Sunday, December 25, 2011


     Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” opened on Christmas day and I attended the first feature. Being a war movie buff, I have eagerly awaited this movie, but with trepidation because Spielberg has been known to get juvenile in his movies, especially recently. The movie is based on a children’s novel and an acclaimed stage play. The movie has generated numerous awards nominations and could end up as one of the more important films of the year. But how is it as a war movie?

     The movie opens with the birth of a colt in Great Britain. The birth is witnessed by a farm boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert falls in love with the horse and in a happy coincidence his father decides to outbid his evil landlord for the horse at an auction where his farm desperately needs a work-horse. “Joey” (as Alby calls him) is no work-horse and his mother Rosie (Emily Watson) rightfully thinks her husband is daft. They can’t get rid of the horse because Alby really wants a pony. In a cliché-busting scene, Joey proves to be easily trainable and very smart. When the landlord (David Thewlis) threatens to take back the farm if the drunken, loser father (Peter Mullan) does not make a rock-strewn field productive, Alby hitches him to a plow and (with the help of a fortuitous rainstorm that quickly softens the ground) the horse earns his keep.

     The father’s love of the bottle is explained by his soldiering in the Boer War. He was decorated, but does not talk about it. Rosie theorizes that “he refuses to be proud of killing”. He is so down on his luck that when the plowed turnip field is ruined by rain, he is forced to sell Joey to the military. The horse goes off to war as the underage Alby stays home.

     The movie from this point on is basically another take-off on Homer’s “Odyssey” with Joey meeting several interesting new owners and facing dangers. Here is a summary:

1. Captain Nicholls rides Joey in a cavalry charge which represents every cavalry charge of the Great War in that machine guns > horses.

2. Two German brothers acquire the horse who is to be used as an artillery-puller, but instead is used as a getaway horse as the elder brother rescues the younger from a column heading for the front.

3. A feisty young French girl named Emilie is the next owner. Before she can break her brittle bones riding recklessly, the German army requisitions the horse and its back to the artillery.

4. An animal-loving German lets Joey escape when his usefulness is approaching bullet-in-the-head time. In the process, in a scene of heavy-handed symbolism, Joey escapes from a tank and then runs down a trench and then through no man’s land. Unfortunately, Joey gets entangled in barbed wire.

5. A Tommy and a Fritz use wire-cutters to free Joey and he rejoins the British Army.

6. Joey is reunited with Alby at a hospital where Alby barely convinces a doctor not to put his wounded horse out of his misery.

7. Joey is bought at auction by Emilie’s grandfather, outbidding Alby (and a butcher).

     I’ll stop right there to and let you wonder if the movie has an ‘Old Yeller” ending. Don’t read the next paragraph if you do not care if a movie has ridiculous moments.

     Where do I start? Joey becomes BFFs with another cavalry horse named Blackthorn. They are captured together and after it is unsubtly made clear that if you don’t work you die, Joey “volunteers” to take Blackthorn’s place pulling a cannon. The whole scene with the German brothers is laughable. When the deserting brothers are captured, the older brother does not insist he forced his unwilling brother to come along and they face the firing squad together. Or why would a tank chase after a lone horse? You have to suspend disbelief a bit in this movie.

     Historically speaking, the movie is based on a children’s book so what do you expect. However, since Speilberg had to assume some adults might want to see it, he could have at least read one WWI history book. (This is his first WWI movie after six about WWII.) Before the big cavalry charge scene, the British commander references famous successful charges, including Pickett’s Charge. Surely, even an Englishman would know Pickett’s Charge should not be mentioned to boost morale. The charge itself adequately depicts the suicidal nature of WWI cavalry attacks. I assume the attack is fictional and it is possible that the Germans could have been stupid enough to camp in a field with no entrenching or even guards posted because its early in the war. It is also possible they may have emplaced a line of machine guns behind their tents. Highly unlikely, however. By the way, that line of machine guns is incredibly accurate as they knock off riders without hitting horses.

     The “Saving Private Ryan” moment comes two-thirds of the way through the movie. Incredibly, Spielberg decided to label the battle “1918 – The Somme”. You don’t have to be a military historian to know the very famous Battle of the Somme was in 1916. Alby is now at the front in a Pals’ Battalion with his best friend and a snooty rich kid acquaintance. The trench sets are realistic and no man’s land is appropriately hellish. The British assault is bloody (without blood) and violent (but not graphic). Alby reaches the German trench first and it is empty with all the Germans dead. Wait, what? To make matters worse, Alby is blinded by a poison gas bombardment that hits directly in the trench. What accuracy! This works out for plot purposes as Alby needs to be sightless for his reunion with Joey.

     Being a Spielberg movie, certain things are guaranteed. The cinematography is lush in the bucolic British countryside scenes and colorless in the muddy Western Front scenes. John Williams’ score plays on the audiences emotions throughout. You don’t have to think much, Williams will let you know how to feel. For example, plowing the field – cue the inspirational music. The acting is satisfactory, if unspectacular. The horse (actually eight horses to portray the adult “Joey”) is amazing and its accent does not change, unlike some of the humans. The film does avoid some obvious clichés. The horse is not hard to train. Alby’s potential rivalry with the rich boy over a local girl ends up on the cutting room floor. Emilie does not have an accident. It’s not unorthodox in its cartoonish villains, however. The evil landlord. The martinet German officers. Hiss him, cheer that, cry now. The movie very effectively manipulates the audience’s emotions. Most people will get what they paid for.

     The problem is that Spielberg has made the kids’ version of a war movie. He even includes a goose for comic relief. How Disneyesque! The “it’s a small world” on the Western Front aspect is to be expected from any mainstream movie, I suppose. For those expecting the WWI equivalent of SPR in the combat scenes, consult the movie’s rating and target audience. Even the cavalry sabers (inaccurately called “swords” in the movie) remain unbloodstained. Realism is not a forte of this movie. “War Horse” is a good movie for civilians, but it is not a good war movie.


  1. Is it based on one of Morpurgo's novels? I guess so. I might not watch it but only because I'm getting horribly squeamish when animals are invloved.
    I think it was meant to be a family film and not a war movie or did you think that's not the case? Your line on the horse not changing his accent... Priceless. Made me laugh out loud. You do realize that most of the times you wrote Speilberg (even the tag)? :)

  2. Thanks for the spelling (actually typing) correction. I fixed them.

    Yes, it is a Morpugo novel. I am not familiar with him.

    It is definitely a war movie. I think it is not aimed so much at children as at families.

    I knew you would like the accent line since you often complain about them. BTW the Germans speak English in the movie. Shame.

    The movie can be rough on animal lovers, but it would have been much harsher if it was realistic.

  3. well, its hard to get the spelling right when you are scribblin in the dark with your wife nervous (that she will get kicked out of the theatre) and cryin (about the horsie) at the same time next to you! Plese do not tell me the horse narrates the movie. I hate when that happens. This was actually a stage play in england i read. Im assuming Spielburg opened it up just a bit. He has commented that he is making a spate of kids movies lately (Super8, TinTin, Warhorse) cause he has little Elliots now. There are really only two classic horse movies to me: National Velvet and Black Stallion. This sounds quite a bit like Richard Adam's Traveler too. You did not make the crime section of the Advertiser so I'm assuming your flashlight ran out of batteries.

  4. I sat in the back row, alone. But then a couple came and sat one seat away from me so I could not use my flashlight. You should see my notes! I wrote over a lot of them.

    The book is told from the horse's point of view, but not the movie.

  5. Well, somebody has to speak in defence of the British Cavalry, so I'll do it. I did my MA thesis on the subject, after all...

    The cavalry charge depicted was not at all historically accurate, and, in fact, particularly in 1914, most British cavalry charges were very far from being suicidal. The reason was that the British Cavalry had moved into training in combined arms tactics by 1909, and standard operating procedure never involved just charging in with swords.

    The actual procedure was as follows:

    1. Two of the four squadrons set up behind cover and start a suppressing fire against the enemy position. If there is time, a runner is sent to bring supporting artillery fire against the position.

    2. The other two squadrons line up in a flanking position, ready for a sword charge.

    3. Once the enemy is sufficiently pinned down and softened up, the charge takes place from the flank, routing the enemy.

    These were very successful tactics - in about two dozen cavalry engagements against the Germans in 1914, I think the British cavalry suffered only one defeat (in a case where the Germans had successfully managed to pin them in, and the British couldn't use their standard tactics).

    Once you get later in the war, most of the British cavalry is either transferred to the Mesopotamian front, or ends up spending most of their time dismounted in trench duty. Once the war gets mobile, the cavalry is far more hit-and-miss in their charges, but a lot of that has to do with battles becoming very chaotic, and the time required for proper preparation of an enemy position just not being present.

  6. Thank you so much. I love informative comments!

  7. Whilst the Battle of the Somme in 1916 is the most famous, there were others, including one in 1918. The greatest inaccuracy is all the mud - the Somme was chalky and fairly dry. There are lots of other inaccuracies, as you'd expect from a children's book written by a pacifist.

    So, as is usual in a First World War film, the battles are simplified for anti-war effect; there is no representation of saps, moving barrages, platoon tactics or any of the other methods by which attacking troops managed to successfully capture the enemy trenches.

    Incidentally, I'll add to Mr Mark's comment above, by pointing out that French cavalry actually broke through the German lines during the 1916 Battle of the Somme and wandered around the German rear (there are even several photographs of this) until the French reserves failed to turn up and the breach in the lines was sealed.

    Cavalry were still in use by 1918, although (as was true throughout the war) usually as mounted infantry (the best that could be done because the APC hadn't been invented yet). That said, with covering fire, there was several successful cavalry charges.

  8. Thanks, Guy. Very interesting. Thanks.

    1. Just another small point on your Sabres /Swords point. The weapons are indeed of a sabre type and a number of troopers 50/70/whatever are referred to as "sabres " and an armoured squadron within the British Army today is still referred to as a Sabre Squadron. However the command is to " Draw Swords " in British Cavalry regiments and I believe that may be the only reference in the movie to the word.


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