War Horse, a commentary

~~note: this site is my “blog.” The information site on “Wild Horses” is http://wildhorseeducation.org

Poster art by Fortunino Matania

“War Horse,” the much anticipated screen adaptation by Steven Spielberg opened in theatres across the country on Christmas Day.

As someone deeply involved in the issues facing both our wild and domestic equines, I actually went to a movie theatre for the first time in ages to view the film. Not only was this film about my favorite subject, horses, but it was done by one of my favorite directors of all time, Steven Spielberg.

Speilberg first “rocked my world” with “Empire of the Sun,” (not ET). Released in 1987 this autobiographical tale tells the story of James Graham, a boy “of privilege” that has his life shattered after the invasion of Shanghai in 1941. Spielberg wove his tale so that the audience became “Jim.” You experienced everything through the masterful performance of Christian Bale and through the vision of a great director. “Jim, try not to think so much!” is a line delivered at just the right moment, in just the right way, that it has haunted me for over twenty years.

The subject of war, and it’s cost to the human spirit, was again tackled by this master film maker in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Both of these films, although executed with very different directorial choices, speak directly to the transformation of the human soul through the horror of human action and the ability of the human spirit to transcend. We all remember Shindler agonizing that he could have saved “Just one more.”

So Christmas Day of 2011 I took my “war weary” self to the theatre to watch “War Horse.”

Now you may not like the analogy of “war weary.” But that is how I feel. Most of you know my work for the wild ones but are unfamiliar with a past that includes a decade of work in the “horse slaughter” issue. Our “front” is taking a massive onslaught this year as our rear scrambles to deal with the issues at the front and behind our own lines. Our beloved equines, both wild and domestic, are under siege.

I plunked down the ticket price, that has gone up significantly since the last time I treated myself to a film, anticipating another “masterpiece.”

Waiting in line to find a seat I watched the movie goers leave the theatre after watching the film. There were mixed reviews. One man said “It was good” as he made the “so-so” motion with his hand. Another said “If you don’t have a tissue, don’t go in.”

A woman in line next to me confided that she had not been to a movie in a long time, but this one was about a horse. “Me, too,” I smiled.

We eagerly took our seats.

After 23 minutes of previews that flickered and had to be reset, the film began.

I began to realize that I was not going to see the Spielberg I had anticipated. I was watching a Director held by constraint.

The first third of the film is too long. It had a “made for TV feel.” Spielberg then focuses his camera lens on a plow during a scene that is to demonstrate the heart of “Joey,” our equine “star,” and “Albert” our human “spirit” focus of the film. That is when I remembered this film was created for Disney.

Don’t get me wrong here. I cried. I cried eight times during the film. The opening scene had me in tears as “Joey” the newborn demonstrates his legs by running side by side with his mom. I have seen so many youngsters that can’t keep up to their mothers during the helicopter chases on public land and moms so tired they are fighting to just keep the pace. I have seen so many babes taken from that protective space and stuck in pens during the most horrific experience of their bands existence… it didn’t take much for me to need a tissue.

Archive photo of WWI (photographer not credited at source)

As we enter into the war, a third of the way through the film, we begin to comprehend the first World War.

In a battle (the first the British engage in the story and the first time you actually are told you are in Britain and not in Scotland, Wales or Ireland) you are taken to what I assume is the battle at Mons. The only true cavalry charge of WWI takes place at Mons. WWI is the transitional point in human warfare into the “mechanization” era. Spielberg does demonstrate very effectively how the cavalry charge does not meet the machine gun successfully, regardless of the belief of British officers of the day.

After that point we learn that horses are utilized for transportation of wounded and the machines we now rely on to win wars. But we see these things in small vignettes.

Each time I feel that Spielberg will take me to that “real” place of experience, that had been relayed to me by my grandfather, we get close to the destination but never truly arrive. It kept making me wonder how Spielberg would have portrayed the story without restraint of a PG-13 rating. Not a thought you want as you wait to be transported from your seat into a film.

Casualty counts are not kept on horses and mules. Yet the estimate is more than 8 million horses and mules died in the conflict on all sides. 8 million died. It is estimated that 2 and one half million were treated for wounds and 2 million of those returned to the war.

A quarter of a million horses were purchased or taken from farmers at the beginning of the war for the British army.

As the conflict raged on more countries joined the efforts and horses were needed.

Yes, the “Yankees” entered in the war. The “Yankees” were not only American Soldiers, but America’s horses. America’s horses carried our soldiers but also those of other Nations. During the conflict two-thirds of the horses used by Britain were supplied by the US.

During World War I ranchers went into business selling horses to the military. All of Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and much of the area we now call the “Tri-State Complex” had horses “harvested” and sent into battle in Europe and Africa. It is estimated that a million wild horses went into conflict, none of them returned to American soil.

American horses from the open plains of the west were described by Captain Sydney Galtrey of the British Cavalry “in a rough and ready shape – they were shoeless, long-haired, tousled-maned and had ragged hips.  But they were tough; generations of their kind had become completely at home with roaming out in the open and in all kinds of weather.”

“You put your mask on him first,” said Grandpa “He can carry you out, you can’t carry him.”

Many soldiers were moved deeply and carried stories of the mounts that carried them to safety or that they saw die horrific deaths.

Gas mask for man and horse demonstrated by an American Soldier National Archives and Records Administration cir 1917-18

I sat in the theatre with this knowledge. We would briefly touch the reality of a “War Horse” in the film and then it would vanish.

Then the scene came… (used in the trailers) a scene where “Joey” looses a companion and is faced with the “machine.” The war blazes around him as he flees an early tank. He seemingly can’t escape and vaults over the “beast.” His flight takes him through an horrific battlefield where earlier we had witnessed the casualties to man. He crashes through barbed wire. He begins to collect it as he runs through the destructive path laid by man. (I was crying and teeth clenched as I have seen what barbed wire can do and we lost some of our wild ones this year during roundups to the cruelty of the invention).

He becomes immobilized.

As dawn rises and snow begins to fall we watch as the combatants come together for a brief moment to recognize the spirit of an “amazing horse.” The scene is pure Spielberg. As the tears stream down my face I watch as “enemies” cooperate to free “Joey.” I care about “Joey” and the two men involved. I am finally “in” the film.

Only for a brief moment at the end of the piece do we even peripherally become aware of the possible fate of many of the horses. A “butcher” is present at auction. If you are not informed, you are never told the truth. You are never told how many the “butcher” actually takes.

This film will be on the shelf next to “The Black Stallion” and “My friend Flicka.” It is a “love story” story of a horse and a boy/man.

Does this film have the power of “Black Beauty” to raise the consciousness of a nation? A novel that was responsible for creating a climate to pass the first humane care laws in our country… I don’t know.


20 thoughts on “War Horse, a commentary

  1. Marge Mullen says:

    Thank you Laura for your insight into the movie.

    I look forward to seeing it this week with a group of horse friends.

  2. Barbara says:

    Great review, Laura. Glad you got to go.
    Some horse lovers are not going to see this movie because they said it would upset them. I stay upset so I’m going.
    I tried to go yesterday and drove to another town only to find the time had been changed from what was advertized in the local papers. I gave a nice couple a flyer about the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and they said they would call about it for sure and then we left–disappointed. Today when I found out there was a matinee it was too late to go. ( I can’t see to drive at night) Tomorrow is another day so plan to go again and with flyers and a wild horse poster. It is supposed to rain and/or snow so hopefully lots of folks will show up.

    • C. Stone says:

      :’) Bless U, Barbara! & what *A Great IDEA !!–about taking the Flyers! I’d like to Do that, too. Maybe ALL of us ?? So, Which FLYER did U actually take?

  3. Linda Horn says:

    I guess you could consider this a War Horse “spoiler”, but maybe not. I haven’t seen it yet, but know quite a bit about modern filmmaking because my son is into computer animation, special effects, sound, shot set-up, greenscreen, etc. This was released by the American Humane Association, detailing the technical aspects of the production. It’s really long, but I hope anyone in doubt about horses being harmed during filming will find it comforting: http://www.americanhumanefilmtv.org/reviews/movie-review-war-horse/

  4. Heather says:

    If you have time please read the book its not very long. It’s actually in the childrens/teens section very easy to read text wise, but emotionally it really gets to you better than to movie. The movie was good but the book is in my opinion much better. The movie took some scenes out from in the book and replaced it with other things that really didn’t make the movie any better. But please, read the book I’m sure you’ll like it. I read it in a few hours, I couldn’t put it down.

    ps… idk if you remember 6171 you had a picture of him once well anyways he’s still doing great we named him A Bandit’s Legacy. All the children like to come and pet and feed him, he’s so friendly and very protective of my mare. I hope you have a Happy New Year.

  5. Cat Smith says:

    I saw the movie and agree.

    Also, I’ve heard that horse’s feet are cut off during war time ~ an ancient practice. They also do this to racehorses on occasion.

    I’ve been reading Civil War books lately, too, and they lost millions of horses from battle and starvation.

    My greatest thought about the movie is that it may help to increase awareness about the great injustices done to horses. I can hope ~ and this is why I went to a movie for the first time on a Christmas Day.

    God bless my equine friends. God bless.

  6. Thanks, for the input on this movie. I was not going to see it because I really hate war and all the violence. Plus, I did not really like the movie “Buck” so I’m not too big on the “raving reviews.” I did want to go to the theaters and do some sort of protest against horse slaughter and get some signatures but I really like the idea of passes out flyers or brochures. Is there anyway we can organize a flyer that we can all pass around?

  7. Christie says:

    Thanks for your commentary, Laura. Maybe because you see the war our horses’s are fighting daily, an imitation seems much less soul satisfying. You have been living on the front lines for and with our horses. Every roundup must be a bit like a battle where the spirit of the horses breaks for freedom, only in this story, Joey’s mighty heart is recognized.

  8. arlene says:

    Dear Laura, Amazing review I also attended War Horse on Monday, my review is exactly the same as yours , I have not been to a movie either for I dont remember how long, but this one i made it a point to see, I cried also through 3/4 of the Movie consoled by a rather nice Woman sitting next to me, the movie wasnt all I expected it to be with the best part holding attention near the Middle of the movie , when Joey was befriend by the Black Horse, the Cinementology was magnificent , I did like some of the people who really felt for Joey, and his friend , it reminded me of all Horses who really do pick a friend for life just as we do……The two horses should receive a Academy Award for their flawless performances, when Joey was wrapped up in the bobbed wire does anyone realize what that took to do and Joey was calm through it all………( Although IThe Theater was full and I know I wasnt the only one crying there ) am sure that it wasnt real bobbed wire )( it reminded me of FREEDOM the Black horse that broke through the Bobbed fence to retain his awesome Freedom ).Joey was devoted to the Black horse it was clearly presented……. Would love to know more about their devotion to each other…….. All in All I loved the movie !!!! There are many Horrors of War for Both men and Horses………………………. Many stories of horses and men,during a War also their devotion to each other…………………. It is a wonderful thing !!!! It is only one of the Gifts they all give !!!!!

  9. Lethie says:

    I saw the movie yesterday by myself. I was not sure if I would regret going to see it or not. I too, cried several times. However, it make a good point about how much the horses have sacrificed their life for man kind. This is a point I’ve been tring to tell everyone I write letters to. They deserve to be protected for all they have suffered. Thanks for your review. I hope this movie will get the publics attention and hopefully bring a change for their freedom in the coming year.

    • arlene says:

      Freedom is theirs, for all they do for Mankind, we need to enforce this………………….. This is their given right by America !!!!!

  10. arlene says:

    How to do this for them is clear !!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Good job Laura! We had very good reception to the educational brochures we passed-out to theater attendees last weekend here in Las Vegas. Good luck in SF tomorrow.

  12. Christi Fagerstone says:

    A terrific review, I was eager to read it. Think I will wait to see it in the privacy of my home later on. Just thinking about it all makes me cry so I think I would be a basket case in the theater. You remain so brave and focused I admire you so much. I am anxious to here about all the legal hearings…thank you for all you do.

  13. Christi says:

    Obviously the crowd at the Golden Globe Awards remained self-centered.
    Spielberg did voice his admiration for the horses that played Joey, I was so hoping he would make a statement about the loss for America of their wild horses. Tried for weeks to email a note, but all were returned undeliverable.
    Even from his fan club. Such a missed opportunity. : (

  14. Shawna says:

    Thanks for this Laura, I can’t wait to see the movie. I am sure it will be as moving for me as it was for you.

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