Film review: War Horse (12A), 146 mins

14:53 12 January 2012

While explosions light the night sky, Joey runs through a trench, startling the German soldiers as he tries desperately to escape in this scene from DreamWorks Pictures

While explosions light the night sky, Joey runs through a trench, startling the German soldiers as he tries desperately to escape in this scene from DreamWorks Pictures' "War Horse", director Steven Spielberg's adventure set during the First World War...©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. ÊAll Rights Reserved.

©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. ÊAll Rights Reserved.

Until writer Michael Morpurgo wrote about the experiences of Joey the enduring image of World War One was the misery of trench warfare, rather than that of war horses.

Yet as mechanised weaponry and vehicles took the place of bayonets and cavalry the British army alone took 1.1 million horses to war and 484,000 never came home but were killed in action.

A further 50,000 were treated by the Blue Cross for their injuries and many of the survivors were shamefully sold for dog meat after the Armistice.

Morpurgo’s book was turned into a hit West End show using incredibly realistic puppets as the horses, and if you haven’t seen it I urge you to go.

Now Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg brings the story of Joey, the horse who was snatched from his young owner Albert and sent to war, experiencing life and death on both sides of the trenches.

It’s nearly 100 years since the outbreak of the Great War and Spielberg gives us a fresh way of looking at the conflict with a movie which had even the toughest of critics wiping their eyes.

The movie features a stellar cast, including the 14 horses which play Joey.

Spielberg has made an inspired decision with his slow build up to the start of war as we learn about Joey’s early days and feast our eyes on the beauty of rural England before the storm clouds gather.

Farmer Ned Narracott, a surly Peter Mullan, returns from market with a frisky thoroughbred, rather than the plough horse he had planned to buy. Despite paying over the odds he notices that Joey is “something else” and is prepared to risk the farm’s future and the wrath of his loyal wife (Emily Watson) over his purchase.

Newcomer Jeremy Irvine commands the screen as the young farmer’s boy Albert Narracott who gains the trust of Joey and trains him up, developing an enduring empathy with the horse.

But heartbreakingly Joey is sold off to the Army and is led off with Albert’s promise to find him echoing in his twitching ears as he faces a life of wartime hell alongside the men who are also on their way to France.

His new rider is Captain Nicholls, played by Tom Hiddleston with the right mix of emotion and authority as a young officer facing battle, who promises to take care of Joey.

During Joey’s war we encounter boy soldiers played by Nicholas Bro and David Kross and a young French girl Emilie (Celine Bucken) who is caught up in the war simply because she lives near the front line.

It falls to Sgt Fry, played by Bethnal Green actor Eddie Marsan, to announce the end of the war and count the cost of the peace in a gripping movie which reminds us of the hell of that conflict which started just over a century ago.

This is a powerful movie and Spielberg and his cast, both equine and human, have done justice to the story of Joey and the thousands of other war horses.

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