Lee Barwood

Paranormal, Mystery, and Environmental Fiction

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The Beat of Gaia's Heart

War Horse: A Review

January 9, 2012

Tags: War Horse, World War I, Spielberg, humane, horses, Kate Middleton, John Singer Sargent, poison gas, barbed wire

War Horse, an incredible film
Having been crazy about horses since I was tiny, I was eager to see War Horse as soon as it came out, but circumstances over the holidays prevented my going to see it immediately. Yesterday, however, I remedied that, and was very glad that I did. In this review I will try to give you a sense of what the movie evokes without too many spoilers, and I will warn readers who have not seen the movie when a spoiler is on the way.

If you have a chance and are at all considering it, you should view War Horse on the big screen first—this from someone who very seldom gets to movies in the theater and usually waits till they hit DVDs. But trust me—the impact of this movie is orders of magnitude greater when stretching out before you on a theater screen and heard over the theater sound system: the beautiful panoramas of English countryside, the pastoral French fields outside the range of battle … the drama and horror of the battlefields themselves, the thunder of hoofs and guns … even—particularly—the sounds of horses breathing. Particularly compelling are the cavalry charge early on and the grim desolation of the muddy hills up which the horses must pull the heavy German guns—and, of course, the utter horror of No Man’s Land between the British and German lines.

I should tell you that I get weepy during animal films. Heck, I was shedding tears at the coming attractions for a couple of other animal movies that played during the 20-plus-minute trailer interlude that precedes every movie these days. And I already knew that I would be crying at a number of places during the movie (apparently I was in good company, because Kate Middleton also teared up during the premiere of the movie in London over the weekend), because I had already read the book (by Michael Morpurgo) and (sort of) knew what was coming. As much as one can know, of course, considering that movies always change aspects of the plot from the book.

True to expectations, I found plenty of places during the course of the movie where the tears flowed; what I didn’t expect were the laugh-out-loud moments of watching the antics of the young Joey as he grows up and Albert trains him, or Joey’s interactions with Emilie in France as she attempts to teach him to jump.

SPOILER ALERT

More moments of unexpected laughter came while Joey was trapped by barbed wire in No Man’s Land—definitely a shocking time to find something amusing, but there it is. (And no, I don’t have a warped sense of humor, unless the rest of the audience in the theater was equally warped; we were all laughing at these moments, interspersed as they were with high drama.)

How Joey gets trapped is, of course, horrific—and one of the most evocative scenes in the movie of the horror of war (and there are plenty of those, complete with rats, explosions, and that scourge of World War I—poison gas). The sheer terror of a lone horse who has just lost his best equine friend, and best human friend as well behind enemy lines, will make your heart pound and your throat close as Joey flees from a tank, desperately tries to escape from thundering guns and exploding shells, and races through trenches filled with soldiers. Had I not known beforehand that director Stephen Spielberg took tremendous care with these scenes—and all scenes in the movie, for that matter—for the safety of the horses, I don’t know that I could have watched it, particularly as Joey crashes through barbed wire and finally becomes so entangled in it that he is forced from his feet and immobilized. The verisimilitude is frighteningly good.

But back to those scenes of laughter: The first is when the soldiers on both sides realize that there is something alive and moving in No Man’s Land. Once they realize it is a horse, one British soldier decides to call it and begins to cluck to Joey. Soon all the British soldiers are following suit, and the German soldiers, who have also determined that the living creature is a horse, refuse to be outdone and start whistling to Joey. Then the British whistle, and—well, you get the idea.

The next unexpected laugh comes when the British and German soldiers who have ventured out into No Man’s Land to try to free Joey from his tangle of barbed wire start to discuss wire cutters. The British soldier has sallied forth impulsively, with nothing but his hands—and, of course, the weapon to which he has tied his improvised white flag—but the German soldier, Peter, has had the forethought to bring wire cutters. When they realize they could accomplish much more with a second set of cutters, Peter shouts to the German side that they need another pair—and half a dozen or more come flying through the air to land in the mud near his feet.

The two work amiably together to free Joey, then shake hands before parting and returning to their own sides—after determining, by the very egalitarian toss of a coin, which of them will claim Joey—all in the midst of a vicious war. Tissues, anyone?

END SPOILER

Joey has been taught to come when Albert imitates the call of an owl. One of the funniest animal scenes is when Albert calls Joey that way while sitting up in a tree. Joey obligingly goes to the tree, then cranes his neck to see Albert sitting high on a branch over his head. One can almost hear the horse thinking, “What are you doing up there?”

Lest you think we all went to a war movie and laughed all the way through it, I will remind you that there are plenty of moments when the tears come all too easily. Albert’s parting from Joey, the scene at the end of the cavalry charge, the moment when the Germans find Joey and Topthorn at the French farm—and plenty more that come to mind—will have you reaching for your tissues throughout the movie. The ending will not disappoint, either.

SPOILER ALERT

Albert, who has been gassed in the German trench, has to be led back to the British side after his best friend from home dies in the gas attack. He has temporarily been blinded, and his eyes are bandaged when he hears that a “miracle horse” has been found alive in No Man’s Land. Somehow he becomes convinced that it is Joey and, led to where Joey is about to be put down because of his wounds from the barbed wire, gives that owl call to which Joey was trained to come.

Twice he calls Joey, and twice Joey raises his head and looks toward the sound just as the soldier charged with putting him out of his misery is about to pull the trigger. Then Albert walks closer, guided by his fellow soldiers, and calls again; Joey runs to him and Albert, eyes still bandaged, describes him and his four white socks and white blaze (which Albert traces on his own forehead). The soldier who has been pleading for Joey’s life after bringing him back from No Man’s Land begins to wash away the battlefield mud and reveals four socks, one after another, and then the blaze. The sergeant holsters his gun and Joey is safe—for the time being.

END SPOILER

Both human and animal casts were superb; particularly endearing was Celine Buckins, who plays Emilie. Perhaps surprisingly, so was the German artillery private who had charge of Joey and Topthorn while they were pulling the big guns; the pain in his eyes when his officer refuses to allow him to let Topthorn rest and his final rebellion against his officers when he shouts at Joey to “Run! RUN!” had me wiping away tears (again).

The horses were beyond beautiful—every single one, from the tiny foal that played the just-born Joey to the massive draft horse that Albert’s father should have bid on when he was carried away by the moment and bought Joey instead. Topthorn is magnificent, and all of them played their parts well, whether it was struggling under the weight of the guns or racing toward doom in the cavalry charge or simply standing, waiting to be auctioned or led off to war.

You will shed plenty of tears during this exceptional film, and you will never look at horses—or, I hope, war—in the same way again.

Should you be interested in more of the historical detail of World War I battles, you might want to visit the Jane Austen blog at http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/downton-abbey-season-2-a-world-war-one-guide-to-rats-shell-shock-and-barbed-wire/ , wherein author Vic Sanborn writes a very timely blog entry about Season 2 of Downton Abbey and its glimpse of the Great War, complete with rats and barbed wire. There is also an extremely moving and haunting painting from WWI titled Gassed, visible at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gassed_(painting) , in which John Singer Sargent portrays the victims of a mustard gas attack.

Selected Works

Horror
Love and death tread the boards at a haunted Victorian theater
Love can survive death -- but so can hate. The two collide in this haunted Ozarks tale of betrayal and heroism -- on both sides of the grave.
Folklore/Juvenile
Australian wildlife images to stimulate creativity in children and adults alike
Vintage wildlife photos illustrate a children's story about koalas
Retellings of eight Australian Aboriginal tales, mostly focusing on the koala -- a powerful figure in Aboriginal lore
Fantasy
Gryphon Award-winning ecological fantasy novel, now available from Double Dragon Publishing (February 2006)
Volume I of The Ribbons of Power, this was Honor Book Award winner in Andre Norton's Gryphon Award competition
Volume II of The Ribbons of Power
Mystery
A professor is murdered. Can the plot be unraveled?

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