War Horse review

Among the many themes that emerge or converge in the films of director, producer, writer Steven Spielberg are lonely children and war, specifically World War II. From the kids in “E.T”: the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) to the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” (1993),  a black and white film but viewers may remember the little Jewish girl in a red coat, waiting for transport to the Nazi death camps. And from “The Color Purple” (1985) for which he deserved an Oscar, to one of my personal favorite’s, this year’s “Super 8”, Spielberg captures lonely children, or children estranged from, or in tension with, their fathers, as none other.

Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and the TV miniseries “Band of Brothers” (2001) and “Pacific” (2010) and back to cinema with “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), Spielberg draws the heartbreak of war with the pen of cinematic art as few others, perhaps none other. But I think with “War Horse”, opening in theaters on Christmas Day, is Spielberg’s take on the Academy Award winning 2009 film “The Hurtlocker”, his chance to show how war shreds humanity through the desperate courage and pain of a war horse.

“War Horse” is based on based on a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Marpurgo and has been made into a stage play in 2007 that friends have told me is extremely moving. It is estimated that millions of horses died in World War I from all the armies involved.

A few months before England declared war on Germany in 1914, a horse is born in Devon. Albert Narracott (Jeremy Divine), the only son and of  tenant farmers Ted (Peter Mullan) and Rose (Emily Watson). Ted goes to market to buy a workhorse, presumably a Clydesdale, but is enthralled with the strength and beauty of Joey. He spends money he does not have and takes the horse home, to the derision and disapproval of all except Albert.

Joey proves his worth by plowing an impossibly rocky field but the crop is lost in a rainstorm. When war is declared, soldiers come to the village to buy horses, and an officer promises Albert he will bring Joey home safe if he can.

Joey heads into war with the British soldiers, is lost to the Germans, taken in by a French farmer and his granddaughter but eventually ends up working the German transport lines with Topthorn, a black stallion also captured from the British army.

As the longest, most deadly war in history nears the end, Joey escapes from his cruel masters (though some wranglers were good to the horses) and in a heartbreaking sequence, wrapped in barbed wire, cut and bleeding, makes a run for it through no-mans-land. This is the films’ finest, most poignant, terrifying scene, that culminates with Germans and British units recognizing the transcendent strength of this noble steed, and changing them all, just for a moment.

There are elements of the film that won’t pass muster to the careful viewer. The crop that gets ruined is on a slope; my sister, who has a large garden, said the rain would have run off, not drowned the vegetables.  The crookedly plowed field turns into the perfectly furrowed plot from one scene to another. Albert, who eventually is old enough to go to war, is blinded by gas and then all of a sudden he can see but the audience does not get to see that moment. I wanted to see this because the characters were not well developed; the one with the most interesting potential was Rose, played by Emily Watson.

The film has been nominated for many awards for cinematography, that magical craft of bringing light and camera together, by Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski has worked on many Spielberg movies, winning Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”.  But I found the digital color “filming” to be over saturated making the characters seem almost as if they were motion-capture animation. Some of the staging of the scenes seemed to have been lifted right out of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Searchers”.

I think the dissonance I am feeling about the film is the extravagant production quality in 3D vis-à-vis a story that was more simple (as in less complex) than the huge production called for.

In the end, “War Horse” is about war and it is about the ways that animals can teach us to be more human. It’s too long, but it is inspiring. The horses, several were used for both Joey and Topthorn, will astonish you.

Everything in the film is true, and some of it did happen.


Our Media World book signing Saturday, Jan 30th Paulist Book Store, Costa Mesa, CA 1-4 pm

Please join Sr Gretchen and I, the authors, for this book signing and enjoy the gracious hospitality of the Paulist Book Center in Costa Mesa:

OUR MEDIA WORLD: Educating Kids K-8 about Faith & Media book signing this Saturday, January 30, at the


801 Baker Street (just off the 405 after Fountain Valley if going south)

Costa Mesa, CA 92626-4347(714) 545-8021

from 1-4pm.

Sr. Gretchen and I will be on hand to sign copies of our new book!

Zero Gravity & God’s Call: Sister Rose’s 42nd anniversary as a Daughter of St. Paul today!

 Anniversary pic

 Yes, 42 years ago, on August 5th, a Saturday and the feast of Our Lady of the Snows (now called the commemoration of St. Mary Major), I flew from San Diego via American Airlines to JFK, stayed in the terminal for a few hours because of a thunderstorm (had supper with my Uncle Richard who my mom alerted) and then onto Boston. We (Sr. Mary Thecla and another aspirant) arrived very late. If you can believe it, Mother Paula and two other sisters met us on the tarmac (before the days of jetways). The late-night drive through the Callahan tunnel terrified me. Luckily, that didn’t last.

What a gift the Pauline vocation is for me and for all members of the Pauline family of congregations founded by Bl. James Alberione.

I want to thank every person who has supported and influenced me in these years. Join me in praying that young women will continue to hear the call to follow Christ more closely in religious life – especially in the congregations of the Pauline Family.

Bless you all and thank you, Jesus.

What a ride this has been.

I just updated my blog  on the National Catholic Reporter blog with my vocation story: Zero Gravity & God’s Grace

My friend Evy Nelson sent me this image for my anniversary today; thank you, Evy! What fun!

Angels & Demons: Halos and pitchforks clash in the sequel to “The Da Vinci Code” Film Essay


When director Ron Howard’s new film Angels & Demons marches into theaters on May 15 some people may be expecting the same controversy that accompanied his 2006 film The Da Vinci Code. Alas, I am sorry to be a killjoy but audiences just may be inspired instead. I know I was.

The Story

Some time has passed since Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard University “symbologist” attempted to solve a mystery that seemed to indicate that Leonardo Da Vinci had hidden in his Last Supper masterpiece not only that Jesus had fathered a daughter with Mary Magdalene, but that she was divine. Langdon, who was not a believer, incurred the ingratitude of the Catholic Church for his efforts. This completely fictitious controversial story was told in best-selling author Dan Brown’s 2003 book The Da Vinci Code and Ron Howard’s 2006 film of the same title.

Now in Angels & Demons (based on Dan Brown’s 2000 novel that actually preceded The Da Vinci Code) Langdon is back at Harvard, working out in the pool early one morning when a Vatican official approaches him with a paper. One word is printed on it in gothic type: Illuminati. The official explains that the Vatican has received threats from this secret society, thought to be long extinct. Indeed, the pope has died and four of the cardinals most favored to be elected the next pope, the “preferiti” or “papabile”, have been kidnapped. The official wants Langdon to accompany him to the Vatican to help interpret the symbols and clues left by the Illuminati. The conclave is about to begin. Langdon is surprised, given his strained relationship with the Church, but agrees.

Meanwhile, another Illuminati threat appears. A canister with a particle of extremely volatile “anti-matter” has been stolen. The priest-scientist who discovered the process that has the potential to recreate the moment of creation, become a weapon of mass destruction, or become an inexpensive source of energy, was murdered. The canister is somewhere in the Vatican and timed to explode when the last of the four cardinals is killed.

Langdon is joined by a beautiful scientist who understands the mechanisms of the canister, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, Munich), and a host of Vatican and Roman police and Papal Guards, in a race is to save the cardinals and the Vatican before midnight. Complicating matters are the deceased pope’s camerlengo, the angelic Father Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge), and the aging, traditional, and ambitious Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl; Shine)in a rather devil’s advocate role. Not all is as it seems, and not everyone is who he appears to be.


     Angels & Demons is a very different film from The Da Vinci Code. It takes place in the Vatican and Rome with a side trip to Switzerland. The movie was filmed on a set that was constructed not far from Sony Studios in Culver City, CA where I live. The Vatican and the City of Rome refused most requests to film there apparently because of the fall-out from The Da Vinci Code and the cautions circulating about this film. The Catholic Church of Angels & Demons is very male. No mention is made of the “divine feminine” and other points that caused so much doctrinal distress in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, God is hardly mentioned in Angels & Demons. The film is very violent, however, despite the PG-13 rating.

     The pageantry in the film contrasts with the good guys chasing those who seem to be many bad guys – and therein lies the plot. Things are not what they seem.

     One of the major plot points in the film is the relationship between the Catholic Church and science. According to the film, the Illuminati began as a secret society that resisted the Church’s persecution of scientists beginning with Galileo (1564-1642) and now they are emerging again because of scientific developments that interest the Church. (In actuality, a group calling itself Illuminati were formed in Germany in the 1700’s and lasted for about ten years.)


Dan Brown’s books as well as the films based on them are fiction. I was in second or third grade when I learned the difference between fiction and non-fiction and admittedly much older when I started asking questions about books, film and television.

There are inaccuracies in Angels & Demons about history and Catholic practice such as who can be elected Pope and how. For example, “acclamation” was one of the valid forms of papal election before 1996, but in the film they call it “election by adoration” which really irritated by Catholic ears.

Despite these annoying elements, I did not find anything controversial in the film, nor did I find the film Angels & Demons anti-Catholic. It is more about action than theology, unlike The Da Vinci Code that attempted to dismantle Christianity. I interpret the worldview of Angels & Demons as commercialism struggling to become art.

Ted Baehr of Movieguide, a Christian organization that reviews films, without having seen the film, had this to say in a fundraising letter on April 29, 2009 about Angels & Demons:

“A clear anti-Christian message that not only are Christians evil and murderers but also that science has proven faith in Jesus Christ to be outdated! In the end, it is the highest echelon of the Catholic Church who is the villain!”

However, the official Vatican newspaper review on May 5, 2009 of Angels & Demons states that the film is “Two hours of harmless entertainment, which hardly affects the genius and mystery of Christianity.”

As hard as some people have tried, Angels & Demons is not controversial. It is a Hollywood movie made with great skill. As the Vatican also noted, the filmmakers masterfully recreated the Vatican and various pieces of art for the film. The film is engaging and entertaining, contains scenes of peril and intense violence, and is about twenty minutes too long.

Should you decide to see it, Angels & Demons is an intense thriller with a surprising, satisfying, moving, and even inspiring, finale. 

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the Cardinals have to turn in their cell phones before they enter the Sistine Chapel for the conclave; it was just like what happens to film critics before they enter a screening for a new movie so they cannot sneak any photos out (I had to laugh).

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the Cardinals have to turn in their cell phones before they enter the Sistine Chapel for the conclave; it was just like what happens to film critics before they enter a screening for a new movie so they cannot sneak any photos out (I had to laugh).


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