A grand spectacle of a movie, “War Horse” is an epic about loyalty, friendship and the horrors of war.

Based on a marvelous book (read it if you get the chance because it’s even more powerful than the film in many respects), Steven Spielberg once again delivers a sweeping adventure and rich characters in a World War I-era movie that will become an instant classic among audience members who love old-fashioned storytelling — and I’m among them.

There’s a play based on the book, too, and the film also was adapted from the theatrical version of the story in which the horse “characters” are cleverly wrought life-size puppets. Here, they are flesh and blood, or at least they appear to be. We are reassured at the end that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.

Joey (played by several horses, but mostly by Finder, the extraordinary horse that played “Seabiscuit,”) grows up to be a hard-working farm horse after being purchased by the father of a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Ted (Peter Mullan), Albert’s dad, knows the well-bred horse really isn’t a proper fit for the plow — it’s a magnificent animal — but he bought the horse to outbid his cold-blooded landlord (David Thewlis).

Only Albert truly understands Joey and teaches him to plow — which means Joey can stay on the farm because he can thereby earn his keep.

But times are tough, so Joey ends up joining the British cavalry and enduring battles and conditions of the worst kind. From time to time, he is befriended by several people, including a devoted little girl.

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In one scene, Joey becomes snarled in barbed wire. He is rescued by a German soldier and a British soldier, who momentarily work together to free the terrified, gravely injured animal. This is one of the strongest moments on the big screen this year because it says so much about the human condition: We’re more alike than we are different.

Loss is a theme throughout the story: loss of life, of health, of stability, of finances. To say it is compelling is an understatement. Add to the emotions inherent in the plot a beautiful John Williams score and you have a sweeping epic of a movie that’s a treasure in this season of peace.

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