My eyelids have finally returned to normal after two days of crying-induced puffiness, so it's time to weigh in on War Horse, the source of my emotional display in a Lexington cinema on Monday.

The highly anticipated film whose trailer even had me in tears when I saw it for the first time back in August was one I will return to see in the theater and will own on DVD.

Courage Under Fire

This sketch by War Horse equine makeup artistic director Ali Bannister appeared briefly in the film, along with several of her other sketches. Freelance correspondent Christa Lesté-Lasserre met Bannister at a press event late last year.

I've avoided reading other blogs on the subject so I wouldn't be tempted to parrot or build on their messages. What's my specific angle? Like many of the War Horse watchers, I've spent a lifetime around horses. I love a good film, especially a Spielberg one. My sister studied film set design and in watching movies with her, I've picked up on some of the nuances for which she watches. Like many I also have a penchant for war stories, after hearing my grandmother describe stories from the other World War (I visited the museum to that war in Caen, France, in 2000). What might make my angle a little unique is that in my career I've focused primarily on horse health, and as an editor I'm generally fastidious about details and accuracy. This is sometimes to the detriment of my consumption of a movie. I've also seen some remote areas of France while competing in an orienteering competition on horseback (mind you, I wasn't good at this sport, but I did finish a nine-hour solo ride with a map, a compass, and an Arabian named "Uloa"). From this perspective, here are some things that impacted me the most about this movie. Warning: There are spoilers ahead, if you haven't yet seen the film.

  • A truly idyllic setting that embraces the viewer almost immediately, reminding them of past rides on memorable mounts. If you've traveled in Europe--especially if you've ridden in Europe--and enjoyed your visit, you might begin having pangs of homesickness within minutes. I guess this is true for any idyllic scene (California? Virginia?) where the warm afternoon light hits the fences, trees, and grass in such a way that you'd like to bottle it for safe keeping. Before I remembered from reading our recent articles (Horses Get Star Treatment on War Horse Set, Movie Magic, Makeup, and Tricks shape War Horse) that most of the film locations were in England--nope, haven't gone riding there--I had convinced myself that I'd seen that bend in the road, that tree, that field. The ability for the viewer to relate to the setting was uncanny.
  • A swift but subtle transport from reality to story. Joey's first few nickers and whinnies at Albert's family's farm came from a horse whose nostrils weren't moving (that I remember). Something about that moment made me say, “Okay, Steph, this is a movie. Let it go.” At that point details in the rest of the film--from the sequences showing training and behavior to comical tricks--did not distract me in the least, aside from one moment in the barbed-wired-no-man's-land scene where I pulled myself out of the story long enough to remember this was not a live horse suffering amidst a tangle of rusted wire. (And thank God it wasn't.) Bobby Lovgren and the other trainers did an incredible job of training the multiple Joeys and the background horses, and of replicating the body condition scores of animals that had been at war. It had to have been an epic task, and I applaud their hard work.
  • The almost-charmed existence of Joey, a horse who always had an advocate Whether it was Albert, Captain Nicholls, Emilie, or a host of others, this horse always had caretakers looking out for him the best way they could or knew how. They may have been uneducated in their efforts at times, but Joey was patient and gracious. Alternately, they may have been well-educated in husbandry and wanted to do more to help Joey, but did not have the means, so they did what they could. In return Joey cared for them (although he probably would've done it anyway) and for his equine friend--in a sacrificial, unconditional way that could open yet another angle of discussion, but I'll leave that to a friend who will be writing about spiritual themes throughout War Horse on another blog. I also want to put a plug in for the veterinarian who comes through and continues Joey's treatment after he and Albert reunite; having an advocate in that veterinarian also impacted me as well, seeming that I love me some compassionate vets!
  • The filmmakers don't rely on gruesome effects to represent loss. As I recall the moment where Captain Nicholls sees his plight, and the immediately following scene where Joey continues galloping forward toward the enemy, riderless, my waterworks begin again. So many filmmakers rely on assaulting viewers' senses to draw them into the story. My awareness of the sheer enormity of what World War I soldiers were faced with in their trenches was heightened, but I wasn't so pummeled with gore that I had to look away or that I became desensitized. There was an ebb and flow to the awareness of the pain, misery, fear, and courage that happened in those battlefields.
  • The bond between a person and his/her horse is profound. Where my heart strings were pulled especially taut was the portrayal of the strength of a bond between horse and human. Like many of our readers, I've had a bond with a particular remarkable horse--a bond that to this day brings tears to my eyes when I recall it. It's a oneness that to others who haven't experienced it might sound a wee bit too mystical or cliché. For nonhorsepeople, maybe it is best likened to a bond between them and faithful friends of another species--dog, cat, whatever. But Spielberg and his team captured this bond between boy and horse probably more closely than I've seen in any other movie featuring an animal as its protagonist over the years.

My hope is that this movie will reach people who have never been around horses, and they might seek to experience the bond that is between rider and horse--taking a riding lesson, perhaps, or visiting a friend who owns horses and learning how to groom or help with the stalls. Also I hope that they'll linger on the themes of sacrifice, steadfastness, and loyalty, something that we don't necessarily see all too often in theaters, or even in our day-to-day.

Your Turn: If you've seen the movie, what did you think? What aspects impacted you the most?