Sorry, haters. I don’t care how much you think director Steven Spielberg is working you over with this tale of a English farm boy whose beloved horse, Joey, is sold off for service on the battlefields of World War I. Spielberg doesn’t come from that cynical place where hack filmmakers (yes, you, Michael Bay) squeeze tears solely to squeeze our wallets. In adapting the acclaimed 1982 children’s book by British author Michael Morpurgo, Spielberg stays respectful but not beholden to the source. Spielberg must also contend with award-winning New York and London stage productions of War Horse, with life-size horse puppets from the brilliant Handspring Puppet Company creating theatrical magic. Spielberg, by necessity, plays it for real. Reportedly, eight horses were used to portray Joey, the remarkable red bay with a white cross emblazoned on his forehead and four perfectly matched white socks. But the film is so heartfelt and marvelously crafted by Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn and screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis that odious comparisons are swept away.
War Horse dawdles a bit at first, establishing life on the Dartmoor farm, where the teenage Albert (Jeremy Irvine) lives with his drunken father (Peter Mullan) and tough-minded mother (Emily Watson). The pace picks up to the surging John Williams score as soon as Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France, where horses were used to haul supplies, pull guns and lead the charge into battle. Of the million horses that were sent abroad from the U.K., only 62,000 returned, the rest dying in the war or slaughtered for meat. No wonder Albert, now enlisted, is worried. A British officer (Tom Hiddleston, so good you want more of him) befriends Albert and promises to send him news of Joey.
The film is really a series of encounters between Joey and those he meets, including a French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (a superb Niels Arestrup) and another horse, Triphorn. Spielberg keeps to the standards of the PG-13 rating without skimping on the realities of war. The scene of a frightened Joey charging across a scorched battlefield only to be tangled and bloodied by barbed wire is as harrowing as a subsequent moment, involving a German soldier and his British counterpart, is healing. War Horse gets to you. It’s one from the heart.