I saw Warhorse in theaters a number of years ago with a friend. I can’t remember what exactly drew us to the film because I only had a vague notion of the plot and had no idea who the actors were. It was probably because it was a World War I film, and reasons like “It’s a movie” is usually enough to make me do a lot of things.
Walking out of the theater, I remember having enjoyed it greatly, although left with some questions about the underlying plot-that is, how factual is it. Because the movie is about a horse, which one should be able to infer from the title. And yet somehow Steven Spielberg managed to make a successfully realistic war movie with a horse as the main character. Better yet, there weren’t any gimmicks or schmaltzy bits like subtitles when the horses were clearly talking to each other. They were characters without being grossly anthropomorphized. My friend’s grandfather, who watched it with us, said it was one of the more realistic World War I movies out there, and I’ll have to take his word for it.
(My knowledge of war movies is fairly sparse, and my knowledge of the events they portray is even sparser. They say this movie has some of the most realistic depictions of trench warfare.)
Fast forward several years. This summer I was browsing through the library and looking for something new to read because I wanted something besides my regular books. In the children’s section, I passed a title, Warhorse, and thought, huh, what are the odds. Well apparently the odds are pretty good. Who knew the movie was based on a book (more on that later).
The book is written for children but is not written with a naive voice. As an adult, I was able to enjoy many of the themes presented through the eyes of Joey, the titular horse. I also appreciated that the author, Michael Morpurgo, presented the story realistically. It was told in the first person, but the only dialogue depicted as dialogue were when the humans spoke. When Joey recounted communicating with other horse characters, it didn’t break the narrative. For example, he recounts how he taught his greatest friend Topthorn, another horse, how to take the yoke of an ambulance wagon:
Topthorn was all the time in a great state of alarm, for it was clear he had never pulled before in his life, and at last I was able in my turn to help him, to lead, to compensate, and to reassure him. The officer led us at first, limping along beside me with his stick, but he was soon confident enough to mount the cart with two orderlies and take the reins. “You’ve done a bit of this before, my friend,” he said. “I can tell that. I always knew the British were crazy. Now I know that they use horses such as you as cart horses, I am quite sure of it. That’s what the war is all about, my friend. It’s about which of us is the crazier. And clearly you british started with an advantage. You were crazy beforehand.”
The other thing I appreciated was the total absence of political ideology. As you can probably tell, that excerpt was spoken by a German soldier, although Joey was raised on a farm in Britain. But Joey is a horse and his concerns are the weight of the cart, and the care he receives from the different people who cross his path, and he has no concern about Germany or England or an ill-fated Archduke. In fact, as a piece of property he changes hands several times throughout the narrative, although wherever he ends up, the good guys are the ones who treat him well and the bad guys are the ones who don’t, regardless of the nation of their origin.
On the other hand, as a culture, we Americans generally have a strong sense of moral right and wrong (at least in certain regards). In the film, the greatest deviation that pushed a clear human agenda was the first time Joey ends up working for the Germans, specifically two German brothers – one who was barely old enough to be conscripted, the other who lied about his age to be with his brother. The younger brother gets an order to go to the front lines and the older brother absconds with him because he’s more concerned about making sure he protects his brother as per their mother’s instructions than with political ideology. It is certainly a very touching sequence, as the brothers are too young to shave yet, but I wonder if the movie writers thought it was more compelling for the two boys to desert and subsequently both get shot for their desertion than have them go fight for The Bad Guy. After all, we Americans know everything Germany did before 1945 was BAD and EVIL, and showing the boys getting shot when all they just wanted to do was go home to mother definitely both cements and perpetuates the villainy of Germany.
(Contrasted to the scene of British infantry, some of whom were too scared to leave the trenches, who had girls/family/farms back home, who were fighting, obviously, for the Good of Western Civilization, and who help each other, even your father’s landlord’s buttwad of a son.)
The inclusion of the two German boys and their execution for desertion was probably the most drastic and politically overt alteration from the original story, although it did serve as a dramatic device to get Joey and Topthorn from one location to another, whereas in the book it was much less dramatic. The two other major deviations from the book made much more sense in a cinematic narrative and probably could not have been achieved realistically had Spielberg stuck to the book.
I refer to Albert, Joey’s human, who was too young to join the army at the beginning of the war. (Joey is sold to the British army because the army needed horses and Albert’s father needed to pay the mortgage.) In the book, Albert eventually joins the veterinary corps because he’s good with animals and he wants nothing more than to have Joey back. (Spoiler alert) Joey and Albert are reunited, just in time for Albert and the other veterinary corpsmen to nurse Joey through a really bad bout of tetanus. This is all told from Joey’s perspective, and so there is a lot of delirium and it is very clearly the will-he-live-or-won’t-he climax of the book. Because after all these years, Joey and Albert are reunited again, just to be nearly parted again.
But in a realistic war movie, you can’t really have the climax be told from the horse’s perspective because there is no way for the horse to convey how tired and truly sick he is. So the writers introduce Albert the regular infantryman earlier in the narrative and it is Albert who is ill when he reunites with Joey. It’s a very touching and romantic moment when they recognize each other even though Joey is covered in six inches of mud and Albert is temporarily blinded from being gassed in the trenches, and Albert being vindicated in front of all of his friends who thought he was crazy for searching for a horse. Joey’s bout with tetanus, which took an entire chapter, is entirely omitted, but probably because, as an audience, we will find it easier to empathize with the human storyline than the horse.
And then, almost impossibly, Albert rides home to the farm on Joey, reunites with his mother, and the credits cut.
And … the first credit title says that the film is based on the book. So much for my keen powers of observation.
I greatly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it, and I also enjoyed the movie, although, as previously stated, my factual knowledge of these events are slimmer than Heidi Klum.
Other random observations:
- Albert’s father has problems with his landlord, and the landlord’s son bullies Albert. The relationship carries over to the trenches in some way when the landlord’s son is some sort of officer and Albert is beholden to him in some way. This actually reminded me very much of the relationship between Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings. Scholars and historians note that Frodo and Sam’s relationship is that of a lord and his batboy(?), and I sensed something similar here, although I’m not familiar with British class on that level.
- Another narrative addition was Albert’s father’s participation in the Boer War. Like the Mexican-American War trained all the generals for the Civil War, and WWI gave everyone experience for WW2, the Boer War prepped everyone for WWI. I know nothing about it than that it existed but it added more depth to Albert’s father than the book. It was also more persuasive as an anti-war agenda than the German brothers.
- Without making a spreadsheet from IMDB, I believe this is the only movie with Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch sharing screen space. It was the first movie with Hiddleston after Thor, and I kept waiting for some sort of Loki-like ulterior motive from Captain Nicholls. Not so. It was weird.
- I enjoyed all the British Empire-y random details. For example, in one shot there was a British officer in a turban, leading me to assume India hadn’t gained its independence yet. For another, the officer who discovers Joey had an accent that another character calls Geordie, and I think Geordies are from the North. Huh. According to this accent site, inhabitants of Newcastle upon Tyne are officially Geordies, and I had a boss from there. But he (boss) sounded a lot more posh, or possibly Americanized than the officer in the movie.
- The Geordie officer rescues Joey in no-man’s-land, that space of land between the fronts. Joey is trapped in some barbed wire and the Geordie officer and a German officer call a truce and rescue him. They have a very amusing conversation that goes something like this:
Geordie: You speak English good.
German: You mean I speak English *well*?
Having witnessed, and perhaps been involved in, a similar conversation, I laughed a lot harder than necessary.
- When Albert, blinded by gas, meets Joey again he’s wearing a sick tag, which is a slip of paper tied to his front button color coded for the type of ailment, well, ailing him. Yay obsessive details.
- Apparently the movie is based on the theatre production based on the book. Now I’m going to have to go find a stage adaptation to compare.
- Interesting. Most of the online reviews say the movie was boring, there was no main character, and definitely not enough blood to be a war movie. I thought Warhorse was just as emotionally compelling as, say, Fury, which had a lot of blood and a human protagonist. I bet these are the same people who thought Monuments Men was a boring war movie. But it’s not a war movie. It’s a treasure hunt movie in the context of war. Huge difference.
Morpurgo, M. (1982). War Horse. London: Scholastic Press.