NEW YORK-Most of the buzz around the hit Broadway play War Horse-which won this year's Tony Award for best play-centers on the elaborate puppetry that brings the World War I story of a horse named Joey to life. When director Steven Spielberg decided to adapt the play (adapted from a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo) for a film that debuts Christmas Day, he didn't bother with puppetry: "I came out of the play affected not because there were puppets playing horses ... but admiring a very strong story."
War Horse the film uses a real, breathing horse and takes place in the real, emerald hills in Devon, England-not on a soundstage. Following a series of characters living through World War I, the film opens as the thoroughbred Joey is born and raised on one of those English hills. An alcoholic farmer buys the magnificent horse instead of the plough horse he needs to help pay rent for his family's farm. The farmer's son, Albert (newcomer to the screen Jeremy Irvine), grows close to Joey and trains him, though even a remarkable horse can't overcome what the father calls the family's God-given "bad luck." Emily Watson plays Albert's mother, Rose, defending her son to her husband, and her husband to her son and to the rest of the world. She's the embodiment of real love.
When financial struggles force the father to sell the horse to the British cavalry at the outbreak of World War I, Albert follows Joey into war. The horse encounters an honorable British captain, a German soldier who promised his mother he would keep his little brother safe from battle, and a French grandfather and granddaughter who are caught in the crossfire of war on their farm.
But War Horse isn't a horse movie, nor is it a "war movie," asserts Spielberg, who has made his share of war movies (most memorably Saving Private Ryan). "I consider it to be a character story," he said. "The war is a backdrop that allows us to tell a story." Tom Hiddleston, the actor who plays a British captain who takes Joey into war, said, "Morpurgo didn't write a war book, he said he wrote a book about peace."
Patrick Kennedy, who plays a British soldier in the movie, said Spielberg had the actors watch John Ford westerns to prepare for the movie, and he sees a connection now with War Horse. "More than being a war film, it's in the tradition of a great western," Kennedy said.
A few jarring moments of war earn the 2½-hour film its PG-13 rating-a tricky category for what is a family film. The film marks the debut of several horrific machines of war. "That year  was an end of an era," said Hiddleston, whose character first takes Joey into battle. Humans and horses fall to machine guns, mustard gas, and tanks, while the lush landscapes transform into no-man's-land crisscrossed with barbed wire. The land is a character in the film, said Spielberg, and producer Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked on films with Spielberg for more than 30 years, elaborated: "[Spielberg] doesn't know how the movie's going to play until he looks through the camera. He realized an important character was the land. That requires a different kind of pacing in the movie-not a lot of closeups and fast cutting."
Viewers will wonder if Spielberg, who has adopted children, felt drawn to the story because of its understated themes of adoption. In each vignette, someone takes Joey in as his or her own, and tries to protect the horse from harm. Screenwriter Richard Curtis told me the story wasn't necessarily about adoption, but "individual acts of kindness." Producer Kennedy said the film's "real core" is this: "a story of family."