In films such as E.T. and Hook, Steven Spielberg proved himself a master of sentimental film-making (in the best sense of that term). With Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, he proved himself capable of gritty realism. His latest effort, War Horse, utilizes both sides of his talent. Based on a stage play by the same name, it captures both the sorrows of war and the sympathies of humanity. It has both intimate storytelling and an epic scale reminiscent of old Hollywood classics such as Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia. Those who read my Secretariat review know that no film will win me over simply for telling the tale of an amazing horse; they're majestic animals, but rarely interesting enough to carry a movie, thus I had my doubts about War Horse. But this is Spielberg and,recent stumblesnotwithstanding, if anyone could spin the first good equestrian yarn since Seabiscuit it'd be him.
Wisely, though the horse is treated as a central character, it's also a narrative device to explore the human condition in response to war. Following the animal from owner to owner throughout World War I, we're given a host of memorable characters to connect with and care about as the film examines the courage, terror, brutality and compassion of people who know that their lives may end at any time. Lush cinematography, fine attention to historical detail in wardrobe and sets, a stirring score by longtime Spielberg composer John Williams, and solid performances highlight this tale. Terrifying scenes of combat are mixed with moments of surprising gentility. It runs a little too long and some elements of the plot are a little too coincidental, but these detract very little from a film of this quality. I even came to care, to my surprise, about a boy and his horse. Given that this skillful director once made me care about a boy and his alien, however, I suppose it shouldn't be too surprising.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: War Horse is rated PG-13. It has very few mild profanities. There are several scenes of intense battlefield violence (shootings and stabbings, though none are graphic or particularly bloody). We see the corpses of soldiers and horses. A scene, difficult to watch, portrays a panicked horse getting caught in barbed wire. There is no sexuality, nudity, or crude humor.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Animals have thoughts and feelings; they merit respect and compassion. War leads some to become callous and cruel, while it inspires compassion, faith, and humility in others.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.