Both on the stage and in the movie versions of “War Horse,” Major Stewart charges his cavalry unit into battle for the first time with the battle cry of “Be Brave!”
It’s almost as if he’s talking to us, too, out in the audience.
Here, there be monsters.
Warning: spoilers and tough stuff ahead
While writing up the first draft of this review, I kept typing “war” as “wary.” But not in the context of “Wary Horse” but in the phrase “wary movies.”
“Wariness” has been shadowing “War Horse” since its debut. People didn’t want to be sad during the holidays, especially with so much sad news about the economy and world tension.
Many horse lovers, even if they consider horses livestock, were even afraid to re-experience the broken hearts that come with raising and owning horses.
What our hearts and minds bring to the theater
“War Horse” is a movie we can’t just go in and watch without any emotional, even political, baggage following us inside the theater. No wonder people have been wary.
Despite all the movie-making magic that goes into telling a story, there’s no getting around the fact that war lays waste to humans, animals, land and souls.
We know the staggering casualty figures for men and horses in World War I: 15 million men and 8 million horses. Like many of the troops then, most of those horses came from farms and represented “all walks of life.”
In the movie, you’ll spot a cavalry officer mounted on an English shire, a heavy draft horse that would have made Albert’s mother a lot happier than the much lighter Joey.
That shire must have made a bigger, slower target because you don’t see him later in the film when that humongous cannon needs to be hauled around.
“War Horse” depicts a time when horses were for “usin’.” Horses served as trucks and tractors. Fine riding horses like Joey and Topthorn were luxury items. To paraphrase one of the characters, If you can’t use him, what good is he?
And we’re back to the all too timely issue of dealing with unwanted horses.
Channeling Willy Loman’s wife
So much of what we do with horses today has some, if not all, roots in cavalry. Racing, endurance, jumping, dressage. All those activities went into the training of a useful cavalry horse and were practiced during peacetime as exercises and sporting events.
Of the 15 million men dead in World War, some of them would appreciate us remembering their four-legged war buddies, the horses and mules that endured “the suck” with them.
Back then, forging a bond with an animal was considered daft. See how the villagers treat Albert when he dotes on Joey? Let alone many of the officers in the war? If you can’t use him, what good is he?
I believe “War Horse” honors those dead. All of those dead. From wistful cavalry officers to brash young boys to draft horses unsuited to light cavalry and especially the horses who survived the war only to end up as roasts in French butcher shops.
I just finished reading a book titled HORSE POWER AND MAGIC by George Ewart Evans, who collected oral histories of the old school farmers who’d used heavy horses down on the farm. A passage toward the end of the book reminded me of “War Horse.”
One source told Evans that the horses that did come home from “the Great War” weren’t good for much because, according to his description, they had the equine version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Dialing it back a bit
I also believe that watching “War Horse” is easier if you have an idea what’s coming. Reading the book first is a good idea. So is having seen the play, which isn’t as widely available as the book.
Still, some people won’t be able to handle it, no matter what I tell them about who lives and who dies or that there’s no gore shown on the screen.
A friend told me I was doing people a disservice by telling them the ending. “If they can’t handle ‘Black Beauty/Bambi/Lonesome Dove/Old Yeller,’ ” he’d said, “they’ll never make it through ‘War Horse’ and, worse, they’ll blame you for talking them into going.”
My contention is that surprises are the worst. I still believe that. For good or ill.
I believe we owe those millions of cavalry horses, from Hittite chariot horses to Sgt. Reckless to the horses scrambling up the mountains of Afghanistan with troops today.
I believe that attention must be paid. Even if it breaks our hearts. Especially because it breaks our hearts.