In fact, I would suggest that everyone stay away who isn’t in the mood to cry heartbrokenly for a few hours. Though the trailers made the movie seem to be about the unbreakable bond between a boy and his horse, a good portion of it spends too much time and attention detailing all the many horrible things that can happen to innocent animals and relatively kind people. If there is any message, it’s that war is senseless and awful enough that even love is rarely strong enough to survive it. Even the horse’s heart gets broken before the end.
Technically, the movie does start with a boy and his horse, but even that sequence is taken up equally with family drama (a drunk father) and English class issues. We’re only given a few snatches of scenes to believe in the bond between boy and animal that’s supposed to last through the horrors of the rest of the movie, and Jeremy Irvine is a little too dreamy and vague to let audiences get a visceral, immediate feel for what the two mean to each other. There are a few nice moments, which are then promptly smashed by yet more terrible things happening.
Then the war comes, and everything gets smashed. The boy’s father has to sell the horse to a soldier in order to get the money the family desperately needs for rent, which brings him to the war front and sends him wandering through the lives of various characters.
Most of the time we spend with these characters ends horribly. Remember, Spielberg is the guy who did “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List,” so he has no problems with making you bond to characters before brutally ending their lives. Even adorable young people, often the token survivor in even disaster or war movies, don’t get those allowances here. If they don’t die, it’s generally because you simply haven’t watched enough of the movie to find out that they did later.
Though the movie earned a PG-13 for never being direct about it, those deaths can still be pretty shocking and awful to the people watching them. Even if there’s not a lot of blood and you can’t see the bodies up close, the movie makes it painfully clear that death is nothing but an unforgiving, indiscriminate waste completely free of glory or reason.
The titular horse is beautiful and spirited, and if you love horses I suggest you plug your ears, make sure you don’t get attached to any of the humans, and just keep your eyes on him for the rest of the movie. Watching him fly across the screen is about as pure an entertainment as the movie offers, and no dialogue is needed for a few moments of tenderness that will break your heart.
Of course, you’ll still probably get a little teary, so if you want to avoid even that keep your attention on the gorgeous English countryside. Just a glimpse to the side of whatever action is happening will make you want to run up those lush green hills and belt out something from “The Sound of Music.” Though I wouldn’t suggest doing that in the theater, it’s a lovely mental image to keep close.
Unfortunately, even that disappears when the horse leaves England. In a war movie like this one, beauty doesn’t tend to last for long.
Rated PG-13 for intense, war-related violence