Based on the children’s novel and stage adaptation of the same name, War Horse tells the story of the special relationship between a young man and his horse.  While the story of this relationship does have moments of charm, it’s the re-creation of the Great War’s battlefields and some stunningly beautiful camerawork by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski that truly impresses.

The story begins in Devon, England on the eve of World War I. Joey is the only horse owned by Albert (Jeremy Irvine); his father, Ted (Peter Mullan); and his mother, Rose (Emily Watson). When the landowner threatens to foreclose on their farm unless the rent is paid, Ted sells Joey to army captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) to act as his mount in the Great War. Albert is devastated, but Nicholls promises to look out for Joey and return him to Albert at the end of the war.

The British quickly learn that their traditional battle charges are no match against a hail of machine-gun bullets. It’s not long before captain Nicholls is dead, but the story continues to follow Joey’s adventures across Europe. Though the horse can’t speak, Joey meets plenty of soldiers and civilians alike who help him tell his tale. While in the possession of German troops, Joey encounters young soldiers Gunther (David Kross) and Michael (Leonard Carow), who unwisely desert in a bid to save their lives. Joey then meets sickly Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), who live on a farm near the German front. Moving ahead several years, Joey has continued to labor under the difficult conditions of the German regime. Albert eventually enlists, fighting with the British in the Battle of the Somme, where soldiers hide from German guns and bombs in mud-soaked trenches. It’s clear that Albert joined up in hopes of finding Joey, no matter how long the odds may be.

Since Michael Morpurgo’s novel was written from the horse’s perspective—something difficult to convey on screen without resorting to Mr. Ed type tactics—the biggest issue Spielberg and his screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall faced was one of structure. They made the decision to use various characters to help tell Joey’s story. Unfortunately, this means that viewers meet a handful of people they never really get to know, or care about. To the extent that we have an investment in the movie, it’s related to Joey, but developing deep feelings for a horse is a lot to ask of some viewers.

Compounding the problem is the performance of Jeremy Irvine, making his screen debut as Albert. Try as he might, Irvine’s comes across as flat. He’s simply difficult to sympathize with. Then again, it can’t be easy when the co-star in a majority of your scenes is a horse. The rest of the cast, which includes well-respected character actors Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, and Emily Watson, as well as the veteran French stage actor Niels Arestrup, all do fine work with their parts.

War Horse‘s strength is its depiction of World War I. While Spielberg avoids the bloody realism seen in Saving Private Ryan, he still manages to create a realistic, albeit sanitized, environment. War Horse effectively shows how World War I was truly a conflict where archaic methods of battle clashed with new technology. War Horses, by their nature, were things of the past, and millions were killed during the course of the conflict. Nowhere is this better illustrated then in a scene where a helpless horse is being “stalked” by a heavy tank.

There are moments of genuine emotion between the characters, but they are few and far between. When it comes to the relationship between Joey and Albert, it’s fairly obvious early on what will happen. If you like horse movies, War Horse could easily become a favorite. However, if you’re looking for a true epic, you may come away feeling underwhelmed.

Touchstone’s 2.40.1 aspect ratio, 1080p transfer is a solid one. The beautiful cinematography of Janusz Kaminski is well complimented. Detail is great, with close-ups revealing even the smallest of idiosyncrasies. Colors are bold and lush, never appearing less than perfect. Blacks are solid, and the film lacks any digital anomalies, with the exception of slight aliasing.

The disc’s 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is an immersive one, effectively conveying the chaotic atmosphere of war. You’ll feel right in the midst of the action as machine gun fire ricochets around the room, horses gallop and scared voices pan through the rear and front speakers. This track is maximized to bring the best out of the film.

A French 7.1 DTS-HD HR track and a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital track are also available, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.

Along with a DVD and Digital Copy, the following special features are included:

  • War Horse: The Journey Home (Disc 1, HD, 20 minutes): Steven Spielberg hosts two roundtable discussions; one with the film’s cast, the other with key members of the creative team. The discussions cover various topics, including: the characters and performances, the script, the horses and their training, the film’s themes, and more.
  • An Extra’s Point of View (Disc 1, HD, 3 minutes): A look at Martin D. Dew. While appearing several times in the film, he also worked almost every day of principal photography, filling the boots of British and German soldiers.
  • A Filmmaking Journey (HD, 64 minutes): “A Filmmaking Journey” delves into the history behind the story, the development of the film, Richard Curtis and Lee Hall’s adaptation, Spielberg’s casting, and War Horse‘s shoot, locations, character arcs (human and equine), production design, visual and every aspect of the film you can imagine.
  • Editing & Scoring (HD, 9 minutes): Editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams their work on the film, and their ongoing collaboration with Spielberg.
  • The Sounds of War Horse (HD, 7 minutes): Sound designer Gary Rydstrom discusses bringing authenticity to the film’s sound design, the vocalization of the horses, and the horse charges, field clashes, and trench warfare of the first World War.
  • Through the Producer’s Lens (HD, 4 minutes): Producer Kathleen Kennedy shares a collection of personal photographs taken on location.