War is never a pretty thing and though sanitized in many ways, Director Steven Spielberg’s movie brings a more balanced but sobering look at World War I to the screen.
Before the conflict begins, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) lives in a pastoral setting in the English countryside where he and his parents (Emily Watson, Peter Mullan) eek out a living on a rock-strewn, tenant farm. Then one day in a match of one-upmanship fueled by alcohol, Albert’s father Ted buys a young horse at auction. Albert names the colt Joey and begins to train him for the saddle and plow. But with bills piling up, Ted sells the horse to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) when the war breaks out. When the army sets sail, Joey is shipped to France along with the rest of the soldiers.
Too young to join the ranks, Albert vows to find his animal and bring him home as soon as he is able. In the meantime, Joey sees the confrontation from behind both enemy lines where he and the audience meet good and bad soldiers on either side.
Based on a fictionalized children’s book by Michael Morpugo, the battle depictions are much more graphic and intense than anything described in the novel. Prolonged portrayals of hand-to-hand combat involve bayonets, automatic guns, tanks, grenades and gas warfare. Humans, as well as animals, endure injuries and harsh treatment. (Two soldiers are shot for leaving their posts.)
Yet looking through the unbiased eyes of this horse conscripted to service, audiences will find sacrifices made by men and beasts fighting for their country’s cause. And in the middle of the chaos reigns the love of one young man for his horse.