Let me say up front that it took a lot to get me to see this movie. Here's the thing: I am a "pink and blue butterfly thoughts" kind of girl. You know, happy stuff. I typically shy away from sad stuff as I feel there's enough of it to be seen everywhere in this world and I don't need to make a point of searching for it. My typical reading material? Chick lit/romance novels or horse books. Don't hate me for it. I don't look at it as a weakness, just a deep knowledge of what I need to get through life.
I do occasionally vary from this philosophy, usually when there is an important opportunity for greater learning. Such as when I was in Germany and had the opportunity to see Dachau. As the philosopher George Santayana so famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Sometimes you need to confront the horror of history in order to move forward in a better way.
My almost 13 year old son is, like most boys his age, fascinated by war. Unlike most boys his age, he also loves horses. The difficulty I've faced is showing my son that war (as much as I could understand it) is not the romanticized idea he has in his head without presenting him with information he is unable to process. After running the idea past other parents who'd seen the movie, I thought that War Horse might be able to do for Noah what I was unable to. Truthfully, I did want to see the movie because really, how often does Hollywood make movies about horses? However, combining a movie about a horse with a moral lesson and a teaching moment for the Boy? Trifecta!!!
So Nancy, Frank , Noah and I head off to see the movie. For starters, I felt like a kindergarten teacher on a field trip. Getting everybody in the car and buckled up was the first big issue (main offender, 69 year old Frank). Second issue was the concession stand. My father has hearing issues, Noah and I had potty issues, so ordering was a bit rushed. At one point poor Frank was so flustered trying to figure out who wanted what that he turned to a complete stranger and bellowed at the poor man, "For Cripes Sake, what do you want already?"
Now, about the movie. As you may know, it's told from the horse's point of view. The horse, Joey, is a Thoroughbred (played mostly by Dutch Warmbloods) that we see from his early days as the much loved companion of Irish farm boy Albert to his initial conscription into the service of the British Armed Forces, and his further exploits as the war progresses. We see the war and the toll it takes on the humans and animals it touches through the Joey's interaction with them. Through Joey, we are shown the compassion people are capable of, even those with opposing ideologies, as well as the horrors.
Spielberg does a fabulous job of portraying the dirt and grit and horror of conflict while shying away from all of the gore shown in Saving Private Ryan, hence the PG-13 rating. The characters were quite well developed considering the number of them we encountered and the time we had to spend with them, and were multi-dimensional enough that you could emphatically state that one was unequivocally good and the other bad. And it is the horse, Joey, that brings out the humanity in each character, and established the connection between them.
Arguably, one of the best scenes in the movie comes after Joey escaped the Germans. During his escape he runs through "No Man's Land," a term coined during WWI to refer to the unoccupied area between enemy trenches, most often heavily riddled with barbed wire and land mines. Joey becomes entangled in the barbed war and needs assistance. What happens next is truly a testament to the ability of human beings to work together, despite their differences. An English soldier leaves his trench to help Joey, and a German soldier, seeing that the Englishman is unequipped to extricate Joey from the wire, leaves his trench to offer the Englishman and the horse assistance. As the two men work to help Joey, their new common cause forges a tentative and heartwarming harmony.
Isn't that the way it is with horses? They unite us, and connect us, in the most basic of ways. An example? At the theatre, we found ourselves sitting next to an older woman with her family. During the movie, I could tell she was very upset by what she was seeing, but none of her family members did anything. At one point I had my arm around my son comforting him, he was patting my back in order to comfort me, and then I wound up with my arm around that lady comforting her while she sobbed. I thought she was remembering the war, but she was so upset, she said, because she loved horses so much and couldn't bear to see them suffer. So we spent the rest of the movie in a big old bear hug, that lady, my son, and I. And at the end I showed her a picture of Sugar that I had on my phone in the hope she would stop crying. She smiled the the most gorgeous smile ever and showed it to her sons, and left the movie theatre happy.
As for my son, this was the first time that I think he ever understood the ugliness that is war, and it took his love for horses, most especially his horse, to drive the idea home. I think seeing how Joey and his fellow horses suffered, seeing the cruelty inflicted on them, made it easier for Noah to see the cruelty that humans inflict on each other during war. I'm sad that it had to be that way, but I'm thankful to Spielberg and the movie for being able to teach that to him. Noah may not be able to remember the mistakes of the past, but perhaps through seeing them through the cinematic eyes of Joey, he'll avoid making mistakes like them in the future.
By the way, if you are interested in learning more about the horses of WWI and War Horse the movie, Fran Jurga has a fascinating blog about it called War Horse News. Noah and I have spent some quality time on it, reading about the making of the movie and the huge role equines (all kinds) played in WWI. Here's a link to one of our favorite posts, partially entitled "She Is Very Stupid, But I Am Very Fond Of Her."