One of the most visually poetic films by director Steven Spielberg, War Horse is his loving ode to directors David Lean and Victor Fleming. This is not the first time Spielberg has made cinematic references to his favorite directors, but in all cases—it is simply a form of inspiration that enables him to tell his own story. In this case, it is a children’s story about a beloved horse and its many owners during a horse’s life during World War I, Europe.
Like Spielberg’s earlier Empire of the Sun, the story is about family members becoming separated during war. War Horse is no different. Jeremy Irvine’s character of Albert Narracott has a brotherly relationship with his horse, Joey, and this friendship is torn apart by Albert’s father’s need to raise money in order to save his farm. The horse is sold into the military, and Albert swears that he will find Joey when he joins the war. Most of the film is told surprisingly from Joey’s point-of-view, much like Michael Murpurgo’s children’s novel.
Like The Red Violin, the horse is exchanged between multiple groups of people and involved in a many difficult situations. Unlike the instrument-centric film, Joey has a personality for the audience to observe. And like many films about animals, the creature takes on human-like reactions to the drama occurring between the humans. Joey’s most interesting owner that he picks up is an adorable French girl named Emilie, played by picture-perfect Celine Buckens. The horse, by this point, is lost in the countryside. The eager girl proves to her grandfather that Joey has had training and is a very trusting animal, but enemy forces in the area are going to compromise this new loving relationship. She wants to keep Joey like any child looking for a friend, but the grandfather subconsciously knows the horse does belong elsewhere.
As in the case of two classics: Like David Lean’s film of Doctor Zhivago, Joey wants to escape and go home, but can not seem to accomplish this. Like Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind, Janusz Kaminski’s illuminating and warm cinematography establishes Joey’s world as a beautiful world clouded by man’s ugliness. This is often a theme by Steven Spielberg who himself dreams like a child, wondering through the world’s darkness to find the light.