RePost: War Horse

Note from Leigh: Memorial Day has special personal meaning for me. My grand dad (Pop) died three days before Memorial Day. It was fitting for a man that had served his country in two World Wars. In the neighborhood I lived in a lone bagpipe player walked the plaza on Memorial Day. We had just buried pop… and Amazing Grace played in the streets.

Pop served in our wars with America’s wild horses. Many people are unaware of how many of our horses served (and were left) overseas. Grandpa was cavalry in WWI, “You put your mask on him first,” he would say in his deep grunts, “he can carry you out but you can’t carry him.” That story, and a reference to the size of the rats he saw in the trenches in Europe, were the only stories Pop shared. Like many men of his generation he was one of few words.

As we honor both human and horse that have stood with our nation as we built our country and fought wars, on our soil and abroad, I am reposting a commentary on the film “War Horse.” If you have not seen it yet… might be a good night to rent it? And if you have not seen it you might want to wait to read the commentary. The commentary was written as a film review for Horseback Magazine.


Poster art by Fortunino Matania

“War Horse,” the much anticipated screen adaptation by Steven Spielberg opened in theatres across the country on Christmas Day.

As someone deeply involved in the issues facing both our wild and domestic equines, I actually went to a movie theatre for the first time in ages to view the film. Not only was this film about my favorite subject, horses, but it was done by one of my favorite directors of all time, Steven Spielberg.

Speilberg first “rocked my world” with “Empire of the Sun,” (not ET). Released in 1987 this autobiographical tale tells the story of James Graham, a boy “of privilege” that has his life shattered after the invasion of Shanghai in 1941. Spielberg wove his tale so that the audience became “Jim.” You experienced everything through the masterful performance of Christian Bale and through the vision of a great director. “Jim, try not to think so much!” is a line delivered at just the right moment, in just the right way, that it has haunted me for over twenty years.

The subject of war, and it’s cost to the human spirit, was again tackled by this master film maker in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Both of these films, although executed with very different directorial choices, speak directly to the transformation of the human soul through the horror of human action and the ability of the human spirit to transcend. We all remember Shindler agonizing that he could have saved “Just one more.”

So Christmas Day of 2011 I took my “war weary” self to the theatre to watch “War Horse.”

Now you may not like the analogy of “war weary.” But that is how I feel. Most of you know my work for the wild ones but are unfamiliar with a past that includes a decade of work in the “horse slaughter” issue. Our “front” is taking a massive onslaught this year as our rear scrambles to deal with the issues at the front and behind our own (advocate) lines. Our beloved equines, both wild and domestic, are under siege.

I plunked down the ticket price, that has gone up significantly since the last time I treated myself to a film, anticipating another “masterpiece.”

Waiting in line to find a seat I watched the movie goers leave the theatre after watching the film. There were mixed reviews. One man said “It was good” as he made the “so-so” motion with his hand. Another said “If you don’t have a tissue, don’t go in.”

A woman in line next to me confided that she had not been to a movie in a long time, but this one was about a horse. “Me, too,” I smiled.

We eagerly took our seats.

After 23 minutes of previews that flickered and had to be reset, the film began.

I began to realize that I was not going to see the Spielberg I had anticipated. I was watching a Director held by constraint.

The first third of the film is too long. It had a “made for TV feel.” Spielberg then focuses his camera lens on a plow during a scene that is to demonstrate the heart of “Joey,” our equine “star,” and “Albert” our human “spirit” focus of the film. The camera did not show the struggle but implied it. That is when I remembered this film was created for Disney.

Don’t get me wrong here. I cried. I cried eight times during the film. The opening scene had me in tears as “Joey” the newborn demonstrates his legs by running side by side with his mom. I have seen so many youngsters that can’t keep up to their mothers during the helicopter chases on public land and moms so tired they are fighting to just keep the pace. I have seen so many babes taken from that protective space and stuck in pens during the most horrific experience of their bands existence… it didn’t take much for me to need a tissue.

Archive photo of WWI (photographer not credited at source)

As we enter into the war, a third of the way through the film, we begin to comprehend the first World War.

In a battle (the first the British engage in the story and the first time you actually are told you are in Britain and not in Scotland, Wales or Ireland) you are taken to what I assume is the battle at Mons. The only true cavalry charge of WWI takes place at Mons. WWI is the transitional point in human warfare into the “mechanization” era. Spielberg does demonstrate very effectively how the cavalry charge does not meet the machine gun successfully, regardless of the belief of British officers of the day.

After that point we learn that horses are utilized for transportation of wounded and the machines we now rely on to win wars. But we see these things in small vignettes.

Each time I feel that Spielberg will take me to that “real” place of experience, that had been relayed to me by my grandfather, we get close to the destination but never truly arrive. It kept making me wonder how Spielberg would have portrayed the story without restraint of a PG-13 rating. Not a thought you want as you wait to be transported from your seat into a film.

Casualty counts are not kept on horses and mules. Yet the estimate is more than 8 million horses and mules died in the conflict on all sides. 8 million died. It is estimated that 2 and one half million were treated for wounds and 2 million of those returned to the war.

A quarter of a million horses were purchased or taken from farmers at the beginning of the war for the British army.

As the conflict raged on more countries joined the efforts and horses were needed.

Yes, the “Yankees” entered in the war. The “Yankees” were not only American Soldiers, but America’s horses. America’s horses carried our soldiers but also those of other Nations. During the conflict two-thirds of the horses used by Britain were supplied by the US.

During World War I ranchers went into business selling horses to the military. All of Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and much of the area we now call the “Tri-State Complex” had horses “harvested” and sent into battle in Europe and Africa. It is estimated that a million wild horses went into conflict, none of them returned to American soil.

American horses from the open plains of the west were described by Captain Sydney Galtrey of the British Cavalry “in a rough and ready shape – they were shoeless, long-haired, tousled-maned and had ragged hips.  But they were tough; generations of their kind had become completely at home with roaming out in the open and in all kinds of weather.”

“You put your mask on him first,” said my Grandpa “He can carry you out, you can’t carry him.”

Many soldiers were moved deeply and carried stories of the mounts that carried them to safety or that they saw die horrific deaths.

Gas mask for man and horse demonstrated by an American Soldier National Archives and Records Administration cir 1917-18

I sat in the theatre with this knowledge. We would briefly touch the reality of a “War Horse” in the film and then it would vanish.

Then the scene came… (used in the trailers) a scene where “Joey” looses a companion and is faced with the “machine.” The war blazes around him as he flees an early tank. He seemingly can’t escape and vaults over the “beast.” His flight takes him through an horrific battlefield where earlier we had witnessed the casualties to man. He crashes through barbed wire. He begins to collect it as he runs through the destructive path laid by man. (I was crying and teeth clenched as I have seen what barbed wire can do and we lost some of our wild ones this year during roundups to the cruelty of the invention).

He becomes immobilized.

As dawn rises and snow begins to fall we watch as the combatants come together for a brief moment to recognize the spirit of an “amazing horse.” The scene is pure Spielberg. As the tears stream down my face I watch as “enemies” cooperate to free “Joey.” I care about “Joey” and the two men involved. I am finally “in” the film.

Only for a brief moment at the end of the piece do we even peripherally become aware of the possible fate of many of the horses. A “butcher” is present at auction. If you are not informed, you are never told the truth. You are never told how many the “butcher” actually takes.

This film will be on the shelf next to “The Black Stallion” and “My friend Flicka.” It is a “love story” story of a horse and a boy/man.

Does this film have the power of “Black Beauty” to raise the consciousness of a nation? A novel that was responsible for creating a climate to pass the first humane care laws in our country… I don’t know.


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2 thoughts on “RePost: War Horse

  1. I saw the epic film War Horse. I also cried all through the film. Even in the happy times! I cried even though I knew how the movie was made and all the tricks to make it look real. People cried at the “story” of a horse.
    If I was at a roundup I would be crying. I cry watching your video’s because I know they ARE real. REAL barbed wire, REAL ditches, REAL men yelling at the Mustangs, REAL men poking, REAL men prodding at them, REAL men pulling them in all directions, REAL men driving them with helicopter’s, REAL men baiting them, REAL men fencing them off from water, REAL men taking the foals away from their mother’s, foal’s crying for their mother’s, too early to be taken. REAL men are responsible for laming, injuring, & killing Mustangs & Burro’s.
    They say, “Real Men Are Kind To Animals”. WHERE are You???

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