Boy gets horse. Boy loses horse. Boy (after many adventures, especially by the horse) is reunited with the animal. In terms of narrative, that’s all there is to “War Horse” — except to say that Steven Spielberg’s film is a lovely and touching movie, representing, among other things, a vast improvement on the extraordinarily successful novel and stage play.

That production, as you have doubtless seen, or at least heard about, was a kind of coup de theatre, in which Joey the horse and other equine characters were represented by skeletal life-sized puppets, manipulated on stage by entirely visible puppeteers. As far as I know, nothing like that had been attempted previously in the theater, and the effect was exciting. For a while. There came a time—for me at least—when that excitement waned considerably. A kind of “What have you done for me lately?” feeling began to take over.

Such devices are, rather obviously, non-starters when it comes to the movies. In adapting the piece for film, it is clearly necessary to rely entirely on the strength of the story — and the power of romantic realism — to sustain our interest, and I was not at all certain that “War Horse” had that force.

But it does. That’s because Spielberg, working from a script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, maintains a powerful tension between the pastoral and the battlefield action. Albert (Jeremy Irvine) lives on an English farm, perpetually endangered by bankruptcy. His father, almost whimsically (but also angrily) buys a horse that the lad names Joey. In the course of gently training the animal, boy and horse bond. These scenes are set in the heartbreakingly rendered English countryside. This side of Spielberg’s talent has not, so far as I can remember, been previously explored, and he does a lovely job of establishing an entirely enviable home place. But then World War I is declared and Joey is, in effect, drafted for service in it. The young officer who will ride him promises Albert to do his best to return him home unscathed. Good intentions aside, we do not entirely believe him.

This takes us into territory that is more familiar to Spielberg, though I must say the sheer terror that Joey endures at the front has rarely been rendered with the power he achieves here. The animal becomes a kind of wild thing, frightened yet brave and, admittedly, very lucky to survive more than a few minutes, let alone some four years of war. Indeed, the war lasts so long that Albert ends up serving in it and spending much of his time searching for the beloved creature.

Are we more or less convinced that somehow, against all the terrible odds, horse and horseman will be reunited? Yes, I suppose we are. What would be the point of telling this story if it ended tragically? But that reckons without Spielberg’s sheer skill as a director. Scene for terrible scene, the horse remains in peril. Even after the war is over, he is in danger of being put down.

I think perhaps the best aspect of “War Horse” is a sort of refusal. Albert and Joey certainly acknowledge their bond. They recognize each other across the years, across all the bloodshed. But the horse remains resolutely — a horse. Maybe this is, in the end, a variation on “Lassie Come Home.” But you will recall that in that story, the dog acts on her own volition. As she makes her way home to Roddy McDowall over several hundred dangerous miles, several characters comment on the fact that she appears to be a dog on a mission. Somehow she has needs, or sentiments, if you will, that must will out. That is not true of Joey. As far as he knows, he has been abandoned to a highly dubious fate. He does not, for a moment, suspect that Albert is mourning his absence and searching desperately for him. He is — pardon me for putting it almost comically — just a horse, as surprised as anyone by his eventual reunion with Albert.

Spielberg has often been accused of sentimentality, perhaps on occasion justifiably. And certainly, as far Albert is concerned, that is to a certain extent true (though you could as easily read his activities as obsessive). But that is not true of Joey. He lives only moment to (largely terrible) moment, the past irrelevant, the future unknown and unknowable. He is the honest soul of this picture, which could quite easily have been something else, something far less honorable and absorbing. As far as the movies are concerned, “War Horse” seems to me the great gift of this holiday season.


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