From the moment the War Horse trailer first appeared online, the equestrian community spread the news like wildfire. By November, hype had reached an anticipatory crescendo: “War Horse—is it going to make us cry?”
I’d already received several emails promising tissue-stocked concessions at my local screening, and when at last I found myself in the darkening theater, a couple clad in paddock boots to my right, I resolved that—in case of tears—at least I was amongst compatriots.
Opening scenes evoked an age-old horseman’s parable: The handsome but feisty gelding Joey is led into an auction ring, where a beflasked onlooker bids him up despite admonishment that he’s “half Thoroughbred!” But hang on: The camera cuts subtly between Joey’s mischievous eye and the bidder’s already fascinated countenance. As eventer Boyd Martin would tell you, his impish Neville Bardos wasn’t the only four-star veteran purchased on a similarly effusive whim.
And Joey? There was an irresistibly Bardos flair to his playful demeanor, suggesting that behind the scenes, someone may have fathomed the crazy mechanisms by which we horse folk tick.
Because in fact, director Steven Spielberg is one of us, stabling 10 horses at home. Among them is Rumba, the 2009 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby Finals champion, whom daughter Destry now competes in the junior hunters. And between Finder and Abraham, the two horses responsible for most of Joey’s on-screen action, Finder boasts the more impressive résumé, having debuted in the Spielberg-produced Seabiscuit in 2003.
And horse sense abounds. From the beginning, War Horse is definitely a horse story, based on the 1982 Michael Morpurgo novel and 2007 Nick Stafford-adapted play of the same name, tracing Joey’s journey from plough training to departure with a World War I cavalry regiment and beyond. The now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t horse mismatching of yesteryear cinema is nowhere to be found, and in its place is a horsemanship-enabled storytelling enriching to both the action and plot.
For a cavalry charge involving an entire field’s worth of horses, Spielberg encouraged extras to bring their own mounts rather than pair them with unknown, company-provided stock. The result—an advance of controlled fury terrifying to behold—is convincing and breathtaking.
Acute details bring us right into the action, from flat period tack to orders that soldiers leave stirrups unpolished in enemy territory. And while Joey ostensibly learns to plough in a day, it’s ultimately the insistence of lead character Albert, expertly played by newcomer Jeremy Irvine, that he “walk on!” that aids in his feat.
About 4 million horses died in World War I, many from injuries sustained in battle, but many others from hunger, malnutrition and mistreatment, none of which are neglected by the PG -13 rated film. The plot takes Joey into both sides of the fight, into and out of the war, between the good heart-hearted and bad. But in the end, it’s the bonds he creates—and as Spielberg insists, the horses did the same for the actors on set—that will endear him to audiences equestrian and non-equestrian alike. When Joey finds himself stranded between British and German troops, clucking from trenches on both sides of the battlefield is enough to warrant those tissues.
If there’s anything to learn from the real-life example of Neville Bardos, escaping from the barn fire that claimed the lives of several of his barnmates  only to make his triumphant return at the Burghley CCI**** (England) a few months later, it’s that horses can do incredible things. Joey’s story brings this possibility to light in grand scale, but exiting the theater, tissues in hand, I couldn’t help but exchange a knowing glance with the paddock-clad couple, all three of us smiling, our cheeks still damp.
War Horse opens in theaters across the country on Dec. 25.