Making a fairytale of the First World War

He may have replaced the gore of war with the goo of War Horse, but somehow Spielberg pulls it off.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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While one can hardly disregard the man’s influence on modern cinema, it’s easy to take Steven Spielberg for granted. Having produced some of the most iconic films of the mainstream format we rarely think of him as a distinctive auteur, yet there is nevertheless an inimitable richness and charm to his work which is wholly his own.

Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s award-winning children’s novel, War Horse is a film that straddles the two forms in which Spielberg is most comfortable. Part war film, part family blockbuster, it is a compelling and delightfully syrupy epic, that warms the heart in a way only Spielberg can.

It tells the story of Devonshire lad, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), and his trusty horse, Joey, who are torn apart by the outbreak of the First World War. With the rent due and a malevolent landlord on his back, Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) sells Joey to an army cavalryman (Tom Hiddlestone), and Albert enlists in order to find his equine paramour and bring him home safely. Over the next four years, Joey gallops his way across both sides of the conflict providing us with a panoramic view of the war and the people caught up in it. It is a nostalgia piece through and through, full of mustachioed army captains and regurgitated clichés about the plucky wartime spirit. This combined with the disturbingly romantic boy-horse bond that underpins the narrative, makes it all feel faintly ridiculous. But despite all this, it somehow comes off.

This is largely due to Spielberg’s refusal to pull any punches when it comes to depicting the harsh reality of warfare. While this is, of course, a family film and he is forced to play the game and shield anything too gory from young eyes, he doesn’t sanitise the content. In the battle sequences, the camera is often high up, and far enough away that we don’t see any blood splatter or severed limbs, but the panning aerial shots showing a throng of soldiers dropping like flies under machine-gun fire are devastating nonetheless.

However, even after the toughest of scenes, the film retains its gooey centre. As Joey journeys across war-torn France, we are shown a series of interlinked vignettes depicting the tragedy of war and the humanity that survives in spite of conflict. This is expressed through a slew of familiar characters, from the underage soldier, who lies about how old he is to get a slice of the glory, to the courageous general, who must march his men to certain death. But as banal as these appear at first, even the most cynical viewer won’t be able to resist the relentless emotional torrent for long.

The film feeds on the mythology surrounding the First World War, and places it in a vivid and rigorously detailed epic setting. There are very few left who lived through the so-called Great War, but we have all, in a sense, grown up with it and have been led to associate it with a wistful heroism and tragic nobility. This is unashamedly indulged here. Even the historic Christmas Truce football match is transposed into a scene in which an English and a German soldier meet in no-man’s land to cut Joey free of some barbed wire.

While this film does little more than turn the First World War into a fairytale, it is nevertheless a moving and enjoyable watch. Admittedly, the story of Joey the war horse is about as believable as that of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but if you leave your cynicism at the door, War Horse may just surprise you.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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