I took my oldest son to see Warhorse last week. Really enjoyed it. And here's why.

Warhorse might be one of the best anti-war movies I've ever seen. It's really subversive.

No doubt there have been a host of films that have more graphically portrayed the brutality and nihilism of war. But Warhorse does something really different in exposing the Principalities and Powers.

If you've not seen the film a bit of overview with no spoilers. Warhorse is a World War I film. We follow a horse named Joey and his first owner, a teenager when we first meet him, Albert. Albert and Joey form a spiritual bond and we recognize in Joey an indomitable spirit. When war breaks out Joey's family, because they are poor, sell Joey to the war effort. Joey becomes a warhorse. From there we follow Joey and the owners who care for him during the war. These owners are British, German and French. Though our affections are always with Albert, Joey's original owner, Joey finds good and compassionate people on both sides of the war.

That is, I think, the particular anti-war genius of the movie. Most war movies have to pick a side. For example, compare Warhorse with Saving Private Ryan, another of Spielberg's war movies. No doubt Saving Private Ryan portrays the horrors of war more graphically than Warhorse (though Warhorse is pretty grim). But one criticism of Saving Private Ryan is that it chooses a side. The Germans are anonymous ciphers. Humanity and heroism is on the American side.

By contrast, since the star of Warhorse is the horse the film isn't choosing sides as strongly. Thus, we follow the horse back and forth across the battle lines and this blurs the distinction between "the good guys" and "the bad guys." This is sharply illustrated in a scene late in the movie when a German and a British soldier meet in the middle of "no man's land" between the British and German trenches to attend to Joey.

It's this blurring of the distinction between Us and Them that I find really powerful in Warhorse. The "good guys" are those who show humanity and compassion on both sides of the lines.

But there is more. One of the visual metaphors in the movie is a regimental pennant that Albert attaches to Joey when Joey goes off to war. As Joey exchanges hands during the war we see this pennant exchange hands. And here's the significance of that.

Early in the movie we note that Albert's father is an alcoholic. Later we learn why. He was traumatized by his service in the Second Boer War. He drinks to forget the horrors of war. The regimental pennant Albert attaches to Joey was his father's from the Boer war.

And as we follow the pennant of Albert's war-damaged father through the film, going from solider to solider (and to non-combatants), we start to see the trauma of war spread. British solider, German solider and even French civilian. None are spared. War damages them all.

In all this we begin to see that Joey isn't the only warhorse in the film. Joey is a symbol of something much darker. The first warhorse in the film is actually Albert's father. And Albert soon follows.

Everyone, German and British alike, is found to be a "warhorse." And we leave the film thinking that the real enemy isn't the man in the other trench.

We're all just warhorses, we come to realize. The real enemy is war itself.

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34 thoughts on “Warhorse”

  1. Wow, very incisive. My wife and I saw Warhorse with her parents, and weren't too impressed. My wife appreciated the depiction of the horrors of war, but thought, Hey, I personally am aware that war is horrible—I don't particularly want to sit and watch that fact. For my part, I was rather turned off by the syrupy, schmaltzy aspects of the movie, like the whole town coming out to watch Albert plow; or that officer pledging to take Joey as his own horse and take good care of him, and then actually trying to do so. Rather unrealistic...

    But I guess we were too busy complaining and snarking to appreciate the genius of an animal protagonist blurring Us and Them together.

  2. This increases my interest in the movie...  I generally hate war movies; and worse yet, movies in which an animal "hero" dies in the end.  If that is what happens to the horse, I'd rather not watch :-/

    I liked the movies 'Atonement' and 'Valkyrie'; but am just skittish of 'Warhorse' on account of the potential for the horse to be martyred in the end...  When I was a kid, watching episodes of 'Lassie', usually ended with me persevering stoically until I couldn't take it any more, only to lock myself in the bathroom and cry my eyes out!!  I don't do well with animals getting hurt...  Can you give a hint on that aspect, without spoiling the whole surprise?

  3. Wow. I really loathe horse movies, but this sounds intriguing, to say the least. Why then, though, does the Bible seem to advocate war so often in the Old Testament? It's confusing to me, though I agree with your assertion that war itself is actually the enemy.

  4. Of course, Warhorse is originally a play, so the anti-war theme and symbolism makes sense coming from the theatre realm, where playwrights tend to be more liberal.  There was a recent theatrical publication with an article (about the play) that described Joey as a demon because the people who came into contact with him tended to _____. (Spoiler info removed.)

  5. Richard, the movie's trench scenes were also a rather large shout-out to another anti-war movie, Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" with Kirk Douglas.

  6. Sounds like a good movie. This is one of the reasons why I can't hold to the entire Bible anymore. It has all those blood sacrifices that are a requirement in order for God to forgive sin. Why must God need blood in order to forgive someone?

  7. I had the good fortune of seeing the original theatrical production in London about three years ago. I went in skeptical about enjoying a show with an equine protagonist, but I was blown away by its emotional power. By the end I don't think there was a dry eye in the audience.

    I hadn't thought about the show from quite your perspective, but I fully agree with it. I've actually resisted seeing the film version because part of what made the show so special was the puppetry; the pantomime horses somehow seemed more alive than an actual horse ever could. I wonder if the spirit that animated the pantomime Joey, letting him live in the hearts and minds of the audience, is the same spirit that is threatened by the ravages of war.

  8. Spielberg has been one of my favorite directors since his debut on TV (1973) with the made-for-TV movie starring Dennis Weaver called "Duel", a story about a man hunted down on lonely western back roads in his car by a faceless truck driver.  Schindler's List clinched it for me.

    If you ascribe to the concept that the "real" enemy is war itself (and not the humans involved in making it), then you must, it seems to me, carry that logic forward and ask what the world would look like today had the Nazi regime won the Second World War.  The Axis was bent on world domination and extermination of whole races, while the Allies were empowered by their peoples to prevent that by any means necessary.

    We live in a flawed world, and evil is real.  I believe the real enemy is not war, but that evil.  It's incumbent upon each human being to name it and strive to fight against it, both personally and collectively. 

  9. Because he Israelites required an adequate symbol. Humans have limited comprehension. Also, it was not quite so gruesome as you may imagine...the animal felt no pain, it was unconscious before the incision was even made. Much better than how your food is slaughtered today (unless you are vegetarian/vegan).

  10. Also, I don't mean to be rude, but knocking Old Testament rites that one hardly understands or can put in context seems to be pretty much par for the course around here.

  11. It makes no sense to me for a person to sacrifice life for it's blood just so that He can forgive someone's wrong doing. Let's say I wrong you. Instead of forgiving me when I ask for forgiveness your response is to take an animal and sacrifice it for blood so that you can sprikle it on a mercy seat to cleanse me of my sin? I think not. My Higher Power just forgives me when I ask for fogiveness. No need to sprinkle or be washed in blood.

  12. Sam, you make some excellent points, that we are not just fighting some metaphor for evil, but "evil" itself. The problem comes, I think, when we try to label humans as "evil" rather than just as flawed beings doing "evil" things. The Nazis were not inherently evil, as so many would like to see them, but fellow humans caught up in the evils of bigotry and hatred. In order to annihilate the Jews they had to first see them as inhuman - again, inherently evil - and that is exactly what we try to do now with the Nazis -- reduce them to a inhuman form so that we can then justify our hatred for them. If we see them as having no redeeming values (as they saw the Jews) then it becomes much easier to justify our hatred for them and seek their destruction. In our hatred for them though, we become no better than they were.

    I am reminded of a story I heard of some Holocaust researchers that found some home-movie footage of concentration camp guards with their families. The researchers were shocked to discover that the guards led what appeared to be normal lives outside of the camps - loving and enjoying their children, families, and friends just as would any other "normal" person. The Nazi guards, who they had always thought were inhuman monsters, turned out instead to be loving, family-oriented fathers. In order to foster true compassion for our fellow man I think we need to realize that there is a Nazi inside of every one of us given the "right" circumstances. "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

    I certainly agree with you that we should fight against evil, but in doing so we should be fighting against the ignorance, deception, bigotry, judgmentalism, and exclusivist attitudes that induce us humans to do horrible things to our fellow man. Until we see all of humanity as flawed equals it is far too easy to see others as inhuman demons, and thereby justify our hatred for them.

  13. Sure was - I used to read it to spellbound nine year olds in my previous life (as a teacher).  One of my only claims to fame is that Michael Morpurgo is a relation of our next-door-neighbour.  He was gracious enough to inscribe a book for our eldest son, who's read nearly everything by him.  That and having tea with Prince Andrew.  Impressed anyone?

  14. Great points, Sam and Jim (as always). 

    BTW,  I LOVE 'Duel', too, Sam.  Especially that final shot.  Blew me away as a teenager.  Probably why I became a psychologist (that and 'Kung Fu' with David Carradine).

  15. I agree that the enemy is war. For me it's about eternal love.


  16. Andrew,

    The "final shot" in "Duel" being the one where the 18-wheeler runs right off the cliff and the Weaver character dances in relief?  Interesting.....


    I agree with what you say.  My issue with pacifism is always the same, however -- how far do I allow a bully to push and run over me before I begin to defend myself or fight back?  Yes, there are plenty of decent people in any war, on both sides.  But wars are not made by the people fighting them -- they are orchestrated by human monsters at the top.  And that means, somewhere up the chain, there exists true evil, and it has free reign.  But I absolutely agree that evil is in every human heart.

  17. Sam, you have again made some excellent points with which I mostly agree. When we are threatened with harm I do not advocate pacifism either, as I feel it is my duty to protect myself, my family, and ultimately my country from those who would try to destroy us. But at the same time there must be an effort to try to defuse the situation if possible, gain understanding with our "enemies," and not continue into vengeance and retribution. In ridding the world of Taliban terrorists, for example, we might possibly be able to kill off every one, but coming up right behind those we have killed will be their sons and daughters who have been raised (brainwashed perhaps) under the same extremist religious views that they were. Until we find a way to see each other as fellow human beings, and not monsters and enemies, the world will always have war.

    A favorite show of my mine was "30 Days," where people of radically different viewpoints (atheists and fundamentalists, for example) lived together for a month in an effort to learn more about each other. Not so amazingly enough, what they eventually discovered is that their similarities always far outweighed their differences, and they learned to see each other as fellow humans with the same fears, hopes, and desires. I firmly believe that if we could do the same with any of our "enemies" we, and they, would find that we all really are the same, and our fears of each other would disappear. As long as sufficient distance (physical and relational) separates us however, we will always see them as radical, heathen terrorists, and they will always see us as ungodly and greedy infidels. And from a distance it's always easy to kill our "enemies"... not so up close though.

    Concerning the "monsters at the top," in many ways I think you are right. But I can't help but imagine that instead of "monsters" (inherently evil), they are more likely sick if not insane. To be true "monsters" would require that evil be their NATURE, and while we humans are most certainly "broken" in many ways, we were made in the image of God, which to me means a nature of love and compassion. And my one great hope is that, regardless of our level of brokenness, the potter is able and willing to repair every one of us. Just not today.

  18. That's not the way I remember it, Sam:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8X1DLBcfaB0

    One of the things I love about the film is that it creates a space within which the viewer is trusted and respected enough to construct their own meaning.  How many directors do that these days?  The final shot I remember is quite different to the one you recall - one which allows the audience to bring all their questions together (including those about the ambiguity of the title) - and perhaps even come up with some of the answers that Jim points us towards.


  19. Hey!  That was a blast from the past.  I have not seen that since 1971, the year I graduated from college.  I see I am being too literal in my viewing, however.  I wasn't bothered by ambiguity, and I had no questions.  I just held on for the ride!  I think you went much deeper into it than I. Anyway, thanks for sharing that with me.

  20. Sam, I hear you my friend. I trust that I did not give you the impression that I am just trying to argue with you, for I see much wisdom and truth seeking in your words. Sometimes I just get on my soapbox. Forgive me if I preach too much.

    I often feel overwhelmed and tired myself, so I just try to hang on with hope. My prayers are with you.

  21. If you do not accept that blood atonement was an acceptable symbol for some people in some contexts, the explanation for Jesus' atoning death rather falls apart, too. Ancient peoples did not think just as we do. Blood sacrifice was the norm in a great many cultures, and at least the Israelites made the moral advancement of rejecting human sacrifices.

    On the other hand, I DO believe it was the will of God for the sacrificial system to eventually become outmoded. Times change.

  22. Well, if Jesus atoning death falls apart then so be it. I will not follow a God who needs to sacrifice animals or humans for their blood in order to forgive. It makes no sense to me.

  23. Think of things like the blood sacrifices and a limited form of slavery as God meeting humanity halfway...imperfect human society requiring less-than-perfect ritual. God allowed it not to please Himself, but to accommodate humanity. Democracy would have made no more sense to ancients than sacrifices for atonement do to us today, but our understanding is never ideal. Also, God is not a New Age milquetoast.

    Who knows, maybe when I die I will find out I was wildly wrong.

  24. Richard, Thank you for this assessment of a movie that I ultimately found tremendously moving.  I was wondering how a horse movie would keep one's attention.  But this really was powerful.

  25. I rented Warhorse this weekend.  Heavy and hard to watch...  I will remember long and well the No Man's Land scene.  That was the shining moment of the story.  The reunion of the horse and boy was a close second.  Their coming home was bittersweet, for me.  The horse was such a beautiful animal, though.  I think I will quit now on horse stories. (Little Blackie's unfortunate fate still has not faded from memory!)  Thanks for the review and recommendation.  ~Peace~

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