War Horse. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks. 2011.

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011) tells the story of teenager Albert Narracott and his horse Joey, tracing their journey from rural Devonshire farm to the Western Front. Joey is the dominant character within the film with the plot line tied directly to his experience rather than Albert’s. Throughout the course of the film Joey encounters a number of characters, leaving a lasting impression upon each of them: after being sold into the cavalry he passes through the hands of two young German deserters, lives briefly with French civilians, assists on the German front line and is finally reunited with Albert at the end of the war. Spielberg’s film effectively depicts the commodity of horse power during the First World War and successfully establishes the horse as a figure of morality, a space in which the characters in the film are able to find themselves whilst they are in the unfamiliar and suspenseful setting of war.

As War Horse is atypically communicated through an animal’s experience, it tests the characteristics of the genre of war film, which Belton outlines;

  • Individual morality is suspended during a period of war; the soldier does not ‘murder’ as they are acting on behalf of the greater good.
  • A collective goal takes precedence over any personal goals; the war effort is all consuming.
  • Rivalry takes place within the dominantly male environment and women are objectified when/if they feature in the film.
  • The return of veterans to society and to the role of civilian. [1]

However, War Horse does recognise these characteristics by having Joey function outside of them. The idea of war as a period of suspended morality and identity does not apply to animals as they are constructions of human consciousness, which results in Joey becoming the ‘moral aristocrat’ [2] with the human characters still fulfilling these filmic tropes.

Joey is established as property of Albert at the beginning of the film during the training process when Albert names him and then says ‘you’re mine now’. The act of naming gives Joey his character identity, to which he returns at the end of the film. When he does finally return to the British base, he narrowly avoids death when his hooves and head are washed to reveal his markings, yet he is only freed when his physical identity is paired with a name that in turn proves that he belongs to a human and that there is in fact an emotional bond worth saving. There is conflict between the almost ceremonial washing of the head and hooves that releases Joey from the war and the fact that his ownership had to be proven in order to be saved from death. Nevertheless, Joey does regain his pre-war identity and ceases to be the identity-less character that was constructed by the war.

Joey’s status as animal and outsider during combat is most poignantly established in the scene following the death of the horse Topthorn, when he escapes from the German artillery base a fast paced moving shot of him running alongside the trenches and into no man’s land follows. Joey is detached from the boundaries created by war in a literal sense in this shot. Even when he becomes entangled in barbed wire, his suffering results in the brief union of British and German soldiers in no man’s land in a joint attempt to free the neutral animal.

The transcendental quality that Joey seems to posses throughout the film has already been established as the result of the suspended war identities of the human characters, but it is important to note his connection to the red pennant that Albert ties to him as he is taken away. The pennant that saw Albert’s father through the Boer War also functions as a space upon which war and the experience of war is projected, becoming a good luck charm. The most notable demonstration of displacing of emotion upon both Joey and the pennant is made by the elderly French man, who purchases Joey at the end of the war stating that Joey is all he has left of his granddaughter Emilie. Despite the two being connected, Joey’s fate is in fact tied to the pennant as much as it is to his name as in the scene discussed earlier; the elderly only man gives Joey over to Albert when his recognition of the pennant and by extension his true emotional attachment to Joey is made clear.

At a number of points in the film it seems Joey has agency. He actively protects his companion Topthorn and it appears as though he has a developed an awareness of death and the threat it poses to him and his friend. This awareness of death is a product of the prevalence of the machine and mechanised warfare in the film. There are numerous shots within the film that place horses in direct comparison with machines. A close up shot of Joey’s face which quickly switches to the barrel of a German machine gun when the cavalry charge the German infantry and realise at the last moment that they stand no chance against the modern defence system of the garrison. This is repeated again later in the film when Joey is trapped by an oncoming tank, with a quick succession of shots between animal and the encroaching machine establishes the dawn of modern warfare. This serves to reinforce the vulnerability of the animal at the hands of man, only serving to strengthen the idea of the horse as moral mascot.Despite the conflicts between Joey as a neutral moral figure and the ownership Albert has over him, the idea of displaced identity and the horse still stands. For example, the pennant Joey wears is itself a demonstration of Albert’s own war anxieties and the transcendental nature that is seen to be displayed by Joey is only a construct of the individual characters trapped in the temporary space of war and drawn to the detached figure of the animal. The idea of the war horse as a moral figure seems to function fully to a contemporary retrospective audience as part of a society that is now hyper aware of animal welfare and the nature of warfare. When considering the representation of horses in War Horse it is also important to take into consideration the different forms the story has taken; the screenplay was developed from the stage version which was adapted from Morpurgo’s original children’s novel. The original story is of Joey’s internal monologue and the interpretation we see in the form of Spielberg’s film is taken largely from the stage production rather than the book. This results in a change of perspective and narration, as well as a development from fictional character to physical representation in the form of puppets to the use of real horses. This development has made topic of animals more accessible and created a platform for historical study in terms of the audiences it reaches; the popular channel 4 documentary War Horse: The Real Story is unusual in its nature as it is a direct producr of the popularity of the fictional stage production and film release.

One other notable film in which horses feature in a violent environment is Ben Hur. During the high speed chariot race the horses seem almost to be actual extensions of man, their relentless force in the race detaches them from any emotional individuality and as the audience is more emotionally invested with Hur’s character anyway the audience finds themselves overlooking the welfare of the horses. The horses do not transgress boundaries in the same manner as Joey, yet one notable point of connection between the two films would be the idea of hierarchy amongst the horses themselves. Hur’s white horses are an obvious display of good in the presence of the opposing ‘bad’ black horses and the other dispensable unidentified chariot pulling horses. Similarly Joey does not fall into the category of thoroughbred or work horse and that fact is made clear in the film through shots such as the one when Joey is first bought by Mr Narricott and a larger Shire Horse is led away to reveal the less physically dominant figure of Joey. This idea of hierarchy is once again a construction of man and physicality, two forces that determine between Joey’s life and death in the film.

Further Reading

Anonymous, ‘Masculinity, war films, and Windtalkers’ [online] https://thefilmprof.wordpress.com/tag/john-belton/ [accessed 7th April 2013]

Peter Bradshaw, ‘War Horse – Review’ [online] https://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/jan/12/war-horse-spielberg-film-review [accessed 8th April 2013]

Philip French, ‘War Horse – Review’ [online] https://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/jan/15/war-horse-spielberg-review [accessed 8th April 2013]

Singleton, J., ‘Britain’s Military Use of Horses 1914-1918’, Past and Present, No.139 (1993), pp. 178-203.

Van Emden, R., Tommy’s Ark, (Bloomsbury, 2011)

War Horse: The Real Story, Channel 4, 2012 [online] https://www.channel4.com/programmes/war-horse-the-real-story/4od#3407673 [accessed 7th April 2013]

[1] Belton, J., taken from, Anonymous, ‘Masculinity, war films, and Windtalkers’ [online] https://thefilmprof.wordpress.com/tag/john-belton/ [accessed 7th April 2013]

[2] Philip French, Guardian review https://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/jan/15/war-horse-spielberg-review [accessed April 2013]