No one can jerk a tear like Steven Spielberg. By the end of his new film, “War Horse,” the water works are rolling. The epic story of a remarkable horse who survives the battlefield rigors of World War I is thoroughbred filmmaking at its finest. It’s great to be in the hands of a master doing his movie in the traditional way, along the lines of David Lean and John Ford.
Based on the Michael Morpurgo children’s novel and puppet-wizardry stage play, “War Horse” could have come off as cornball, boy-and-his-beloved-pet stuff. British youth Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the beautiful untamed animal and gets his father’s turnip field plowed on time to make the rent, so we can hiss at the tight-fisted landlord (David Thewlis). But, Spielberg clicks into high gear, when the horse, Joey, is sold to the army at the outbreak of World War I.
Albert is devastated and joins the infantry, hoping to somehow hook up with his beloved steed. While the reunion does take place, it is only after Joey has been subjected to a myriad of misfortunes and multiple miraculous escapes. He also becomes a common source of affection for all who encounter him — British, German or French. The universal love for this unique animal makes war seem all the more ridiculous.
The action sequences are on the level of “Paths of Glory” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Though violence is intense, the gratuitous gore of Spieberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” is gratefully missing.
Still, what’s special about the film is the horse itself, which has the acting chops of Rin Tin Tin. When Oscar comes calling, it should make an exception for this outstanding animal.