They actually did charge straight into the machine guns, mounted on horses and waving swords. It’s one of those staggering facts – one of many – that make World War I such a gripping and depressing study of human folly. Director Steven Spielberg was doubtless just as astounded by this fact, which is why one of the first great set pieces of his latest film, War Horse, is based on one such charge, made early in the war by the British at Mons, and with precisely the devastating results you’d expect.
When it’s all over, a German officer fumes and rages at the sole surviving British officer, dismounted and captured, astounded at why they didn’t think that they’d defend their camp with the sort of modern industrial firepower that would end up making short work of men emerging in trenches for the next four awful years. What’s even more amazing is that four years later, even after they’d invented tanks, the British mounted another cavalry charge on retreating Germans after the stalemate of trench warfare had been broken, with similarly dismal results – just four out of 150 horses survived. The Canadians led their last-ever cavalry charge in October of 1918, a month before the Armistice. Madness truly is the act of repeating the same hopeless action and expecting a different result.
Based on a book and a hit British play, War Horse is nominally the story of Albert (Jeremy Irvine,) the son of a smallholding farmer in rural England, who forms a bond with the thoroughbred colt his father buys as a drunken whim instead of a draught horse. The rent due and war underway, the farmer sells his son’s horse to a sensitive and sympathetic cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) who rides it into German gunfire with predictable results. The balance of the film is the story of Joey, the horse, as it wanders on both sides of the front, briefly owned by a young German deserter and a pretty but sickly French girl before ending up hauling artillery for the Germans, while Albert manages to get into uniform and into the trenches to search for his horse.
Like much of Spielberg these days, it’s tremendously exciting, mawkish, affecting and manipulative, in a weaving cycle that few if any of the director’s films can avoid anymore. Spielberg’s eye for cinematic spectacle is in fine form, as ever, but his reliance on show-stopping camera work – those crane shots that launch into the sky to give a god’s-eye perspective on the aftermath of human disaster – has almost fully evolved from signature to stylistic crutch.
And still there are moments when his confident touch returns to create something startling, like the scene where Joey, mad with grief and fear, flees the German lines under the pounding of an artillery barrage and runs through the mud and barbed wire of No Man’s Land, ending up trapped in the wire as it prongs and snaps with lacerating metallic rattles around him, trapping the horse between two armies.
We are less than seven years away from the anniversary of the end of World War I, and the last surviving combat veteran of the war died this year. There might be young people unaware of the dire historical facts and the unspeakable human toll of that war, but for almost everyone else, the sheer scale of the losses and nightmarish reality of the trenches, repeated in refrain for almost a century, has dulled us to the staggering truth of it all. Which is probably why Spielberg and the creators of War Horse have seen fit to transfer our sympathy from a mere human caught in that carnage to a horse, enlisting it to re-awake our sense of pathos in the form of that most noble and graceful of animals, into whose big, dark, anxious eyes Spielberg invests so much human emotion. It’s a remarkable feat, to be sure, but some part of me can’t help but be saddened that we’ve had to transfer to an animal what we can no longer comprehend in men.