Warhorse – the film

Last week we went to see the film version of Warhorse.  It is somewhat unusual in that this is a film mainly for adults – it has a 12A rating in the UK, while the original book is an illustrated novel for children.  Michael Morpurgo’s book has become a children’s classic and Liam, my eight year old grandson got it as a Christmas present and enjoyed it immensely.  A bit of a long winded way to say that it was an immense task to turn a short children’s book into a film for grown-ups lasting two and a half hours.

However Steven Spielberg is not your average director and here he has created a wonderful and deeply moving film.  The essence of the story remains the same as the book, though with two and a half hours to play with, Spielberg is able to flesh out some of  the characters into well drawn, sympathetic and believable human beings.  For this he has assembled an outstanding cast of, mainly British actors.  Newcomer Jeremy Irvine is excellent as Albert, the young lad who has cared for the horse almost since the colt’s birth.  He plays Albert just right as a slightly awkward, ungainly, rather shy but tender teenager.  The rest of the cast are uniformly very good and come from France, Germany and Denmark.

Good though the actors are, the star of the film is as expected from the title, Joey the horse.  We follow him from his young carefree years through his life as a farm horse to his exploits throughout the First World War.  During this time he serves as a cavalry horse, a workhorse taking wounded soldiers from the battlefield and finally as part of a team pulling heavy artillery into position.  It is really amazing how Spielberg managed to get such realistic performances from the horses, not just Joey, but the others as well.   Joey also experiences all sides of the war.  First with the British forces, then with the Germans, an idyllic interlude with some French peasants, back with the German forces again and finally back with the British army.  Throughout he is, on the whole, well looked after by all sides.  This is one of the key features of the film, Joey tends to bring out the best in the humans who meet him.

The film extolls the virtues of steadfastness, loyalty and love.  At the same time the predominant feeling from the film is one of the stupidity and brutality of war.  The scenes on the battlefield are very dark and bleak.  Death is a constant companion and again and again we see the casualties spread out like dead animals on the fields of battle.  This is film making on an epic scale, as we are swept along from scene to scene.  As the film is based on a children’s book, it does have a happy ending, at least for Joey and Albert.

My one quibble with the film is the use of English by all the characters whether they portray German soldiers or French peasants.  This, to my mind, takes away from the reality of the situation.  Most German soldiers would not have spoken English then.  Neither would a French peasant family.  Not using the actual language of the characters, with subtitles, also takes away from the dramatic intensity of many of the scenes.  For example how did the French family and the German soldiers communicate?  It is beyond belief that they all spoke English, so what language did they use.  And how competent were they?  Showing the difficulties of communicating would have added to our understanding of the war and to the personal drama.

Where this was most in evidence was in the climactic scene towards the end, when an English and a German soldier meet in no-man’s land to work together to help rescue Joey.  In this case it is made clear that the German soldier does speak English.  But its dramatic significance and importance were somewhat lost, since all the other German soldiers had spoken in English.  This scene would have been much more surprising and dramatic if this was the first time we heard a German speaking English.

Despite this quibble, this is a wonderful film and if you have not already been, then take the first opportunity to see it.

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