Director Steven Spielberg clearly understands the horrors of war. The USC Shoah Foundation Institute he founded records the testimony of Holocaust survivors. His long list of credits include “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
Spielberg demonstrates these horrors again in the film version of “War Horse,” a movie based on both the children’s book by beloved British author Michael Morpurgo and the Tony-Award winning play his book inspired. The screenplay was written by Lee Hall (screenwriter for the 2000 film “Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis.
Spielberg describes “War Horse” as a story of the powerful bond between a boy and his horse. His family owns several horses, and he’s seen the love between child and horse firsthand. One of the film’s most endearing threads is all the people, of different nationalities, who face peril for protecting horses caught up in the war.
But “War Horse” feels first and foremost like a war movie, something parents need to know before deciding to take young children to see it. It’s rated PG-13 for a reason. People and horses suffer terrible fates. Think machine guns and massive tanks. Firing squads and grenades. Barbed wire and brutality.
War reveals our common humanity, something that’s beautifully conveyed in this film. When “War Horse” Joey is trapped, two soldiers from opposing sides work together to free him. When a girl questions her grandfather’s courage, he explains that there are many ways to be brave.
But the story doesn’t begin with war. Instead, it all starts with relationships. We see a teenage boy named Albert at home on his family’s humble farm, where his longsuffering mother endures uncertainty and ridicule wrought by his father’s drinking and lousy judgement. Their relationship generates one of the movie’s best lines — something akin to “I might hate you more, but I’ll never love you less.”
Albert’s mother is one of two parents in the film who share an important family belonging that proves pivotal in unexpected ways. Both items serve as powerful reminders that our histories, both individual and collective, never leave us. Deny them or embrace them — but you can never destroy them.
“War Horse” reminds us that history is made up of moments, of the decisions we make alone and together, of the choices that sometimes have unintended consequences. It demonstrates our drive to protect what we love in a world where love sometimes means letting go.
Parents will find several scenes especially profound — a big brother’s attempt to help his younger brother escape the front lines, a grandfather’s fireside reflections on the importance of home, a young girl’s innocent ride up and over a mountain.
Take it all in, then take it home with a renewed appreciation for the joys and responsibilities of the everyday.
Coming up: Comparing “War Horse” on stage and screen