Spielberg’s great cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. The tears this War Horse wrings are honest, as Joey’s fate becomes entwined with those of British and German soldiers equally capable (amidst bombs, gun blasts, and hideous barbed wire) of appreciating animal magnificence.
The universal horror of war provides a grave backdrop for Morpungo’s very accessible story. A kind farm boy named Albert (well-cast newcomer Jeremy Irvine) raises, trains, and grows to love Joey then must tearfully hand him over for cavalry duty — a parting so unbearable for both parties that Albert later enlists and embarks on a mission to find him. Peter Mullan and Emily Watson personify homestead gumption as Albert’s tenant-farmer parents, and their domestic scenes of gruff tenderness give way to military scenes of heartbreaking bravery, and one spectacular sequence of charging cavalry. No wonder the filmmaker was smitten by the source material: The project is tailor-made for Saving Private Ryan Spielberg, the war-story specialist, as well as for E.T. Spielberg, the chronicler of boyhood desires and yearnings for family. Under the circumstances, simplistic class conflict, embodied by David Thewlis as a wealthy, sneeringly insensitive landlord feels like one talking point too many.
Here’s the thing about world wars, though: They level the playing (and dying) field for the villainous ruling class and virtuous working class alike. In the end, all who hate war are united as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse unspools to its stirring conclusion. While the book plows ahead on the simplicity of its sentences and the play thunders along on the spectacle of its stagecraft, Spielberg expertly harnesses light, shadow, and landscape in the cause of peace. A-