This review contains spoilers.
I’ve never read the novel War Horse by Michael Morpurgo; all of my comments are based on the Spielberg movie. I imagine the novel is a much different experience, because it allows for narration from the horse’s point of view. In the movie, the horse is not given a voice.
As someone who’s done a lot of reading about World War One, I really enjoyed the visuals of this movie, particularly the trenches and No Man’s Land. Some of it looked so familiar, I suspect I’ve seen some of the research photos that were used. In particular, I liked how accurately the British and German trenches were differentiated. In general, the German trenches were larger, better-constructed, and more comfortable; this is clearly shown in a scene during the Somme offensive when the lead character, Albert, makes it into a German trench before being gassed.
One of the small early tanks made it into the movie. I wish I’d had a better look at the 1918-style grenades that were used in the Somme scenes. I was also pleased that a few colonial soldiers were shown in one scene, and quite a few female nurses in a hospital scene, though only two women had any sort of role in the story (Albert’s mother Rosie and a French girl named Emily).
I noted that when soldiers were executed for desertion, and when horses were shown hauling heavy artillery, the perpetrators in both cases were German, despite the British doing the same thing; ditto the early failed attempts at cavalry charges, which both sides briefly thought would be effective. Since the story was fictional, I assumed this was the British author’s choice. At another section of the movie, the German soldiers steal/commandeer foodstuffs and other useful items from a French family. It’s not stated if this farm was part of the lands they occupied in northern France and Belgium (which were eventually pillaged of pretty much everything) or lands they only held temporarily. In 1914, territory shifted more rapidly. Anyway, I found that scene had a very realistic feel, after reading several books about life in the occupied territory. The forced labor seemed accurate to me, as well.
I thought it was accurate when Albert is shown in a regiment with other men from Devon in 1918; it’s not clear when he joined up, but it might have been in the period when groups from the same town, or the same club, were encouraged to go to war together in the “Pals” regiments (often with tragic results if a single regiment was decimated).
So far as the story goes, I confess I found it a bit melodramatic, full of miraculous coincidences; but then again, the literature surrounding WWI is full of strange and miraculous events, as people attempted to make some kind of sense of the carnage, of why some people survived and others died.
The central conceit of the story, that Joey, a horse from Devon, makes his way through a whole range of danger on both sides of the conflit before again meeting with his beloved partner, Albert, is a sort of wish-fulfillment, at least for Albert; most of the other people who come into possession of Joey end up dead. I suspect those who watch this movie (or read the book) are expected to feel an emotional reward as, despite all the war’s horror, at least one thing is eventually put right. I found that I couldn’t feel that sort of emotion; perhaps coming to the story as an adult was the culprit, or perhaps that I’d read too many real stories of WWI that did not end happily to believe in this one, even for a few moments. I found it interesting that Albert’s father is a veteran of the Boer War, and still suffers from his experiences as well as the wound he suffered; is he meant to be an indicator that war leads only to pain and futility? I am wondering how different the film is from the movie, so far as themes go.
The day after I saw the movie, I began to think about its theme. Albert, as protagonist, doesn’t actually do much beyond train Joey and plow a field (important as that act was to his family). True, he’s shown in the Somme offensive rescuing a comrade and tossing a grenade into a machine-gun nest, but those actions felt to me like required acts of heroism, a bit rote, despite the actor’s excellent portrayal of Albert’s terror and desperation. Albert goes to France in search of Joey; but he would have eventually been drafted and sent anyway. Albert is reunited with Joey; but the actions of others enable him to actually take the horse home with him. Perhaps all that was meant to be the point; it isn’t the acts of individuals, but the collective good that is important. Individuals die (all over the place, in this movie!) but love survives. Albert isn’t rewarded with his horse because of his acts on the battlefield, but because he and Joey have a bond of love.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and was glad I saw it.
Postscript: what the hell was up with the orange filtering on the final scene? I got that it was meant to be the light of sunset, but…it was more like somebody had applied a bad fake tan to the screen.
Earlier this week, The Criminal Element posted my preview of Gone West by Carola Dunn, newest in a mystery series in the aftermath of World War One – this particular one is set in 1926.
Thanks for such a comprehensive review. The film has just opened here in the UK, and I had decided not to go & see it, mainly I am not one for showing lots of emotion in public! That said, I will reconsider it. I do plan on reading the book.
I had realised that the military drafted horses from the population, I had not considered the impact of that on the families or how many horses.
The Great War is a sobering subject, in terms of the amount of loss, the lasting costs of the war. Of course, it was the fundamental start of women truly considering the push within Society for more & more. As we head towards 2014 there will be focus on the event & commemoration of 1914-1918.
If you see it, I hope you enjoy it!