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Friday, January 6, 2012

War Horses and Amish

en Kjrijch Peat
(guest posting)

(c) Dreamworks, SKG, 2011.
    “War Horse” the Steven Spielberg film adapted from a young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo confounds the reviewer:  it has sentiment without being sentimental; it shows an animal being heroic without stooping to supernatural or magic-realistic means, and it heeds the advice of every teacher of writing (whether of novels or movie scripts) to “show your theme; don’t tell it.” 
    Further, the movie (following the book in this instance – which my sister, a junior high librarian in Hutchinson, Kansas, says it does fairly well) uses the technique of novelist John Dos Passos to tell an overarching story in bits and pieces instead of a single narrative.
    Using the horse, Joey, as a framing device, the story manages to show the civilians on both sides of WWI; both armies – officers and ordinary soldiers, the trench warfare on both sides; the devastation in the countryside; 19th Century military tactics (cavalry charges) vs 20th Century tactics (machine guns, poison gas, tanks).  Joey the horse is not made to do anything impossible for a horse but is shown, analogous to people, to be able to rise to extraordinary heroism and friendship in time of deep stress.
Morgan Horses
    There are memorable scenes:  the horse facing off against a tank (a draw), a tiny frail French peasant girl hiding Joey and his pal Topthorn in her bedroom (!), and a marvelous piece reminiscent of the famous Christmas truce of 1914 where the soldiers on the two sides sang carols and exchanged gifts (against the advice of their officers).  In this case a German soldier and an English soldier under a flag of truce (against the advice of their officers) rescue Joey who is trapped in a barbed wire (or in my native Kansan “bobwire”) between the two sides’ trenches.  Midway through the rescue the men suddenly realize in another time and place they could be friends.
    Coming home from a Christmas trip to Kansas, on the border of Missouri and Iowa, I stopped to get gas and noticed several buggies and horses by the side of the cloverleaf.  It was two Amish men selling handicrafts and jellies. 
Standardbred Horses
    We ended up speaking of this movie.  (I know!  I know!  Amish aren’t supposed to see movies but they didn’t seem to mind because 1) the movie was anti-war and 2) it was about a horse).  I admired their horses asking their breeds, which surprised the gentlemen – having a mother who trained in equestrian events for the
Olympics and a father who was in the cavalry prepared me for such a conversation.  I said Joey in the movie reminded me of a Morgan horse, the 18th Century American breed which suddenly appeared in the “person” of one stallion of unknown lineage who was handsome (horse people wouldn’t hesitate to say “beautiful”) enough to serve as a riding horse but strong enough to beat draft horses in pulling contests.  Joey is bought as a plow horse – he performs incredibly well but is basically drafted as an English officer’s cavalry mount for the war.
Percheron Stallion
    The Amish farmers allowed as how they’d been lucky enough to own Morgans before but the horses they had with them were crossbred from Standardbreds and Percherons.  I saw the younger man’s eyes gleam as we talked of the movie and am afraid say – I probably tempted him to consider breaking the rules to see the movie.  Oh well, at least it wasn’t liquor or tobacco.
    So, go to the movie and yes, take a handkerchief (or at least a broad-brimmed cap).  You’ll cry but it won’t be over a trivial middle-class cracked romance but over people and animals killed and hurt in an incredibly vicious and overwhelmingly useless war.

Jim Edminster, Chicago, IL, 2012

Quarter Horse (bay, left) and Amish-bred Standardbred-Percheron Mix for comparison.

1 comment:

  1. An additional comment -- according to on-line resources, over 8 million war or cavalry horses died in World War I, on all sides, with an additional 2 1/2 million being treated in veterinary hospitals for injuries. Of the British war horses, only a few thousand eventually returned to England.


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