My first, and pretty much only experience riding a horse took place on a cloudy day on a worn-down dirt road outside a tiny French village called Borderune. I rode alongside my girlfriend and a small posse of old French ladies, taking in the beautiful countryside, when our guide began galloping ahead of us, causing all of our horses to do the same. To this day I remember the painful thudding of the barely-saddled horse against my sensitive male parts–at one point the pain was so great that I seriously considered throwing myself off the animal and over the 250-foot rocky cliffs into the ocean below, which seemed like a less painful way to go.
There is a lot of galloping and French villages in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and also a lot of pain, despair and loss. Unlike my inaugural ride, the kind of loss and pain found here can’t easily be undone by a few hours alone with an ice pack. That’s because the most surprising and impressive thing about Spielberg’s ride is that it isn’t really about horses at all–instead it’s a respectful homage to World War I, the so-called “Great War,” the shadow of which still casts a cold chill over Europe to this day.
War Horse begins in rural England, where the requisite cute young English boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), falls in love with a beautiful horse at an auction, causing the requisite drunk English Dad to spend his farm’s rent to buy the horse at auction. Although Joey the horse saves Dad’s farm by plowing the landlord’s field in one day, the turnip crop is later washed out and the horse is sold to the Army–in particular, to a dashing cavalry captain who promises his return.
At this point the horse and the film quickly move to the harsh landscape of 1915 France. One of the most striking and moving scenes of the film comes in the form of a cavalry charge in this early chapter, where the English regiment appears to rout a battalion of German soldiers, galloping through the abandoned tents of their campground, only to realize too late they have run themselves into a trap and an ensuing hail of machine gun fire. It’s a beautiful “oh shit” moment that we experience in tandem with the poor Brits on their horses, before Spielberg cuts to a shot of the horses jumping over the machine gun pits, not a single one with his man onboard.
Joey is next captured by the Germans to pull their cassions. Though paired with a couple of guileless young Huns, the idyll is short, as Joey’s doting custodians are accused of going AWOL and executed. The horse, of course, moves on–to Emilie, a sickly young French girl. Meanwhile, young Albert is now in the front lines, with his best friend Andrew, under the command of the landlord’s son. When the Battle of the Somme begins, even the Grim Reaper has his work cut out for him.
This is the tricky thing about a World War I movie, and the most likely explanation for the recent lack of such films in Hollywood: WWI is seriously depressing material for a film. World War II and Vietnam can be spun into some kind of moral or logistical cohesion, the former as a nice three-act tragedy to triumph (Saving Private Ryan), the latter as sociopolitical commentary mixed with helicopters (Apocalypse Now). But WWI was what my favorite history professor used to call “Industrialized Slaughter.” Using trench warfare, 18-month battles were fought over a hundred yards of beaten-up ground, with some single battles yielding casualties in the hundreds of thousands. Men died not only in the standard ways of war but through disease, toxic gases (mustard gas, which could blister your skin and melt your lungs), and even by drowning in water, or worse, blood, in the flooded trenches and foxholes of France.
To his credit, Spielberg captures virtually every element on this checklist in his film (and also, to his credit, he keeps things relatively un-gruesome in the process). Still, fair warning to the audience: This is not your typical Seabiscuit. Beautiful as they are, all the king’s horses can’t distract from the film’s central premise, which is that in World War I, just about everyone was a casualty.