Animals who can reason have been around in literature for quite a while. Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge) created them in his classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Walt Disney took them to extremes. So, even though this film is based on a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo and the 2007 stage play (called “the theatrical event of the decade”), the screenplay is by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, and it’s produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, they all owe a lot of credit to Carroll and Disney.
Morpurgo, Spielberg, and his crew took that concept and put the human ability to reason in a horse, born him in pre-WWI Britain, and gave him a loving master, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the son of Ted and Rosie Narracott (Peter Mullan and two-time Oscar® nominee Emily Watson, both of whom give wonderful performances). In the play the horses were puppets; Spielberg uses real horses.
To make a too-long story mercifully shorter, the horse, Joey, is taken from Albert and sent to war when it breaks out.
Mimicking Jack London, Spielberg tells the story from Joey’s POV, as did Morpurgo. Spielberg is at the top of his form, though, because he tells the story extremely well and gets one to believe that Joey actually can reason like humans.
Much of the movie is the moving tale of the bond between Albert and Joey, and that’s the realistic part of the movie. Clearly a bond can be formed between an animal and a human, although as one character expresses in the movie, “a horse is not a dog.” This raises the question of how smart a horse really is and do they really have the same emotional characteristics as a dog. Most of the evidence is that they do not.
Unfortunately, one of the most moving scenes in the movie is also the least credible. Joey’s best friend (another horse) is hurting but pulled to the front of a line of horses pulling a huge 8-ton German cannon to the front. Joey knows his friend is hurt, so he whinnies, or whatever horses do, makes a lot of commotion, and runs to the front of the line to substitute for his friend.
In the same scene, Spielberg has been so successful at capturing our emotions that when the German commander tells his sergeant to go ahead and use the horses as pack animals, and work them to death, even though they are tired, he seems like an ogre. But that’s what horses are there for. In the most brutal war of all time, horses were beasts of burden. (A commander shouldn’t be castigated for using them for what they are for. But this is a movie and it’s as much a fantasy as a Donald Duck cartoon.)
Two other performances stand out, Niels Arestrup, who plays a French farmer, and Celine Buckens, who plays his granddaughter. They enter the film at about the 90 minute mark when the movie is getting too long, and they revitalize it with their sparkling performances.
While the war scenes are well done, they don’t really capture the horror and stupidity of World War I, where most of the Generals on both sides were war criminals, so little regard did they have for the lives of their troops. The devastating destruction of human life in the trench warfare is shown, but not the appalling loss of life. Just as an example, in the battle of the Somme, the British suffered 57,470 casualties the first day, July 1, 1916, advancing only a little more than a mile. Despite this, British General Haig pressed on with the attack until November 19th of the same year. Despite little or no achievement, total losses for the British were 419,654 with German casualties between 450,000 and 680,000. When the offensive was eventually called off the British were still three miles short of their first-day objectives. And that was just one battle. That’s why it’s called “The Lost Generation.”
Spielberg closes the movie with a scene that looks like it’s directly out of Gone with the Wind. I hope he meant it respectfully as an homage, but it’s a direct steal.
None of this means that it’s not entertaining or that it doesn’t tug your heartstrings. Sometimes people read my reviews and claim that they didn’t understand why I didn’t like the movie when, in actuality, I did like it. So to clear that up, I did like this movie. Even though it’s long and the premise is fantasy, it is extremely well made; the acting is superb, as are the war scenes. Particularly well done are the final scenes when Joey gets chewed up by barbed wire (which was plastic so posed no harm to the horse).