Posted by: sommecourt | 15/01/2012

War Horse, The Film: Some Thoughts

War Horse is a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo originally published in 1982. In recent years it has become well known as a stage play seen mainly by adults and it was really only a matter of time before a transition to the screen would happen. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the film stars some of the best of Britain’s current actors and some superb newcomers. But what should a military historian make of such a film?

Before I went to see it today I had been keeping an eye on comments via online reviews and on WW1 sites like the Great War Forum. The latter has at least two threads running where some of the more serious types who frequent it have nothing good to say, but it is hard to tell if they have actually seen the film or not. The key contention is the history; in theirs and many others eyes it is ‘wrong’ and presents an outdated view of the war. For me the history side of it was the least of the issues that troubled me about War Horse; generally speaking an attempt had been made to get it right from the chronology of the uniforms and equipment to the ‘feel’ of the battlefield. Aspects of the story do indeed defy historical disbelief, but for a story that had its setting in the Great War it was convincing, in the same way that other good war films draw you into the period.

What surprised me was that it did not feel like a Spielberg film at all. When I think of Saving Private Ryan there was a great sense of place in that film; the battle sequences did not feel like they were taking place in isolation. In War Horse they did; the cavalry charge at the start being the most baffling – the British cavalry regiment appearing to be the only Allied soldiers on the field. The trench scenes got less convincing when you saw the same brick arch in both British and German positions and that the trenches had been made straight to allow the rails of the dolly to be laid for tracking shots. The last scence in France where the auction took place was so obviously filmed in Britain and looked nothing like rural France, making it yet again seem odd. Whether this was a budget aspect or not I have no idea.

But while a few points like this did niggle me, what the naysayers fail to take into account is that this film is fiction. It isn’t a documentary; it has a basis in the past, but the reality of that past has been stretched to make the story, and that is not different to any other film. Do go and see it; War Horse is hugely enjoyable; the character of Albert is wonderfully played by the unknown Jeremy Irvine and the horses are simply fantastic; and they are the real stars of the tale from start till end. And it is beautifully shot with some stunning landscapes.

The huge public interest in the film – the cinema was packed today with another same-sized crowd waiting to get in, and this seems typical across the country – means that this will be very much the talk of the battlefields this year; it will become a point of reference for many, and while it’s history may be dodgy in places and the story more than a little far-fetched, thousands will think about the Great War when before they did not, and some will go on to read books like Richard Van Emden’s Tommy’s Ark or J.E.B. Seeley’s Warrior – or just rekindle a feint memory of grandad’s story of the cry of those noble beasts who served and suffered under the clash of the guns. In some ways that is where the film should have ended – with the Animals in War Memorial in London and a rememberance of the millions of animals who died, and never made it home like Joey.

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Responses

  1. And that, I suspect, should be the end of it! But it won’t. Good stuff Paul, looking forward to making my own judgements next week. Be interesting to see how many of our various guests mention it this summer. Incidentally, some of it was filmed in the Bourne Woods just south of Farnham, but then again, loads has been filmed there – Gladiator, Harry Potter and the last Robin Hood film with Russell Crowe. No one said rural Surrey didn’t look like 2nd Century Central Europe as the Goths attacked.

  2. A thoughtful and pragmatic review Paul. I hope to see the film in due course.

  3. Enjoyed this review. Sounds fair, Paul, I will gladly sally forth in the knowledge I won’t spend the whole experience wincing. I wonder what contrast may be established between this film based on a children’s favourite/stage smash, and ‘Birdsong’…which isn’t. Please let us know!

    • I’m not a great fan of Birdsong but it will be interesting to see what the TV version is like.

  4. But while a few points like this did niggle me, what the naysayers fail to take into account is that this film is fiction. It isn’t a documentary; it has a basis in the past, but the reality of that past has been stretched to make the story, and that is not different to any other film.

    Paul isn’t this the point though? We may be able to tell that is is fiction but the vast majority of people will assume it is history. We have seen it before with so many other films. It is the main problem with Hollywood. It makes a nice big shiny production that people take as fact. Yes it can have a positive effect with a few people who become interested and investigate it more but most people will take this ‘Donkeys’ argument as truth.

    • I think you do people a dis-service in their ability to tell fiction from fact but on the subject of command, this particular film takes no angle on it. Generals are never mentioned.

      • Paul I don’t think I do. While Generals may not be mentioned, the overall tone of the film will reinforce preconceived images of the war. Images that have been seriously challenged by historians over the past 40 odd years. Perhaps using the Donkeys image was wrong but it still portrays a war that was futile and pointless and reinforces widely held sterotypes of the war. We would never see a film offering a revisionist view of the war would we?

    • I think that a film expressing a total revisionist point of view would probably struggle to find funding; largely because I fear that the revisionist school of Great War history has done little to engage the wider public with their ideas. Many academic historians shy away from popular history but the reality is the average man on the Clapham Omnibus is never going to read Passchendaele in Perspective or a biography of Haig. So how to spread the word?

      I still think perspectives on history are best presented in documentaries rather than film. For a ‘feel’ of a period fiction and drama can be useful, but if I wanted serious history outside of the printed word I’d be looking to series like Timewatch rather than the latest Hollywood offering.


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