A family war movie? If anyone can pull that off, it would be Steven Spielberg. He is known for directing and producing both critically-acclaimed war films (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific”) and beloved family classics (“ET: The Extraterrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” the Indiana Jones series). In his latest film, “War Horse,” Spielberg tones down the violence and horror of war and makes use of the love between a horse and a boy to frame an epic World War I adventure that is suitable for families with older children.
I recently had the opportunity to screen “War Horse,” and I was mesmerized by the film. Spielberg uses an exceptional horse named Joey to teach us not only about a forgotten war but also about courage, perseverance, and sacrifice.
“War Horse” opens with Joey’s birth on the moors of Devon, England, witnessed by a 15-year-old boy named Alfred Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). Alfred, never dreaming that his impoverished family would own such a beautiful animal, is astonished when his often-drunk father Ted (Peter Mullan) brings him home after a rash bidding war with his landlord. Alfred immediately begins to bond with Joey and faces the seemingly insurmountable challenge of teaching a horse bred for hunting to pull a plow.
Sadly, the Narracotts are forced to sell Joey to save their farm, and he becomes part of the British cavalry. Joey’s journey is just beginning at this point, and he serves as a type of narrator for the history of the Great War. He finds friendship and adventure on both sides of the conflict, changing hands as fate places him in the paths of those who need him most.
Meanwhile, young Albert has finally reached the age where he can enlist, and he heads for the trenches of France, determined to find the horse he considers part of his own family. His search brings unexpected consequences, and audiences will eagerly await the final outcome.
Strong performances by a talented cast, both human and equine, keep “War Horse” from becoming too sappy or sentimental. Impressive newcomer Jeremy Irvine brings depth to the character of Albert. He exudes boyish charm and enthusiasm as well as courage, dignity, and honor and will no doubt captivate the young ladies in the audience. Just as delightful is another young newcomer, Celine Buckens, in the role of a French girl who discovers Joey and another horse hidden in a windmill near her farm “just waiting for Don Quixote.” Rounding out the cast are esteemed British actors including David Thewlis (“Harry Potter”), Tom Hiddleston (“Thor”), and Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”).
Although the pacing of the movie is a bit slow at the beginning, it picks up considerably once the war begins. The battle scenes are magnificent and manage to portray the grim reality of war without gore and graphic violence. Although at times predictable, the film does include some surprises, and the occasional humorous moments lighten the darker aspects of the story in just the right places. Of note is the breathtaking scenery, especially in the early scenes shot on location on the moors of England.
As a Catholic, I appreciated the inclusion of two overtly religious elements in “War Horse.” Although it’s a “blink and you’ll miss it moment,” a Catholic priest gives a soldier Communion in the background of one scene. A more obvious testament of faith occurs when a Geordie soldier (Toby Kebbell) recites Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd…) as he bravely venture into “No Man’s Land” to come to Joey’s aid.
Parents should be warned that the film portrays death on the battlefield, but the camera does not linger on the dead and wounded; they simply fall to the ground. At one point, two deserters are shot, but the scene is filmed at dusk in silhouette and from a distance. Some especially sensitive children might cringe as the camera pans over hundreds of dead horses after a battle or at the implied cruel treatment as horses are driven to exhaustion and death to pull heavy tanks. A pivotal scene shows Joey running through barbed wire and becoming entangled. (You might whisper to your children that the barbed wire is made of rubber and that the filming of animals was supervised by the Humane Society.) Although “War Horse” is rated PG-13, the consensus of those of us with children who screened the movie is that it would be fine for ages 10 and up.
Take your family to “War Horse” for its entertainment value, but don’t overlook the educational opportunity it offers to learn about a war that is often known as the Forgotten War. Perhaps you can channel your children’s enthusiasm for the movie into a few lessons on World War I. A quick search on Google turned up plenty of interesting resources and ideas. You can also learn more about how “War Horse” incorporates World War I history in my feature article about the film.
“War Horse” opens in theaters on December 25. The film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence.