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Laura Stepp Headshot

War Horse: More Than A Tale of a Horse

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To those who roll their eyes at the movie War Horse being nominated this week for a Best Picture Academy Award, let me say this: The movie is not, as some of those who haven't seen it suggest, just another sentimental story about a boy and his horse. It is not even primarily about a horse in the sense that the original British stage play is.

The cinematic version is much more. It is a story about the greed of the wealthy -- in this case, an English landowner -- and the powerlessness of the poor -- a family that grows turnips on the squire's land. We are reminded that poverty can tear a family apart, in this case pitting father against son and leaving mother to broker the peace.

The movie is also, and primarily, about awful, bloody, World War I which, like all wars, had its bully officers, its officers with a heart and its foot soldiers. The movie certainly draws us in as young Joey, the horse, strains to learn from Albert how to plow rocky Devon land, and then is sold to a British cavalry officer headed for battle. But the movie soars when, a bit later, we witness powerful bonds forming between soldiers, including British with German.

I saw the play War Horse in London and am not surprised that it's in its sixth season there. I'm also not surprised that during its first season in New York's Lincoln Center last year, it won five Tony awards including the award for best play.

What captivates in the stage version are the life-size farm animals like Joey, built of steel, leather and aircraft cables. These horses are so skillfully maneuvered by puppeteers that you forget they don't have a circulatory system. The puppeteers -- two or three to a horse -- stand underneath the animal frames and are so well coordinated that at some point, you forget they're there.

I went to the movie certain that it could not be as powerful as the play. I was wrong.

The play engages the mind, asking us to suspend our disbelief willingly, as poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge might put it. But as a Steven Spielberg movie in IMAX format, War Horse assaults us, both our mind and our body.

Thanks to extraordinary camera work and the technical wonders of modern cinematography, we're not only watching a battle on a vast and rolling field in France; we're on the field, crawling under barbed wire, dodging cannonballs and bullets, and praying we won't be sprayed with poison gas.

We marvel that Joey sustains battle after battle as hundreds of other horses fall. (Whoever trained the horses did a tremendous job, reminding us that actual animals, like actual people, can outperform any animated characters.) We hold our breath in anticipation as the Germans approach British boy-soldiers in the woods. When heavy rains fall, as they seem to do a lot, we look down at our shoes, half-expecting them to be caked in mud.

I'm not a fan of war movies, generally. The closest thing to a gun I've ever fired was a cap pistol when I was five.

But I'm grateful for War Horse. It conveys as clearly as any movie I've seen the utter horrors of war, the moments of grace that can occur between enemies and the costs to ordinary men and women who only wish to plow their fields and harvest their turnips.