How do you begin to tell stories about a war which claimed more than fifteen million lives? For children's author Michael Morpurgo, the answer was to start as small as possible. His 1982 novel War Horse imagines the conflict through the eyes of a single innocent, unwilling participant – a horse named Joey. The stage adaptation, featuring life-sized bamboo puppet horses, has captivated audiences since its debut at the Royal National-Olivier Theatre, London, in 2007. Now Steven Spielberg has brought Joey to the screen.

Better Nature

When his drunken father (Peter Mullan) brings home a thoroughbred horse, Devonshire farm boy Albert (Jeremy Irvine) falls in love at first sight. The spirited animal is completely unsuitable for farm work, but this doesn't stop Albert from bonding with him, even training him to plough in an act of defiance against the family's grabbing landlord (David Thewlis).

However, bigger forces are about to tear boy and horse apart. The First World War breaks out, and Joey is sold to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a cavalry officer. Their ride into battle is only the beginning of Joey's journey, and as the war rages on, he passes through many different hands on all sides of the conflict. Surrounded by chaos and death, it seems unlikely that he will survive – but somewhere in the trenches is his beloved Albert, who has come looking for him.

Like its previous incarnations, the War Horse film faces the hurdle of the story's episodic nature. Joey himself is the only consistent presence; Albert is the only one of his human handlers with whom we spend any significant length of time. Inevitably, the real animal on screen can't convey thought and personality in the way that the puppets, and the book's narrator, are able to. We naturally want to invest more in the human characters, who are secondary to the story, and as a result the film feels frustrating. Nevertheless, some scenes and performances hit the perfect note, offering a reminder of why Spielberg is considered the master of old-fashioned storytelling.

Strange beasts

Joey is, first and foremost, the means by which we see the common humanity of the characters. Many of the people with whom he comes into contact show the better side of their nature through their treatment of him – even as the war rages around them – demonstrating the very worst that humans are capable of. 'What a strange beast you've become,' one soldier tells Joey, contemplating the way that humans have forced him to behave in a way that's contrary to his nature. But the phrase raises other questions, too. The soldiers themselves have become 'strange beasts', clearly capable of conscience and feeling, even as they fight and kill.

What is human nature really like? The characters we get to know in War Horse are almost all portrayed as essentially decent people, reluctant participants in a conflict that's beyond their control. But there is something darker at work, too, less explicit in the film than in Morpurgo's book. The war is a human creation, and the human capacity for cruelty is writ large in their treatment of each other, and of the helpless animals in their charge. It's precisely this helplessness which makes our attitude towards animals so telling. As with Black Beauty, that other classic equine tale, War Horse reveals the extent to which we're willing to crush and abuse the weak for our own ends.

Miracle

The sheer chaos and waste of the First World War add to the story's underlying sense that something has gone horribly wrong with human beings. As the book makes clear in Joey's narration, even the horse knows better. It's difficult, in the light of any of history's atrocities, to retain a reasonable faith in the goodness of humanity, and so War Horse posits Joey as an alternative hero. 'I knew when I first saw you that you'd be the best of us, that you had the courage we never had,' Albert tells him. 'That you'd be the one who'd save us all.'

Far removed as most of us now are from the kind of suffering experienced in war, we still long for a higher, purer ideal. We want there to be something or someone outside of ourselves, untainted by the darker aspects of our own nature, in which we can place our faith. War Horse expresses our longing, in a world we've managed to tear apart, for some kind of saviour – and some kind of miracle.

War Horse

Film title: War Horse
Keywords: War, conflict, hope, empathy, enemies, human nature
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Starring: Emily Watson, Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (USA/UK)
Cinema Release Date: 25 December 2011 (USA); 13 January 2012 (UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains infrequent moderate battle violence

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