Movie review: ‘War Horse’ is old-fashioned in the best sense
Some wags – or, perhaps, nags – have glibly dubbed Steven Spielberg’s visually majestic “War Horse” as “Black Beauty on the Western Front.”
It’s an often stirring, beautifully mounted and rigorously retro epic that draws on the familiar conventions of classic equine sagas (“Black Beauty,” “National Velvet” and so on) and on well-known tropes from the “war to end all wars” genre.
Although the master director of “Saving Private Ryan” maintains this is not a war movie, it portrays some of the most gritty and stunning depictions of World War I battle – from a stately, old-school cavalry charge to the grimy, hand-to-hand horrors of trench warfare – to appear on film since “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory.”
Spielberg also asserts that this is not a children’s movie, although its original source material is a best-selling 1982 young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, and it falls staunchly in line with the filmmaker’s sentimental, square-jawed vision of youthful adventure and childhood longing for home and family.
The episodic story, ably scripted by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and synthesized from both Morpurgo’s book and dramatist Nick Stafford’s grand, Tony Award-winning stage play, follows a classic narrative arc of meeting, bonding, separation, grim hardship and uplifting reunion that has informed boy-and-animal tales through the ages.
Opening in the flinty, hardscrabble farm country of Devon, England, the tale centers on young Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), whose parents Ted and Rose Narracott (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson) are struggling tenant farmers on a rocky plot leased from an aristocratic, Simon Legree-style landlord (David Thewlis). When the rascally Ted goes to a rural auction to buy a much-needed plow horse, he impulsively plops down the family’s savings instead on a young colt, a spirited animal that seems totally unsuited for farm labor.
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