Jacob Lertora’s Review of War Horse

On its surface, the plot of War Horse (2011) is a hard sell: the protagonist, Joey, is a horse that is exchanged between a farmer, British, French, German, British, and finally back to the same farmer’s hands with a backdrop of the First World War. The characters and the owners of Joey shift often, and years pass between scenes as the movie spans the entirety of the war in two hours and 26 minutes. However, boiling down War Horse to these bare elements would be doing a great disservice to the film, which finds its legs in the smaller details, while making full use of its unconventional main character.

War Horse opens with a couple of scenes involving Albert, (the farmer’s son), and his new horse, which he names Joey. Joey, under Albert’s guidance, must overcome his first challenge to plow a field for planting. The audience waits with bated breath as Joey struggles, with Albert coaching and cheering him on, as he conquers this first obstacle and clears the rocky field. In this way, the film attached me to the concept of Albert having “rightful ownership” of Joey — an important distinction that would become relevant later. Unfortunately, Albert’s family falls into poverty despite Joey’s hard work, and Albert’s father makes the decision to sell him to the British army. Albert rushes to stop the sale, but it is too late, and he is promised that Joey will be returned by the war’s end.

Joey and his new owner are shown exiting a train as Joey befriends the horse of a major, named Topthorn. Topthorn and Joey are shown working together to achieve the fastest time in drills, and will be steadfast companions throughout the war. The two are transferred along with their owners to fight in France, where a foolish cavalry charge is called. The basis of this charge, despite two-to-one odds, is that their speed will surprise the Germans and allow the British a quick decisive victory.

This proved to be a fatal mistake in the following scene. Their charge begins well, with Joey’s owner striking down several Germans (bloodlessly) as they stumble out of their camp in disarray. However, the tide suddenly turns as the remaining Germans regroup and rush for their machine guns at the edge of a forest. As the machine guns rattle, riderless horses leap over the German lines as their British companions are implied to be killed off-screen. This scene represents a tonal shift in the film, as the backdrop of the First World War is shoved into the foreground. While the violence occurs off-screen to preserve the movie’s PG-13 rating, I don’t believe this detracts from the message the scene is meant to convey. Despite it being absurd that the Germans somehow managed to miss every single horse and hit every single rider, the imagery of hundreds of idealistic young soldiers disappearing in an instant is felt. The lack of music helps to convey the seriousness of this scene, with the audience feeling the ebb and flow of battle as the advantage rapidly changes hands. The film successfully conveys how a single mistake by a rash major could erase thousands of lives in an instant.

Joey and his partner Topthorn miraculously survive this ill-fated charge, and they are discovered later by a French farmer and his granddaughter. Emilie, the farmer’s granddaughter is sickly, and unable to ride Joey, but her grandfather eventually relents and allows her to try anyway. Emilie loses control of Joey, leading to both horses’ discovery by the Germans, who commandeer them for the war effort. Joey and Topthorn are handed over to the care of Friedrich, an artilleryman who is to monitor the horses’ condition. Topthorn’s health has been declining over the past several days, so when an officer orders Friedrich to bring Topthorn to pull a heavy gun, he begins to protest. Having seen the officer shoot another “useless” horse previously, Joey swoops in and seemingly volunteers to save the life of his friend, which causes the officer to relent. 

Here, the audience sees the strength of a non-human protagonist. Joey views the situation without bias, merely thinking about the survival of himself and his friend Topthorn. The thoughts of a brooding protagonist would muddle the simple injustice brought about by the German officer, and the kindness of Friedrich as he attempts to save Topthorn. The strengths of War Horse are brought about in the classic literary wisdom of showing rather than telling: I felt angry when an injustice was committed and happy when Joey stepped in not because it was explained to me in a righteous monologue but because these events were shown clearly on-screen.

The film then skips ahead several years to 1918, as Albert is shown in the British army, having volunteered or been conscripted off-screen. He rushes forward into a seemingly unoccupied German trench, only to be struck by a sudden gas attack. He is injured and the film returns to Joey and Topthorn. The scenes featuring Joey, Topthorn, and Friederich were mostly calm affairs, but this particular scene devolved into chaos almost immediately. Topthorn collapses as his strength finally fails him, dying tragically in front of Joey and Friederich. Suddenly, the Germans in front of the pair fall back as a tank advances toward their position. Joey panics and runs desperately across the battlefield, separating from Friederich and becoming entangled in barbed wire. A British and German soldier later work together to free Joey from the wire, with the British soldier taking him back behind his lines. As the war ends, Joey and Albert are eventually reunited and the film concludes on a happy note.

War Horse suffers from a combination of absurd coincidence and a strange lack of violence for a brutal war setting. However, it manages to drive across crucial messages about the First World War through its stellar scene work and unique protagonist. This makes War Horse an odd, but surprisingly entertaining exploration of the World War 1 genre.

Works Cited

War Horse. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Dreamworks, 2011.

Word Count: 1007

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