Next time someone says to me, “The book is always better than the movie,” I can say: “Hah! You have not seen War Horse!”
Stories evolve. Later versions are not necessarily better, and stories told using different media have different strengths and different constraints. Nevertheless, though the movie owes much to both its predecessors—the children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo and the stage play that uses puppets by Handspring—the movie is hands down the best version.
The relationships between the characters have been tweaked to support the story better. The story itself has been tweaked to smooth the pacing and heighten the drama. Moreover, the settings shine. A book can describe a setting evocatively, but not every book does. Spielberg’s pictures are worth many more thousands of words than Morpurgo gave us. Meanwhile, the anti-war didacticism, which sometimes upstaged Handspring’s puppets in the play, is toned down to the point that it’s almost absent from the dialog of the movie. After all, on the big screen, the horror of war speaks for itself, and anyway, there are other stories that better show its terrible cost. This is not the story of the lives and deaths of human soldiers, nor even the story of a boy who loved his horse. This is the story of a horse that went to war.
It’s beautiful, and so absorbing that I didn’t realize until after I’d watched it twice that it’s two and a half hours long!
According to the reviews, not everyone likes the old-fashioned “honest, emotionally direct” storytelling, calling it overly sentimental, and some deride it as mere family-friendly entertainment, too clean to be serious about its ostensibly grim subject matter.
I refuse to dislike the movie on those grounds. Is it calculated to be emotionally satisfying? Maybe. But it satisfies, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies.
See below for a short summary, a very very detailed summary (with SPOILERS), a list of the changes I liked in the movie, a list of some of the movie reviews, and a few other thoughts.
What is the core story of War Horse?
Part I: The Farm and the Farm Boy
- Albert’s father enters and wins a bidding war for a spirited colt. Albert names him Joey.
- Against all odds, Albert teaches Joey to pull a plow.
- Albert’s father sells Joey to the army after Britain joins WWI.
Part II: Topthorn and The War
- Joey befriends another fine horse, a black stallion named Topthorn.
- Captain Nicholls draws a portrait of Joey. Then he dies in action.
- The Germans use Joey and Topthorn to pull ambulance carts.
- An orphan French girl named Emilie takes care of Joey and Topthorn.
- The Germans use Joey and Topthorn to pull heavy guns.
- Topthorn dies of exhaustion.
- Sad, scared, and alone, Joey runs into no-man’s land.
Part III: Safe and Together Again
- Joey is rescued from no-man’s land by two men, one from each side.
- The Brits win him in a coin toss.
- Joey and Albert are reunited. (The play ends here.)
- Joey is put up for auction again.
- Emilie’s grandfather buys him.
- Emilie’s grandfather gives Joey back to Albert.
- Albert and Joey return home.
War Horse (2011): Detailed Summary
Aerial view of peaceful, green countryside.
A boy named Albert watches a bay colt being born.
Time Passes: Albert watches the colt running alongside his mother. He approaches and offers him an apple, but the colt runs away.
A Bidding War
The colt is obviously spirited. Albert’s father Ted Narracott needs a draft horse for his farm, but he sees the colt and bids on him instead, in part to prove to his landlord Lyons that he’s just as good a man, in part because he’s drunk, in part because he admires the colt. Si Easton and his son Andrew gently discourage him, but Narracott won’t be discouraged:
“There are big days and there are small days. Which will it be?”
The landlord’s son David discourages his father, but the bidding war drives the price up to 30 guineas, which Narracott pays, though he can’t also afford the rent.
Back home, with the hilarious goose from the play wandering around in the background, Rose Narracott says the useless colt shouldn’t have cost more than 10 guineas, and characterizes the purchase as a disaster that will cost the family everything. Albert promises to train him, since his father’s lame leg won’t allow him to do so himself. Rose gives him a month in which to give it a try.
Albert feeds the colt and names him Joey. The goose bites Albert’s father.
Time Passes: Albert teaches Joey to answer his whistle call.
The Plowing Challenge
As foreshadowed, Narracott doesn’t have enough money to give Lyons when the rent comes due. He promises he will pay, but he needs time. He also needs to plant a particularly rocky field, which means he needs to plow it, which means he needs Joey to learn to plow. Lyons doesn’t want to wait for the money because—more foreshadowing—there’s a war coming. However, he says Narracott can have an extension on the rent—if Joey can plow the field. When Albert asks what happens if he can’t, Lyons says he’ll immediately take the horse… and the farm. The stakes, just as Rose predicted, are everything the family has. The goose chases Lyons and his assistants out the gate.
Narracott, drunk, desperately tries to get Joey to wear a plow collar. Joey knocks him to the ground. Overreacting, Narracott points a gun at him. His wife and son talk him down. Narracott reaches for his flask, but Rose stops him.
“Some days are best forgotten. Today ain’t one of them.”
The next day, Albert goes to the stable. He must convince Joey to plow. If he cannot, then he and the horse will be separated forever, but he believes he can, and that they were meant to be together.
“I don’t know much about life, boy, but I do know that there are big days and there are small days. Most days are small days, and, well, they don’t matter much to anyone. But this, well, this is a big one. This is our big day.”
The rusted plow has sunk into the ground, and Si Easton says there’s no way Joey will be able to manage. Andrew remains hopeful for his friend.
Meanwhile, Lyons berates Narracott.
“Well, you’ve raised him up a true Narracott, Ted…. Not a dollop of ordinary sense, but that thick stubbornness that’ll lead him to insist on the impossible.”
This, of course, is nothing but more foreshadowing—it means exactly the opposite of what Lyons thinks it does. Albert will insist on the impossible… and he will achieve it.
Though he hardly needs to tell Narracott his own history, Lyons, by way of taunting his tenant, fills us in on a bit of Narracott’s backstory. Albert’s father virtuously chose to give up a better farm in favor of his brothers, and he only drinks because his leg injury pains him; despite his fettle, he’s an obvious failure.
With Lyons, Narracott, Si Easton, and Andrew watching, Albert hitches Joey to the plow and tells him to “walk on”. When Joey stays put, Albert reluctantly uses the whip, but gets dragged along the ground when Joey bolts. Dozens of neighbors arrive on the scene, curious to see whether Albert will succeed. As tensions rise, Rose sits herself down in an upstairs room and starts to knit.
Joey’s legs buckle and Lyons tells Albert to give up. It starts to rain. Surely the bet—and the farm—is lost. However, squishing his feet in the mud, Albert realizes that wet ground is softer… maybe now the plow can bite the earth. He tries again. This time Joey not only succeeds, he pulls the plow straight into a big rock and splits it in two. Lyons, seeing that Rose has emerged from the house, tells her it’s dangerous for Albert to walk behind an inexperienced plowhorse because he could lose a foot. Rose points her knitting needles at him and says if he doesn’t watch out, he could lose an eye. The bet has been won. Lyons will have to wait for the rent money.
Albert resents his father’s drinking, recklessness, and reticence. Rose admonishes her son. Narracott was a decorated Sergeant in the Boer War, but refused to be proud of killing. Rose shows Albert the medals that his father tried to throw away upon his return.
“He don’t talk about it ’cause he can’t. There aren’t words for some things.”
After his mother returns these family treasures to their hiding place, Albert borrows his father’s campaign pennant.
“I’m not stealing it. I’ll give it back to him someday.”
Time passes: Narracott diligently plants and hoes turnips in the field Albert and Joey plowed. Albert, riding Joey, races David Lyons, who’s out for a drive in his father’s car, trying to impress a girl. Upon reaching a stone wall, Joey stops short, sending Albert tumbling head over heels into the grass.
“Well, you’re clearly not going to be a jumper.”
Excessive rain spoils the turnips and sends the goose (whose name is Harold) running into the questionable shelter of the house, with its leaky roof. Narracott despairs.
“I used to believe that God gave each man his fair portion of bad luck. I don’t feel that anymore. I’ve had more than my share.”
War is declared. The bells will ring in the evening, then will fall silent until the end of the war. (Once again, that’s foreshadowing… you can bet we are going to hear those bells again!)
Narracott sneaks off with Joey to sell him to the army. It’s clear he really doesn’t want to sell him, but decided he had to. It’s also clear he’s proud he bought him in the first place.
“Finest horse in all of Devon. Finest horse I ever seen.”
Narracott concludes the sale just as Albert, having seen Joey was missing, rushes up to try to stop him. Learning it’s too late, he tries to volunteer so he can go with his horse and they can take care of each other, but he’s not old enough.
The buyer, Captain Nicholls, handles the situation with admirable sensitivity. He kindly tells Albert that he is only leasing Joey, and that he will do his best to return him safely, and that he will take good care of him in the meantime. He tells Albert to say goodbye, but Corporal Perkins rudely interrupts him after only a moment.
Meanwhile, Rose is frowning at Narracott. In his defense, he asks her whether she would have preferred to lose the farm. She says she doesn’t object to what he did, but how he did it. Narracott defends himself feebly.
“But we’re at war!”
“Aren’t we just.”
As the soldiers march out of town, Albert attaches his father’s pennant to Joey’s bridle.
“I, Albert Narracott, solemnly swear we will be together again. Wherever you are, I will find you, and I will bring you home.”
“You’re in the army now.”
Joey breaks away from Sergeant Perkins in the cavalry camp. Perkins catches him and puts him next to a fine black stallion named Topthorn, belonging to Major Jamie Stewart. Keeping his promise to Albert, Nicholls tells Perkins to be gentle with Joey.
The next day, Joey carries Captain Nicholls to victory in a close race against Major Stewart and Topthorn during a full practice charge involving dozens of horses.
Nicholls draws a picture of Joey, fit and handsome, to send to Albert and shows it to Major Stewart, who says they will ship out to the front in the morning.
“Battle orders. No polishing. Buttons, helmet buckles, stirrup irons, let them all go dull. I don’t want anything to flash in the sun and give us away.”
Lieutenant Charlie Waverly jokes that his new hat might inspire a German to shoot someone else; Captain Nicholls says a German might shoot him just to take it. War inspires morbid jokes.
Major Stewart is confident that a surprise attack will bring swift and decisive victory. Like Macbeth contemplating the murder of King Duncan, Captain Nicholls is not eager to wield his weapon against a fellow human.
“If it must be done let’s do it quickly.”
He asks Lieutenant Waverly if he’s all right, as he seems nervous, and reattaches Narracott’s pennant before mounting Joey.
There’s a beautiful image of men and horses moving through tall yellow grass, with bits of plant fuzz floating about in the air in the sunshine, but then the soldiers charge forward through a group of tents, upsetting everything in their path. Their attack seems inhumanly cruel… until the fleeing Germans reach the guns hidden in the woods, when it starts to seem incredibly foolhardy.
There’s no blood, just death and the sound of guns, and then Captain Nicholls is no longer astride Joey; Joey is running on alone, and the air is emptied of sound. Major Stewart is captured alive and berated for his arrogance, for underestimating his enemy. The German officer is not so much gloating as assigning blame for the dozens of motionless human and equine bodies littered around them.
Gunther and Michael
The Germans are not using cavalry. They plan to shoot the injured horses and, if the healthy ones won’t pull guns, to shoot them as well. A young German soldier named Gunther suggests that Joey and Topthorn might be willing to pull the ambulances. Topthorn balks at first, but not after he sees Joey submit. Gunther is relieved.
“Whoever taught you this has just saved your life.”
Gunther detaches the pennant from Joey’s bridle.
[Albert receives the drawing that Captain Nicholls made of Joey and learns of his death in action. Albert now has reason to worry about Joey’s well-being.]
A German jeep drives over a collar used to hitch horses to the ambulances, signalling the end of a period of safety. Gunther is to stay behind to look after the horses until they are needed while his younger brother Michael, only 14, is to go with the other foot soldiers to the front. Gunther encourages his brother to hide and stay behind so that he can look after him as he promised their mother, but Michael eagerly packs his things to leave.
“Mother obviously never told you how to fold a shirt.”
“Of course she did. I just wasn’t listening.”
Gunther attaches Narracott’s pennant to Michael’s backpack “for luck”. Later, he rides up to the column with Joey and Topthorn, looks for the pennant that marks his brother, and snatches him. They ride away and hide in a windmill, where Michael complains.
“I was ready to go. I was proud to go. I wanted to go.”
They are caught and, of course, executed for desertion.
Emilie and Grandfather
Joey and Topthorn pass the night unnoticed inside the windmill, but in the morning, a French girl named Emilie finds them and we see her reflected in Joey’s eye. She returns to the farmhouse where she helps her grandfather prepare fruit jam.
While chattering away, she realizes her grandfather has been hiding the truth from her: her parents are not gone, they are dead. The truth is not the only bitter medicine Emilie has to swallow; because she has a disease that makes her bones fragile, Grandfather dispenses a spoonful of something that prompts her to stick her finger in the sugar for the jam and lick it to soothe her offended tongue.
The horses are a delight to Emilie, who believes she can teach Joey to jump, though we know from Albert’s sprawl that this is not a skill he is eager to demonstrate. She hides them in her bedroom when Germans come to take food supplies. Grandfather only expresses resistance when a soldier makes a remark about thirteen-year-old frail Emilie.
After the soldiers have left, Emilie asks why he allowed them to take their things. He seems downtrodden.
“It was your parents who were brave. I make jams.”
Then he seems to reconsider. He tries to explain by analogy that there is more than one kind of bravery. The bravery of carrier pigeons, for example.
“Can you imagine such a thing? Here you are flying over so much pain and terror, and you know you can never look down. You have to look forward or you’ll never get home. I ask you, what could be braver than that?”
His role is to protect his granddaughter, not fight the war. He is too old. If he looks down, he will not make it to the other side.
Deciding that he and Emilie may as well take joy where they find it, he gives her a saddle he has hidden under the floor so that she can ride Joey. However, when she rides over the hill out of his sight, she is surrounded by Germans and the horses are seized. This time, Grandfather tries to protest that too much has already been taken from them, but the German officer has no pity.
“The war has taken everything from everyone.”
“What will happen to them?”
“They will pull artillery until they die. Or until the war is over.”
“It will never be over!”
“You have your answer, then.”
The German’s two answers foretell what happens to Topthorn and Joey: one dies pulling artillery, the other survives the war.
The officer who gives Friedrich Heigelmann the two new, beautiful horses says they are strong, so they “should last a month or two”. The camera swings to show us what horses who pull artillery usually look like: they look ugly and miserable. Friedrich murmurs to himself:
“It’s a pity they found you. Such a pity.”
And the camera shows us a pile of horse carcasses in a muddy, dingy grey army camp.
Time passes. A huge gun is being puled up a steep hill. One of the horses collapses. When he is shot, the sound makes all the others in the area flinch. Friedrich is asked to bring Topthorn, whom he has named Prince, in as a replacement. He gently resists, saying Topthorn is too weak, but has to obey orders. Joey, however, does what he chooses. He escapes his handler, and when Friedrich points out that he’s obviously stronger, is allowed to take Topthorn’s place.
Guns are fired at British trenches, which is where we find ourselves next.
Albert, Andrew, and David Lyons have joined the war. Albert is looking for Joey, and always carries with him the drawing Captain Nicholls made of him; David teases him for his stubborn optimism:
“After you find your horse, I’ve lost my needle in a haystack and I could use some help.”
When the troops are commanded to issue forth from the trenches (sans valuables, which will be distributed to survivors), Andrew is chosen to remain behind and execute any who retreat, while Albert is told to attack. The fear is palpable, but with the encouragement of bagpipes, the men go up the ladders and into the ugly, flooded, fiery waste that is no-man’s land.
When David is injured, Albert drags him to safety despite his protests.
Andrew refuses to shoot two retreating soldiers who return to his trench, choosing instead to charge into no-man’s land himself.
Albert, with shaking hands, successfully takes out an enemy gun emplacement with a grenade and escapes into the questionable safety of the seemingly empty enemy trench, where he almost shoots Andrew, who recklessly raced across the whole field, preferring to be killed rather than kill. Their happy reunion is brief, though; Andrew is killed by a gas attack which Albert, standing farther away, survives.
Friedrich is leading Topthorn and Joey along but Topthorn is struggling. Despite the officer’s objections, Friedrich takes the two horses aside for a short rest. Topthorn, however, decides he’s going to take a somewhat longer rest. To Friedrich’s dismay, he collapses, never to rise again. As Friedrich is hauled away by a pair of soldiers, he screams at Joey to run from the advancing enemy. Joey stands over his friend Topthorn until he is scared off by a tank that corners him, until he runs away straight over the top of it, fleeing right into the middle of a battle. Leaping trenches, falling in one and running along its length, scrambling out and dodging explosions, Joey charges mindlessly into fences of barbed wire. Even those don’t stop him until he becomes snared in a dozen different strands and crashes to the ground.
The next morning, the Brits see something moving in the stillness beyond the trenches. At first they think it could be a cow, which would make about as much sense as a horse, but when they realize what it is, they start to call it with clicks. The Germans spot the animal too, and whistle. Joey, unable to escape the barbed wire, stays put. Corporal Colin Geordie, apparently deciding such an opportunity is too momentous to sit out, ties a white handkerchief to a stick and ventures forth to help the poor creature. He keeps going even after the Germans shoot in his direction.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He leadeth me into green pastures, He lay me down beside still waters.”
The battlefield, for the moment still, is anything but green… Having crossed it, Geordie realizes he doesn’t have anything useful with him, like gloves or wire cutters. The German who suddenly materializes beside him, a man from Dusseldorf named Peter, is better equipped. Standing symbolically in front of a broken bridge, they team up to free Joey without causing him further injury. Meanwhile, they have a friendly chat in English, complete with deadpan jokes about the rats in their respective trenches. When Joey is free, Geordie admires the muscles in his legs.
“They’re made for running, horses. Running away from danger.”
“Running away is all they have.”
“And yet we taught ’em opposite. Runnin’ into the fray.”
“Yeah. War horse. And there he is. What a strange beast you’ve become.”
After they both try to claim him, Geordie proposes a coin toss and Peter supplies a coin. Geordie wins.
Snow begins to fall. The war isn’t over, and the story isn’t over, but we’ve seen the last of the fighting. Joey is safe now.
The German relinquishes the horse and a pair of wire cutters gracefully. The two soldiers shake hands and part, strangely and yet not at all strangely, as friends.
At the Hospital
Albert got a faceful of the gas that killed Andrew, so he was temporarily blinded and his eyes have been bandaged. He doesn’t see Joey pass behind him at the same hospital where he and others are being cared for.
An overworked medic says Joey probably has tetanus in his leg. Geordie doesn’t seem concerned—a horse that survived the circumstances that he did isn’t going to be killed by an infection, especially if is handled with the care he deserves.
Hearing murmurs in the hospital, Albert asks what’s going on.
“It’s a horse they found wandering about in no-man’s land.”
“What kind of a horse?”
“A bloody miraculous kind of a horse be my guess. Nothing makes it out of no-man’s land.”
Just as a sergeant prepares to shoot Joey on the medic’s orders, Albert puts his suspicions to the test. He whistles once. And again. And a third time. Joey has lifted his head and is listening. Albert gropes his way towards the horse. The fourth time, Joey pulls away and dashes towards him, and they are reunited.
Who’s to say it’s really Albert’s horse, though?
“It’s just a random horse, Narracott, and too badly injured.”
Albert Narracott, still blindfolded, proceeds to describe Joey’s markings (four white socks and a white star on his forehead), which are all covered in mud. Geordie washes his legs, which all have white socks. The medic himself washes Joey’s face, revealing Joey’s white cross. Albert is vindicated.
“You see sir, he’s not random at all.”
The medic agrees to treat Joey’s injuries and care for him “like the soldier he is”.
Soon, Joey and Albert have recuperated somewhat, and the bells are tolling the end of the war.
Another Bidding War
However, having been reunited, the horse and his boy may be torn apart again. It seems that only officers’ horses will be returned to England with the soldiers, and David can’t claim Joey as his own, much as he’d like to. The remaining horses will be sold at auction. All Albert and Joey’s friends can do is pool their money to bid for him. They amass 29 pounds, and the sergeant adds a bit more… so now Albert has more or less the same amount that Joey has sold for twice before. It should be enough, Geordie reassures Albert.
“Nobody’s going to bid more than fifteen for a thoroughbred. They want work horses.”
The rich butcher, however, pushes the price to 30, whereupon Grandfather arrives on the scene and bids 100.
“And sir, if you bid against me, I will sell the coat on my back and bid to 100. And if you bid against me again, I will sell my farm and bid to a thousand.”
Of course, that settles it. The mysterious old man wins Joey.
“When I heard about the miracle horse I traveled three days because I knew whose horse he was. My granddaughter’s….”
“Where is your granddaughter?”
“The war has taken everything from everyone. He is all that I have left of her.”
However, Joey does not want to go with Grandfather. He breaks away and goes to Albert, who tells him not to worry. What matters is that they did find each other in the end. Grandfather thinks maybe the horse really does know Albert, and shows him the pennant, re-attached to Joey by Gunther and Michael before they were caught. Albert identifies it, and Grandfather gives it to him. Then he passes him Joey’s reins.
“He belongs to you. That is of course what my little girl would have wanted. And she was the boss.”
“What was her name?”
“Emilie. Her name is Emilie.”
He traveled three days and spent 100 pounds on a horse his granddaughter loved, but then decided that reuniting Joey and Albert was a better way to keep her memory alive.
Back Home from the War
There are no words, just music and a young man on a horse, stark against a yellow sky. Albert’s mother welcomes him, standing at an open gate. Albert’s father approaches more slowly, from behind a closed gate, which he opens. Albert hands him the pennant. They shake hands, then hug. Now they are both survivors of war—like Joey, the war horse.
What makes the movie better?
Welp, I took copious notes the second time I watched it, so I can tell you.
John Williams supplied the score, which I prefer to the music of the play.
Albert meets the colt long before market day. He sees his birth and watches him gamble about, so he’s already emotionally committed to him when he shows up at his own farm after the auction, so he has more reason to accept his father’s unjustifiable purchase and promise to help out. The boy and the horse were meant to be together in the end, so it makes sense to put them together in the beginning too.
Ted Narracott is a veteran and victim of war. Ted is physically and psychologically damaged. He’s not proud of his war-hero status, and not oblivious when it comes to his wife and son’s feelings about his decisions as head of the family. In the movie, Albert’s father gave up a better farm to his brother, fought in the Boer War, came back with a leg injury, and drank because of his leg pain. In the play, Albert’s uncle fought while Ted struggled to take care of the farm and started drinking as a result of the financial stress. In the play, Narracott is a jerk with seemingly no thought for practical matters. His wife tells his son he is still to be tolerated—respected, even—because he has shouldered so much responsibility on their behalf. In the book, there is no war veteran in the family; the focus is on the horse’s experiences, not human backstory.
The conflict underlying the bidding war is more dramatic in the movie! In the book, the bidding war was with a random neighbor. In the play, the opponent was Ted’s more affluent brother (whose son wanted the colt). In the movie, the landlord bid on the horse in spite of the fact that his son didn’t want it.
Narracott’s mistake is made inescapably concrete when we see a big, strong draft horse standing in front of Joey at the end of the auction. In the book, Narracott was supposed to buy a calf at the market, and the family already has a work horse. In the movie, he’s supposed to buy a work horse because the family doesn’t have one.
The money spent to buy Joey is rent owed to a sneering landlord, not mortgage money owed to some nebulous bank. Since Joey was supposed to be the family’s work horse, he has to plow like a work horse to make up the family’s shortfall. The stakes are not just the horse himself and the Narracotts’ pride, they are the everything, including the farm itself.
Albert and Joey have to plow the whole field, not just one symbolic furrow, as in the play. It exhausts them both; it’s neither an easy victory nor an empty one—nor, arguably, a realistic one. In the book, Joey learns to plow over several days. Anti-climactically, Joey does not realize he is being watched until he has already won the bet.
Joey doesn’t jump until cornered by the tank. In the scene showing Joey’s refusal to jump when racing David’s car, the movie demonstrates the relationship between Albert and David (and Andrew, who later learns of Albert’s hilarious fall). At the same time, it establishes that while Joey is remarkable in many ways, he is not a natural jumper. When he finally jumps the tank, he’s desperate. In the book and the play, Joey and Topthorn jump into the enemy camp during battle.
Narracott sells Joey to the army reluctantly. In the play, his motivation is greed, and he gloats about the huge profit. In the movie, the turnip crop has failed, so the horse is the only asset that can be sold to pay the rent. Narracott knows it will break his son’s heart to lose Joey, so he sneaks away and sells him without saying anything, and feels awful about it. He feels awful in the book too, and Joey forgives him.
The Eastons are relevant. Si Easton discourages his friend Ted from bidding on a horse he can’t afford. His son Andrew watches Albert train Joey to respond to his whistle. The Eastons watch Joey plow the rocky field, one pessimistically, one optimistically. Si brings Albert the parcel from Captain Nicholls. Finally, Andrew turns up in Europe with Albert. Because we’ve known him all along, we’re proud when he refuses to kill deserters, fearful when he charges through no-man’s land, relieved when he reaches the other side unharmed, and pained when he vanishes from the story after a gas attack.
The campaign pennant is a physical symbol of survival. It serves as a MacGuffin that ties Albert to Joey and ties Albert and Joey to war and Narracott. I think maybe Albert should have described it to the old man before seeing it, but maybe not. That trick had already been done with Joey’s markings. The pennant saves its full impact for the last scene of the movie, when Albert hands it back to his father.
Joey’s price repeats throughout the story. When Captain Nicholls buys Joey for 30 guineas, the same price Narracott originally paid, it proves that Narracott paid too much for the untrained colt. Albert hopes that a sum of about 29 pounds is enough to buy Joey after the war’s end. I wish I knew how much money Albert had to bid with; it’s not clear.
War shatters delusions of grandeur. As the British cavalry head into battle, the tone of the story is tense but expectant; with their defeat, the tone changes. This reversal is well placed and thematically appropriate: the Brits brought knives—and vulnerable horses—to a gun fight. In the play and the book, when the soldiers arrive on the continent, they encounter wounded soldiers and the tone darkens right away… but only temporarily, because the Brits win in their first encounter with the enemy, and remain high-spirited. By making the first battle a loss, the movie tightens the pacing and better supports the anti-war, pro-horse theme.
Attitudes towards war are implied. The book does a lot of expositiony telling to convey the idea that Nicholls is frightened and sickened by war; the movie shows his fear more subtly. The same contrast between showing and telling applies to the character of Friedrich, who tries to shield the artillery horses from needless harm. German officer Herr Hauptmann, the most expositiony character in the play, is absent from the movie; Gunther has taken part of his role, but the thrust of Gunther’s story is totally different.
War kills boys. In fact, it teaches them to march eagerly into the jaws of death for the sake of honor. The deaths of Gunther and Michael not only carried an important message, they were artistically very well done: you see their silhouettes in front of a firing squad; then the sails of a windmill block them from view and you hear the shots; then you see their bodies on the ground. In the somewhat analogous part of the book, a young English blacksmith named Trooper Warren is captured by the Germans, but not executed. In the analogous part of the play, Albert’s slightly older cousin is killed with his own father’s knife by a crazed German officer after being captured, so the message is more like “war makes men murderous”, or possibly “war attracts crazy men”, than “war makes boys suicidal”, which is more poignant.
Reasonable and unreasonable promises are contrasted. In the play, to console Albert, Captain Nicholls practically guaranteed that everything would be okay. In the book and the movie, Nicholls was more reasonable: he just said he would do everything he could. Gunther’s promise to keep his brother safe, on the other hand, was overly ambitious, and ultimately counterproductive, as it led to both their deaths.
There is more than one kind of courage. In the play, Emilie lives with her mother. In the book, Emilie and Grandfather take care of the horses while they are in possession of the German army. The movie depicts the Germans as more of an imposition, and puts Grandfather in an awkward position, where he just has to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what, like the carrier pigeon who can’t look down. I think the movie does a better job of showing the plight of occupied France than the play or book. Soldiers can just… take stuff. Sure, they kill people, but taking stuff from the survivors adds insult to injury. Slowly, gradually, the war takes everything: your children, your grandchildren, your horses, your food… even your jam pots. Surviving as a private citizen rather than a soldier requires another kind of courage.
Live while you can. Grandfather knows that riding could kill Emilie, but he sets aside his own fear and unearths the saddle. The joy it will bring her is worth the risk.
Albert is a soldier. In the book, Albert joins the veterinary corps, hoping to find Joey. In the play, which includes several scenes of Albert’s life that Joey couldn’t have narrated in the book, Albert runs away from home and enlists as a regular soldier just to look for Joey, which makes him look incredibly naive. In the movie, though it’s clear he cherishes hope of finding Joey someday, it’s not obvious what his motivation for enlisting was. Two other young men from Devon are in the trenches with him, so the implication is that they were all recruited because they were needed, not that Albert foolishly ran away to look for his horse.
Albert rescues David. The landlord’s son David is Albert and Andrew’s commanding officer in the trenches. Albert drags him to safety when he’s injured, and in gratitude he tries to help Albert prevent Joey from being auctioned off before they leave Europe.
The movie takes the barbed wire up to 11. In the book, Joey gets a leg injury by snagging it on some barbed wire, then gets free again and limps around in no-man’s land until he’s claimed in a coin toss. No big deal, apart from the ensuing tetanus infection. In the play, Joey gets one leg stuck on some barbed wire in no-man’s land and has to be cut free by the two soldiers. The fact that Joey’s trapped makes for a more interesting scene in no-man’s land. (“Is that a cow?”) In the movie… Joey… well, he… he runs straight into a whole heck of a lot of barbed wire, and then… unbelievably… keeps going! In the end, his whole body is wrapped with the stuff. Although in most of the movie, Joey and the other horses are real, the horse wrapped in barbed-wire is an animatronic one. You don’t really notice it’s fake because a real horse wrapped in barbed wire wouldn’t be able to move much anyway, and because you don’t really look too close. It’s too painful!
The whole plot is lampshaded effectively when David Lyons makes a jibe about the needle he lost in a haystack. Viewers will surely be inclined to believe it will be impossible for Albert to find one horse among the many hundreds in the war, assuming Joey even survived the battle that killed Nicholls, and any others subsequently. When characters state such doubts, viewers have an easier time suspending their own disbelief when unlikely events do in fact occur in the story.
“You see, sir? He’s not random at all!” In the play, I thought it was disgustingly convenient that Albert was temporarily blinded by gas and then immediately encountered Joey in the hospital where he went to recover. The play abruptly ends there without softening this coincidence with further obstacles as the book and movie do. The movie uses a gas attack to blind Albert temporarily, but it also uses the trick from the book whereby Joey’s markings are hidden and then revealed. The combination is powerful. All three versions of the story show Joey responding to Albert’s special owl whistle.
War Horse (2011): Cast
Albert is played by Jeremy Irvine, who to me looks like a cross between Cary Elwes (star of cult classic The Princess Bride, a personal favorite of mine) and Ansel Elgort (star of Baby Driver, which was not only filmed but also set in my hometown).
Lyons, the abominable moustache-twirling landlord, is played by David Thewlis, who’s also in Wonder Woman.
Captain Nicholls is played by Tom Hiddleston (Marvel’s Loki).
Major Stewart is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (star of Marvel’s Doctor Strange).
Sometimes English speakers are cast to play Europeans, and they just kinda put on an inconsistent accent. That wasn’t the case here. The French girl is played by a Belgian. Her grandfather is played by a Frenchman. With the exception of two Danish guys, the Germans are played by Germans.
Did You Know?
There are about 30,305 words in the children’s novel War Horse (an estimate based on the length of the audiobook).
The movie script of War Horse seems to be about 25,000 words.
Counting all three of my posts, I’ve written 12,500 (~3400 + ~2000 + ~7100) words about War Horse.
War Horse (2011): Final Image
The theme is something like hope, persistence, survival, togetherness. I was reminded of the end of “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
Though we are not now that strength that in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are: one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak through time and fate but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.
War Horse (2011): Reviews
The Film Experience says play is great, the movie is not as good, but it has its good points.
The Christian Broadcasting Network offers an interview with Spielberg.
Birth Movies Death offers a good summary and says “epics don’t come more grand or sweeping”.
The Guardian says the movie belongs with Hollywood British pastorals like National Velvet and likens the sunset at the end to that of Gone with the Wind.
More from The Guardian.
Also in The Guardian, Spielberg said real horses were frustrating because they aren’t as controllable or as expressive as puppets. (Duh!)
The Hollywood Reporter gives some insight into the filmaking process.
The New York Times says it’s grand, folksy, sentimental, melodramatic, old-fashioned, emotionally-direct, and filled with honest storytelling and ruthless optimism.
The Telegraph has interesting things to say about the casting of the lead human actor.
War Horse: Further Reading and Viewing
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
(the 1982 book that served as the basis for the stage play and film)
The Horse’s Mouth: Staging Morpurgo’s War Horse by Melvyn Millar
(a short book about the making of the stage play War Horse)
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
(a classic novel told from the point of view of a horse that changes hands)
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
(a classic novel about a boy and an Arabian thoroughbred)
Making War Horse (2009)
(a documentary about the making of the stage play)
War Horse: The Real Story (2012)
(Joey is fictional; this is a documentary about the one million horses of WWI)
Selected Spielberg Filmography
- Jaws (1975)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
- Indiana Jones (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008)
- ET (1982)
- The Goonies (1985)
- Hook (1991)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Schindler’s List (1993)
- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
- AI (2001)
- Minority Report (2002)
- Catch Me If You Can (2002)
- War of the Worlds (2005)
- Ready Player One (2018)
Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Jaws, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, or Saving Private Ryan. (The others listed here, I have.)