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War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s PG-13 battle action offsets boy-and-his-steed sap

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Jeremy Irvine is very, very into his horse (but, you know, not in any kind of Equus-y way).

War Horse

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Opens Dec. 23

PG-13 movies are tough to pull off. They must tread along the border between kid-friendly lightness and adult heft, and they must accomplish this without landing in the no-man’s land of tweeny. Steven Spielberg’s latest film, War Horse, fortunately toes the line just fine, giving what could have been a maudlin film about a boy and his faithful steed just enough steel to work.

It’s the 1910s, World War I looms, and Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is a young English lad bordering on adulthood. His father Ted (Peter Mullan) brings the titular horse, a beautiful brown beast who’s never worked a day in his short life, home from auction. He’s not new to Albert, though; as a boy, he watched the horse’s birth, and spied on him in a neighboring yard as he grew into a colt. Albert is ecstatic when the horse appears at his family’s farm; his mother Rose (Emily Watson) not so much. They need a workhorse to plow a field and earn a profit to save the farm. Albert names the horse Joey and successfully trains him to pull through when the family needs him most. But soon the war bells are ringing in the streets, and Ted sells Joey off as a cavalry mount, separating horse and boy, who is too young to enlist.

The movie lags up until this point, but picks up as Joey enters the war and War Horse becomes a Black Beauty-esque tale, following Joey as he’s sold or captured or otherwise passed along to different owners and through different lives. Now he’s an English cavalry horse; now a German hospital horse; now a young French girl’s pet; now a mistreated beast pulling heavy artillery. He travels far from Albert but eventually circles back around to the very battle in which Albert (now old enough to enlist) is fighting. Though there’s a moment of attempted last-minute suspense via the French girl’s grandfather buying Joey, it’s clear that the man will give him up and Joey and Albert will be united again.

In fact, much of what’s going to happen in this movie is clear early on, which undermines most attempts at suspense. Where Spielberg is most successful is on the battlefield. While a gentle hand is used on the violence, the director of Saving Private Ryan nonetheless pushes right to the edge of PG-13 and does little to diminish the emotional effect. Swords slash necks as soldiers ride by, but no blood is spilled onscreen. Some of the cleverest camerawork comes in the form of conceits used to hide violence just out of view. A windmill, for instance, obscures two young soldiers at the moment they’re shot; when the blade passes, the two are prostrate on the ground. A general rides Joey as cavalry stares down a machine gun; in the next frame, Joey is riderless.

It’s unusual to see a movie focused on World War I, or at least more unusual than seeing one set during World War II, and the trench warfare is well done and as intense as it could be for this kind of movie. A soldier is shaken when given the duty to shoot any of his comrades who retreat in the middle of battle, and his fear is as palpable as any charging soldier’s. The audience is not spared mass horse graves, or bodies strewn about a battlefield, or a gas-filled trench full of duped English soldiers—including Albert.

At times the bond between horse and boy is a little uncomfortable—made worse by the fact that the boy Albert looks more like a man in boy’s clothes—almost as though Joey is a stand-in for a love interest, with Albert uttering things like, “Don’t worry, we’ll be together again.” But the dreary green English countryside is gorgeous, the accents sharp and immersive, and the overall effect strong enough to keep the shaky moments at bay.

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