First it helps to know that as animal lovers have long suspected, horses have long memories and can remember people who treated them well and the words those people used. Horses are, after all, social creatures. Second, animals–horses and dogs included–like humans can suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. The movie “War Horse” deals with some of these issues and allows us a sigh of relief that horses are, at least as far as most Americans and Europeans are concerned, no longer used in wars. This is, however, not true for all animals of war.

According to Discovery.com, horses do remain loyal to humans with whom they’ve had positive past encounter. They can remember them after being separated from them for a time and they also understand vocal commands. So its not so farfetched to believe that a horse might miss a human just as much as a human might miss a horse. Is that love?

If there is love at first sight, it usually works out best between human and an animal, particularly a human who is attuned to animal needs. Sometimes animals can help one journey from child to adult and there are many other boy and horse stories such as “My Friend Flicka” and the Black Stallion series.

Unlike those two novels, “War Horse” follows a particular horse from its home to war and through the series of owners and handlers it has. In this respect, it is more like “Black Beauty.”

The movie is based on a 1982 children’s book by the same name. The author Michael Morpurgo actually met with World War I veterans from Devon. One, who had served in the calvary, mentioned he had confided all of his fears to his horse.  According to Morpurgo’s research, one million horses were bought and taken over to serve in the great war as draft animals or for cavalry, but only 62,000 animals returned to Great Britain.

Nick Stafford adapted the book to the stage in 2007 using the same title and puppetry instead of real horses.

“War Horse” is about a young lad from Devon, England. His father, Ted (Peter Mullan)  has a gimpy leg–old war injury. He also drinks and has a bit of a rivalry with his landowner.

The family seems to have no other pets on their rocky farm–no cats to take care of the mice and no dogs to warn of intruders. They do have an aggressive white goose, but no dog to protect it from foxes. This emphasizes the loneliness of the young boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine).

Farming is a hard life, dependent on things one can’t control such as weather. To survive, Albert’s father is forced to sell Joey to a man heading off to the war which has just been declared. Joey’s new owner is also a kind man (Tom Hiddleston)  and in the calvary, Joey makes a friend with another horse, a beautiful black stallion belonging to Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Although the British cavalry starts out with high spirits, in lovely sharp uniforms on a green field that leads into a green forest, this is not how war really looks. After the first charge, the British are woefully overwhelmed, having underestimated their adversaries. Joey and his friend Topthorn are lucky survivors–Spielberg pulls back so we can see a green battlefield littered with the corpses of horses and men. Joey and Topthorn are chosen to pull the ambulance for the Germans.

Yet the brothers who drive the ambulance will make a rash decision which will send them to their own deaths and the two horses will again change hands. Throughout, we see that on both sides–British, German and French–there are people who are kind to these two animals.

Eventually, the war fields have become a wasteland of mud and burnt out trees, barbed wire and dried blood, dead bodies and pools of dirty water. Both sides live in trenches with rats and fear.

There is a happy ending. Joey does find his way back home, but Spielberg oversells the ending with golden  light and backlit figures instead of just reminding us of the miles of green pastures divided up by crude stone walls that first introduced us to Devon, Joey and Albert.

Still, “War Horse” brings up difficult question about war and shows humans beings as individuals, by not demonizing either side and showing both sides capable of kindness and callousness.

After all this, one is grateful that horses and cavalry are no longer active fighting troops an that tanks and trucks have taken their place. Such disregard for equine quality of life isn’t limited to wars of the past. Thoroughbreds can be raced to death or until crippled and if they are gelded or otherwise unsuitable for breeding, they often are disposed of. In California, there is an organization that attempts to adopt out retired racehorses.

Still, it should be remembered that horses aren’t the only domesticated animals that were and are still used in human wars and, aside from the assumed inhumanity humans enact on other humans in the name of warfare, humans still inhumanely treat other domesticated animals, particularly dogs in the name of war.

If you’re interested in the pageantry of war horses, there is a local organization that bands together to do shows and performances and sometimes, even paying gigs like weddings and commercials.
WHAM will be riding again in the 2012 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

“War Horse” opened nationwide today, 25 December 2011.

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