I found tears rolling down my cheek during this movie, not because of the sentimentality forced into its every minute by director Steven Spielberg, but because Spielberg misses the point of Michael Morpurgo’s book War Horse.
Yes, both stories thematically demonstrate how war victimizes innocents, human and animal. But the original book is Joey’s story–the horse’s point of view. Here, Spielberg uses the horse as a prop passed between owners like the musical instrument in The Red Violin. He leans heavily on classic film images to the point of making them cliché–the goose that acts out the mother’s desires as in director William Wyler’s 1956 anti-war movie Friendly Persuasion and the picturesque angles of the family farm straight out of John Ford’s classic How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man.
Without the horses, Spielberg is saying nothing new. Ironically, the great director doesn’t seem to truly understand that. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg admits:
“The horses were amazing. Joey had a sense of what was happening in the scene. Joey added things, as the cameras were rolling, that none of us ever asked for, that brought a performance to [the audience] that we didn’t expect when we made the movie.”
Yet, he has specifically chosen not to credit the equine actors that provide the film with its greatest depth. Even the humans that worked with the horses are relegated to “Other Crew” at the end of the credits. Spielberg is mirroring the militaries of the Great War, he is using these animals for his benefit and not distinguishing them for their participation. Is he afraid that knowing these are equine performers will destroy the “movie magic”? Movie goers aren’t fools, we won’t be crushed to know that the part of Joey was filled by 14 different horses or that the big black horse Topthorn was portrayed by a company of four.
These horses aren’t just four-legged extensions of the humans in the story and they didn’t just happen to be brought in as farm-stock extras. Each horse was specifically cast and trained, and one of the equine actors did portray Joey more often than others. According to the movie’s horse master Bobby Lovgren, a horse named Finder was instrumental in many of those scenes that made movie-goers turn misty eyed. Lovgren worked with this horse and purchased it after its participation in the film Seabiscuit. (for more on the horses in the movie )
So what’s happened here that the caterers are credited and the horses aren’t? Roy Rogers’ credited Trigger? How many of the horses that participated in the film were sold off like used props as the war horses were at the end of WWI?
And here is my biggest problem with Spielberg’s attempt at this story. Morpurgo’s tale is about the unrecognized innocents that were forced to participate in human conflict. Spielberg uses the horses as symbols of human innocents, not as actual representatives of the other living creatures that are drawn into human-created catastrophe. Scholars estimate that 8.5 million soldiers died on all sides during World War I. When Morpurgo researched his book, the Imperial War Museum supplied the number of an estimated 8 million horses that died in the war as well.
Why didn’t that appear on the screen at the end of this movie?
In London’s Hyde Park a memorial for Animals in War was dedicated in 2004. Bronze statues of a horse, a dog and two mules make their way through a wall depicting animals of all species from elephants to glow worms that were drawn into human wars in the 20th century. And here are the words that speak so much and were left out of this film...
“...They had no choice.”
One of the first such memorials appeared in France following WWI near the location of the Battle of the Somme. Here a memorial was placed on a wall in the town of Couin for the horses and mules, dogs, carrier pigeons and canaries that gave their lives.
“To the innumerable God’s humble who suffered and perished in the last wars. With love, faith, and loyalty, they endured much and died for us. May all remember them with gratitude and in the future commemorate their suffering and death by showing kindness to living animals.”
This is the take away mime that is desperately needed from this film. Not for people to cry and say how sad it was then, but to honor the sacrifice of these creatures with compassionate actions now. More animals are misused in this country today than ever before, from illicit fighting to throw away pets. But that is not where Spielberg went. He chose instead to focus back to the people. But if you can not show compassion and sympathy for the horse, then eventually there will be some human who is “less human” than you are, someone “more animal” than you and therefore who’s life is worth less than yours.
Memorials for animals in war and compassion for their sacrifice are appearing in many other countries around the world. Spielberg’s film War Horse could have moved people toward that thought in the U.S. as well, instead he chose to turn his movie toward a father and son both damaged by war and able to come to a silent understanding. Enough of the silent understanding! It’s time for loud voices speaking out for the value of all living creatures and the necessity of a healthy planet for us all to live on.