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War Horse: For Grownups Only

Epic story is brutal, bloody and NOT for kids

spinner image Albert (Jeremy Irvine, center) holds on to Joey defiantly while his father (Peter Mullan, right) looks on in this scene from DreamWorks Pictures' "War Horse".
(From Left) Tom Hiddleston, Geoff Bell, Jeremy Irvine and Peter Mullan in a scene from DreamWorks Pictures' War Horse .
Courtesy DreamWorks Pictures

Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13, Runtime: 146 mins.
Stars: Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson

 This must be said first: Do not take your horsie-loving 8-year-old to see War Horse at a kiddie matinee. Beautiful, sweeping and drenched in honest sentiment, Steven Spielberg’s epic story of a farm horse pressed into service during World War I is at the same time brutal, bloody and tragic in ways that could well send said 8-year-old cowering under the theater seats, sticky floor and all.

I don’t envy the poor marketing people at DreamWorks, who were charged with telling the public just what kind of movie War Horse is. Even as a viewer, I found myself at first wishing Spielberg had gone all-in with a lovely, pastoral story of a boy and his horse, or with a fiercely realized blood-and-dust war film. Had he made that choice, however, War Horse would not be nearly as powerful a work as it is, and so we just have to accept the fact that we must take or leave War Horse as a profoundly affecting amalgam of Black Beauty, Lassie Come Home, How Green Was My Valley, Saving Private Ryan and Paths of Glory. Take it or leave it, but I strongly suggest you give it a chance.

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We meet the titular horse on the day he is born, on a hillside in the north of England. From the day he witnesses its first wobbling steps, young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) stakes an emotional claim on the colt — and the happiest day of his life comes when his father (Peter Mullan) buys the horse to work on the family farm. Trouble is, this horse is a thoroughbred, not a workhorse, and is utterly unsuited to farm chores (although, in good movie horse tradition, the critter proves his grit by giving it the old college try).

So far so good for your 8-year-old, but now might be a good time to go get some popcorn. Soon the village bells are ringing out the news of war in Europe, and our four-legged hero is enlisted to help fight the Kaiser. In a scene of uncommon, heartbreaking energy, Spielberg introduces us to the War — and to the unpleasant prospect of the British Army, still set in the battle strategies of Wellington, coming up against a 20th-century killing machine. For the next hour or so we are steeped in carnage as the director does for The Great War what he did for World War II in the shell shock–inducing opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Nearly a century after the Armistice, society has become sadly familiar with the notion of all-out mechanized war, but in War Horse Spielberg masterfully recreates the dispiriting disorientation, the abject horror that must have overwhelmed those facing it for the first time.

In the end, Spielberg must be Spielberg, and the Necessary Sequence of Miraculous Events that yields the denouement is as breathtakingly depicted as it is difficult to swallow. No matter; we’ve been swept along to this point by the skills of a master storyteller. Even as the utterly satisfying conclusion is tinged with one last revelation of offscreen tragedy, War Horse ends with the hope of a world that has learned its lessons regarding the horrors of war. Only when we’re in the car, nearly home, does it dawn on us how pitifully hopeless that hope is.

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