In the calm before the storm of the nineteen-teens, on rolling green Devonshire hills, a foal is born - and a lad looks on, adoringly.
In War Horse, Steven Spielberg's unashamedly old-fashioned adaptation of the Michael Murpurgo children's novel - and of the hit play it spawned - the time-tested tale of a horse and his boy is given an epic backdrop: the bleak, bloody carnage of the First World War.
But first, young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has to bond with Joey, the brown steed with the white markings that Albert's father, Ted (Peter Mullan), won at auction - bidding more than he could afford for a horse ill-equipped to drag a plough across his "stony patch of unpromising land."
But Ted was determined to outbid his landlord (a Dickensian despot, played by David Thewlis), and brings home this fine, smart animal, to the delight of his son. And to the consternation of the missus. "What have you done?" wails a ruddy-cheeked Emily Watson, in apron and bun, abandoning her knitting and her pots and pans to admonish her boozing, no-good spouse.
What Ted has done is set the wheels in motion that eventually - after many a galloping-across-the-moors montage - sends Joey off to the battlefields of France, sold to a British cavalry officer in order to stave off eviction.
"I solemnly swear we will be together again," the boy tearfully tells the horse, leaning into his long, proud muzzle as the officer hangs by to take him away. "I will find you, and I will bring you home."
And if you have any doubt about such a declaration, well, remember, this is Spielberg. And this is the holiday season, when miracles are celebrated, and when families overdose on candy canes and cake. War Horse is sugary, to be sure - but it is sugar cut with cannon fire and barbed wire and the horrors of war.
Although there is little of the visceral shock of the filmmaker's World War II drama, Saving Private Ryan - the piercing crack of machine guns, the surreal specificity of violence - that is not to say the scenes of combat and conflict here are not unsettling. War Horse isn't a film for younger children - there are haunting images here, eerie tableaux of the wounded and the dead, both man and beast.
But Spielberg and his team - composer John Williams, as always, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, screenwriter Richard Curtis - never forget their mission: to pull at heart strings, jerk some tears. Joey travels into the Somme, surviving a deadly cavalry charge. The horse finds temporary refuge at the windmilled farm of an old French jam-maker (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens). Then the Germans take the horse, and he's used to haul weaponry - watching as his stablemate and best bud, a black stallion called Topthorn, succumbs to the stress and artillery fire.
So it's Joey, not Albert, who is the hero of War Horse, of course - it's the horse's journey, and the horse's job to find his way back to the boy he left behind. A boy who is now huddled in the trenches with the rats and the gas masks, wondering if he will ever see his pal Joey again.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea
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