If there’s a way to navigate out of hell, maybe it’s through grace.

By that logic, Steven Spielberg’s tactic in adapting the play and novel War Horse would make perfect sense: we’re all aware (though maybe never enough) of the horrors and ugliness of war, but rarely is it contrasted through the lens of beauty and innocence that at once surrounds and is engulfed by it.

The first impression of Spielberg’s teaser trailer for the movie (out Dec. 28) is simply: God, that’s gorgeous — which is jarring since the opening shot is of a vast landscape reduced to a cinder as the title character, a farm horse named Joey, frantically gallops for its life, just inches ahead of the mortars.

See below for a look at the trailer:

Due respect must be paid to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s longtime collaborator, who turns a backlit battlefield into a thing of wonder.

It’s that jarring feeling that makes War Horse a different animal (no pun intended) from Saving Private Ryan, a story Kaminski and Spielberg told in a much less elegiac fashion, preferring to thrust the viewer into the washed-out grit, smoke, and blood to underscore the nightmare of war. But that was an R-rated story of sacrifice, and War Horse (aiming for a PG-13 rating) is a story of hope — one marked with tragedy and pain, but retaining the bright eyes of its protagonist.

Again, the hero isn’t a person, but rather that simple horse who passes from the boy who owned and trained him on a peaceful farm in England (Jeremy Irvine) to a wary British army captain (Tom Hiddleston, in noble form after playing the villain Loki in Thor) who chooses him as his mount when the war first began, and seemed to be something that would end soon in happy victory.

As anyone who studied World War I in grade school knows, things didn’t turn out so easy. Joey embarks on an odyssey-like journey through the raging battle, taken in by various owners — two frightened boys (David Kross and Leonard Carow), a deserting German soldier, and a young French girl and her grandfather (A Prophet‘s Niels Arestrup, who speaks the trailer’s only dialogue.) During this time, Albert, the boy who raised him, also joins the war effort — though the secret, almost childishly naive, dream that pulls him through the fighting is that he will somehow find his horse again.

“Can you imagine flying over a war and you know you can never look down? You have to look forward, or you’ll never get home,” the grandfather says.

What’s unspoken is that even if you make it back after something like that, it can never be the same you.

The best-selling 1982 young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo was adapted into a stage play using puppet horses — a description that fails to do justice to their uncanny lifelike qualities. After the London show (which is still running) crossed the pond to Broadway this spring, it recently picked up the Tony for Best Play. Judging by this trailer, and the movie’s Oscar-friendly release date, Spielberg’s version of the tale also seems destined to become an awards contender.

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