A horse is a horse…unless its WAR HORSE
I have to admit: I went into War Horse with fairly low expectations. Yes, Spielberg is a favorite, but after age ten I haven’t been able to get invested in films that largely revolve around an animal. I expected to go in, suffer a bit through “oh, I surely love my horse so much” parts and enjoy some quality time with Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch. Surprisingly for me, I gleaned much more enjoyment from the film overall than I anticipated. So here is my breakdown of the film (into its piecemeal way of storytelling) and what I liked/liked less as well as the obligatory Downton Abbey comparison. (I am talking explicit plot points here, but just in case let me say in my best pirate: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD.) The past few months have been steadily increasing my knowledge of the Great War, especially with Downton and Boardwalk Empire. I say, keep it coming!
Part One: When you covet thy neighbor’s colt….
…..your father foolishly outbids his landlord and pays an extravagant price for a thoroughbred when your family really needs a strong plough horse. Granted, this portion was necessary for set-up; they only stress it in a million different ways but just in case you don’t get it, “Joey” the horse is special. He’s different, stronger and smarter than the average horse. Albie (…
the racist dragon) trains him to come with a special owl call (like he read in a book about Injuns) and Joey somehow overcomes all obstacles to plow the stony field when surprise! Rain makes the earth more pliable. Other notables: Albie’s dad is an alcoholic with a gimp leg, both legacies of his time in the Boer War. Albie has a goofy-grinned best friend Andrew and a rival, David (son of their evil landlord), who is the “only boy in the village that can drive.” Unfortunately for this wunderkind, the girl he is trying to woo with his driving skills is much more impressed with Albie’s horsepower (literally) (har har). Due to a freak storm, the precious turnips are ruined and Albie’s dad goes to plan b: sell poor Joey to an army captain before he marches off to the front. DOWNTON PARALLEL: If you live in Devon (or a place that looks like Hobbiton) you get your war news via the town Paul Revere. If you are the Earl of Grantham, you can conveniently announce the news at your garden party, in front of your closest friends, relatives, and servants. Luckily for Albie, his dad sells him to the kind blue eyes of Tom Hiddleston’s Captain Nicholls who promises to return Joey to Albie at the end of the war if possible (anvil clang).
Part Two: If you are cool enough to be the horse of either Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston, you must, by necessity, become the best of horse friends
Finally, for me, the gears of the movie (and war) started turning. It proved to be very difficult for me to focus my energies when both Benedict and Tom were on the screen. (BC won usually). But luckily Tom had a few scenes sans Benedict’s Sergeant Jamie Stewart. What a good natured character was Tom’s Captain Nicholls! He sketches! Jamie leads the men into a German camp via a cavalry charge with disastrous consequences: honestly, I thought Jamie was sure to perish. Why? Not sure, but probably because his presence in the trailer led me to believe Tom Hiddleston had a larger role. WRONG. As the Germans reached their hidden machine guns, the recognition of their unavoidable slaughter crept into Tom’s baby blues. I can only express my sadness by listening to/watching Black Swan Song. Oh well, I have The Avengers to look forward to, this Comic-Con panel to keep me entertained, and my Thor Blu-ray. Benedict went off to POW land, never to be seen or heard from again. DOWNTON PARALLEL: The male population of the UK was absolutely decimated during the Great War. Just ask Sybil: “Sometimes it feels as if all of the men I’ve danced with are dead.”
Part Three: The guy from The Reader and his brother commit a No-No
In memory of the precious few minutes we got of the Benedict/Tom bromance, Joey and Topthorn (BC’s horse) remain together in the German camp. And because Joey is special you guys, he shows Topthorn it is okay to be harnessed, ensuring both of their survivals. The appearance of the boy from The Reader as Gunther (David Kross) resulted in me listening to his speech patterns; I was trying to decide if he actually knows English now rather than just memorizing some consonant sounds. Lucky for him, he is really good with the horses; so much so that he gets to stay behind and care for them. His 14-year-old brother gets his orders to go to the front, and despite his protests, Gunther grabs him from the line of marching men and they flee to a nearby windmill (aka the most obvious hiding spot within a 20 mile radius). It is a gamble that in the end is not worth the risk: we all know what the punishment for desertion is….DOWNTON PARALLEL: One cannot help but think of poor Mrs. Patmore’s nephew MIA and later revealed to have been shot for cowardice. TORCHWOOD PARALLEL: Poor Tosh’s out of time semi-boyfriend Tommy, who was doomed to death once he returned to his appropriate timeline because of his PTSD (or shell shock) which, in the eyes of officers, was cowardice on the battlefield, and resulted in execution.
Part Four: A Sickly Girl Meets Two Horses (Interlude)
This was probably my least favorite chapter in the story of Joey. I was truly enjoying the battlefield so to be torn away so abruptly into this farm setting was a little boring (especially if you are expecting an Inglourious Basterds type situation). A little girl, Emilie, living with her grand-père, falls in love with the two horses she magically finds in their windmill. All she wants to do is go riding, but she suffers from brittle bones.She wants to know about the death of her parents and he wants to talk about some pigeons. In the end, the horses are found when Emilie is allowed to ride Joey on her birthday and sent back into the field.
Part Five: Its 1918, Welcome to The Somme, Albie
Poor Joey and Topthorn are now employed with the wrenching work of moving heavy artillery up and down embankments. While we know this is something THE MIRACLE HORSE Joey is capable of, Topthorn is already struggling.
MEANWHILE at the Battle of the Somme we see a familiar face: Albie! As one could have guessed, no able-bodied boy from Devon could escape conscription when his age allowed (but he was probably eagerly awaiting the day he could begin the Joey search, if Captain Nicholl’s sad little sketchbook and death notice did not dissuade him too much). Andrew is alongside Albie as well as Mr. I Can Drive David. The boys raid No Man’s Land, except Andrew is in charge of giving any cowards a bayonet to the stomach. Albie saves David halfway across the stretch of war-torn land (making me search my brain for what this reminded me of: The Pacific? Of course not…ahhh yes, the Doctor Who episode where the mean popular kid becomes friends with the little scrawny Love Actually boy when they are in the Great War–and his vision from the Doctor’s fob watch allows him to save them both on the battlefield). DOWNTON PARALLEL #1: In the second season, they sure do beat us over the head about how war changes everything, war is the great equalizer, etc: Matthew: “War has a way of distinguishing between the things that matter and the things that don’t.” And similarly, the fact that David got to drive around a pretty girl and their dad’s hate each other matter a lot less to Albie in the middle of combat. Andrew cannot bayonet his friends when they scramble back into the trenches and instead he leaps onto the field to join Albie. This made me wonder: would he have been accused of cowardice himself, for refusing to kill the cowards? Time wouldn’t tell because dear old goofy Andrew succumbed to mustard gas in the enemy trenches. DOWNTON PARALLEL #2: I did half expect to see Matthew and William preparing to go out on a raid.
BACK TO JOEY. Topthorn is completely spent; he lays down and will not get back up. With fighting breaking out, Joey is able to escape, only to leap around the trenches and get stuck in No Man’s Land, caught in barbed wire. This leads to one of my favorite scenes of the film: the cooperation between the British and German soldiers who cut Joey free. That both sides would break for Christmas celebrations or football matches and other such tales is one of the most heartwarming and heart-wrenching aspects of the Great War. The British soldier wins the right to take Joey back to his camp, thus setting up….
Part Six: A boy and his horse reunited
As storytelling allows, Joey and Albie end up in the same vicinity. TWIST! Their reunion is made all the more difficult by Albie’s temporary blindness due to the mustard gas. However, the fateful owl call he taught Joey as well as his perfect description of his features spare Joey yet again. There was only one obstacle left: Joey was going back to his beginnings—the farmer’s auction. While all the soldiers chip in to help Albie, the grandfather of the little girl appears and pays an astronomical price for Joey, recognizing that the miracle horse was being sold. He has his reasons for wanting him: his granddaughter is dead, and he wants the one piece of her that the war didn’t take. (And thus the whole little interlude in the middle of the movie wasn’t a complete departure from the plot). Albie mans up and says goodbye but Joey is reluctant; the old man pulls out Albie’s father’s regimental pennant from his pocket (that traveled from Albie to Joey to the old man) and he finally realizes the horse belongs with Albie. Albie returns home with Joey to his parents and I sit in wonder at how a movie can end so happily. The father isn’t even dead? Wow, and one of my friends thought for sure Joey would be heading to “The Glue Factory” by the end.
Let’s just hope that Albie doesn’t end up like his father or poor Jimmy Darmody on Boardwalk Empire, forever haunted by his experiences.