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WAR HORSE

There is no combat in the early scenes of War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s sweeping adaptation of the popular stage spectacle, but the film opens with a cinematic assault as audacious and unsparing as the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan.

With widescreen, pastoral vistas dappled in golden sunlight and washed in music (by John Williams) that is somehow both grand and folksy, Spielberg lays siege to your cynicism, bombarding you with strong and simple appeals to feeling.

You may find yourself resisting this sentimental pageant of early-20th-century rural English life, replete with verdant fields, muddy tweeds and damp turnips, but my strong advice is to surrender. Allow your sped-up, modern, movie-going metabolism, accelerated by a diet of frantic digital confections including Spielberg’s just-released Adventures of Tintin to calm down a bit. Suppress your instinctive impatience, quiet the snarky voice in your head and allow yourself to recall, or perhaps to discover, the deep pleasures of sincerity.

If you can fake that, the old Hollywood adage goes, you’ve got it made. But while War Horse is, like so many of Spielberg’s films, a work of supreme artifice, it is also a self-conscious attempt to revive and pay tribute to a glorious tradition of honest, emotionally direct storytelling. Shot the old-fashioned way, on actual film stock (the cinematographer is Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski), the picture has a dark, velvety lustre capable of imparting a measure of movie-palace magic to the impersonal cavern of your local multiplex.

The story, in its early chapters, also takes you back to an older you may well say cornier style of entertainment. Joey, the fleet-footed, headstrong half Thoroughbred of the title, is purchased at auction by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a proud and grouchy Devon farmer with a tendency to drink too much. His household includes a loving, scolding wife Rosie (Emily Watson); a cantankerous goose; and a strapping lad named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who forms an immediate and unbreakable bond with Joey. The teenage boy trains the horse to pull a plow and together they ride through the stunning scenery.

But this pastoral is darkened by memories of war Ted fought the Boers in South Africa, an experience so terrible he cannot speak of it to his son and by social divisions. The Narracotts are tenant farmers at the mercy of their landlord (David Thewlis), and if War Horse pays tribute to solid British virtues of decency and discipline it also, like a Thomas Hardy novel, exposes the snobbery and economic oppression that are, if anything, even more deeply rooted in that nation’s history.

So it is not entirely a simpler, more innocent world that is swept away by the war but rather a way of life whose contradictions are as emphatically presented as its charms. And what follows, as Joey is taken across the English Channel to the battlefields and trenches of Flanders and France, is a nightmare of cruelty that is not without its own sinister magic.

Like most movies with an anti-war message, War Horse cannot help but be enthralled by the epic scale and transformative power of military conflict. “The war has taken everything from everyone” the truth of this reckoning, uttered more than once by characters on screen, is self-evident, but it is complicated by the visceral charge and cathartic relief that an effective war movie gives to its audience.

The extreme violence of the slaughter in World War I is implied rather than graphically depicted. Spielberg steps back from the bloody, chaotic naturalism of Saving Private Ryan this is an animal fable for children, after all, with echoes of ET and Carroll Ballard’s Black Stallion but his ability to infuse action sequences with emotional gravity has hardly diminished.

An early battle scene dramatises the modernisation of warfare with remarkable and haunting efficiency. A British cavalry unit attacks a German encampment, charging through the enemy ranks with swords in what appears to be a clean and devastating rout. But then, at the edge of the field, the German machine guns begin to fire, and the British horses crash into the forest, suddenly riderless and instantly obsolete. Joey, who of course never sought out heroism in the first place, is relegated to a life of brutal labour that seems fated to end in an ignoble death.

He is kept alive by instinct, human kindness and the companionship of a regal black horse named Topthorn. Joey’s episodic journey takes him from British to German hands and back again, with a sojourn on a French farm owned by an elderly jam-maker (Niels Arestrup) and his young granddaughter (Celine Buckens).

Albert, meanwhile, makes his own way to the war, and his and Joey’s parallel experiences harrowing escapes, the loss of friends, the terror and deprivation brightened by flickers of tenderness or high spirits give the story texture and momentum, as well as giving Spielberg an opportunity to show off, once again, his unmatched skill at cross-cutting. (The large cast, mostly British and almost entirely male, acquits itself admirably, with a few moments of maudlin overacting and many more of heartbreaking understatement.)

Spielberg and the screenwriters, Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, have wisely avoided attempting to reproduce the atmosphere and effects of the stage production, in which Joey and the other horses are portrayed by huge puppets. He prefers to translate the tale, which originates in a novel by Michael Morpurgo, into a fully cinematic idiom. And War Horse turns out to have a central Spielbergian theme perhaps the dominant idea in this director’s body of work namely the fraught and fascinating relationship between the human and the non-human.

What do they sharks, horses, aliens, dinosaurs, intelligent machines mean to us? What are we supposed to do with them? The boundary can be hard to maintain: sometimes, as in ET and AI, non-human beings are virtually impossible to distinguish from humans; at other times, as in Amistad and Schindlers List, self-evidently human beings are denied that status. Sometimes the non-human is a threat, at other times a comfort, but it always presents a profound ethical challenge based in a stark existential mystery: Who are we?

Spielberg’s answers to this question tend to be hopeful, and his taste for happy, or at least redemptive endings is frequently criticised. But his ruthless optimism, while it has helped to make him an enormously successful showman, is also crucial to his identity as an artist, and is more complicated than many of his detractors realise.

War Horse registers the loss and horror of a gruesomely irrational episode in history, a convulsion that can still seem like an invitation to despair. To refuse that, to choose compassion and consolation, requires a measure of obstinacy, a muscular and brutish willfulness that is also an authentic kind of grace.