A bullet is beautiful when removed from its context, smooth and shiny and cool to the touch. It is simple yet elegant—its edges running upward to a point or a glinting, symmetrical hill. A child who didn't know better might mistake it for a pocket-size spaceship, or a tiny tower when set on end.
They would not recognize it as a thief.
Yet thieves are exactly what bullets are. In the context of war, they rob countries of their men, men of their ideals, ideals of their virtue. They take breath and blood and thought, and let them lay in the mud of battle, scattered like shrapnel. They take sight and sound, life and limb, hope and courage.
And even if you safeguard all of that, there's still one thing the wartime bullet will always take: innocence.
In beautiful, green, southwestern England, a horse is born. It is a beautiful beast, all grace and muscle and shiny coat. And, like beauty is wont to do at times, it makes a local farmer lose his head. Determined to own the animal (and show up his deep-pocketed landlord), Ted, the slightly tipsy farmer, overbids for the horse and brings him home instead of a good, sturdy plow horse. It's as if you or I set out to buy a truck and came home instead with a Ferarri.
He's gone and mortgaged the future for a pretty, worthless pony. But when the man sobers up and moves to put a bullet into the beast, his son Albert steps between the flesh of the animal and the bullet's barrel.
"He'll show you," Albert says of the horse whom he's named Joey. "We'll show you. We'll get it done."
And they do. Thanks to Albert's determination and the horse's ability to adapt, Joey becomes the prettiest plow horse in all of Devonshire. Now, Albert tells his horse, they can be together, "Which is the way I think things were meant to be."
And perhaps they would have been, too … had the calendar not said 1914 and the world not marched toward cataclysm. The war is coming. And when it arrives, it takes not the farmer, not the boy, but Joey, the big, beautiful horse in all his magnificence and innocence, the horse who's known only harnesses and fields and apples from Albert.
"It's challenging to tell a story where you have to look at a horse and wonder what the horse is feeling from moment to moment," director Steven Spielberg told USA Today. "But that's why I wanted to direct this picture. You're giving language to a horse based all on physical performance."
Joey, the hero of War Horse, tells us volumes about the nature of war. There's nothing glamorous or glorious about the conflict we see. And yet in the midst of it, we see the horse embody laudable human traits—even sacrificing his own potential well-being for that of a comrade. Spielberg uses the horse as something akin to a symbol—the vehicle in which we can see the horror of war, but the little ways in which we can rise above that horror.
His film has plenty of human heroes too. Albert is unfailingly kind to Joey—even as he pushes both himself and his horse to the breaking point to save the family's farm. He longs to be a war hero, like his father was—and when he later goes off to war himself he indeed proves to be heroic. But by then, of course, he'd rather be back in Devon.
Albert's father, for all his faults, does what he can to provide for his family. "He never gave up," wife Rose says. "And he does it for us." Rose stands by Ted in the thickest sorts of trouble, even if she's exasperated by him at times. She also offers us a profound reason why Ted—who was honored in past British battles—never talks about his role in combat. "It's good to be proud when you've done something good," she says. "He refused to be proud of killing, I suppose."
Joey changes hands several times throughout the film, and each of his caretakers manifests positive traits. When British officer Captain Nicholls buys Joey and realizes how important the horse is to Albert, he promises the boy he'll bring him home safely if he can. Young French girl Emilie hides Joey and another horse, Topthorn, in her upstairs bedroom, keeping them out of sight from German soldiers. Two German brothers use Joey to tote an ambulance—saving him from being shot in the head. A German artillery worker risks his own freedom to save Joey. And when the horse gets tangled up in barbed wire in the infamous No Man's Land between the French and German trenches, a British and German soldier form an unlikely temporary alliance to free the gallant creature.
Joey is sometimes cast in a quasi-spiritual light. Albert confides in the animal, who's called a "miracle horse" by soldiers, "I knew when I first saw you that you would be the one to save us."
A soldier whispers the 23rd Psalm to himself as he traverses No Man's Land. A commander rallies his troops before battle, saying, "Be brave. Fear God. Honor the king." Ted bemoans his fate, telling his wife that he used to think that God gave each man his share of trials. But "I've had more than my share," he concludes.
None. Quips are made about the relative beauty of women in various countries.
World War I doesn't get as much cinematic attention as its showier sequel, what with the latter war's dynamic leaders and clear-cut bad guys. The "war to end all wars" was a complex, morally murky fight that left more than 15 million people dead (including around 7 million civilians). It was a brutal conflict, dominated by trench warfare and made more miserable by poison gas. War Horse, while not nearly as gory as it could be, doesn't flinch from its inherent horrors.
Early on, we see a field of battle littered with dead horses and men. Topthorn gets pretty beaten up and broken down toward the end of the war, and Joey tears himself up something awful when he runs through the fields full of barbed wire. (He runs so fast that their tangles cause him to flip over, landing hard and painfully.) Characters frequently point guns at horses, preparing to shoot them, and we hear guns fired that apparently slaughter other horses.
Men suffer as well. We see many die in the course of the story, including two who are shot for deserting. Bodies go flying during explosions. Others are mowed down by rifle or machine gun fire. One soldier is told to stay behind and shoot anyone who retreats back to his home trench. One man gets wounded in the leg. Others are gassed. We see people who are missing limbs and have their eyes bandaged.
Albert is thrown from Joey over a fence. Someone's knocked down by a horse. We learn that Emilie's parents died in the war.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters say "b‑‑tard" and "h‑‑‑" twice each, along with British crudities "bloody" (two or three times), "b-gger" (at least four times) and "git" (once).
Drug and Alcohol Content
Ted drinks regularly, and sometimes gets drunk. Rose largely tolerates his drinking, explaining to Albert that he drinks to forget some of the things he saw during wartime. But she does take away the bottle shortly after Ted threatens to shoot Joey. Some days are better off forgotten, she tells him. This isn't one of those days.
Whiskey and other alcoholic beverages make sporadic appearances elsewhere too.
Other Negative Elements
Emilie doesn't always show complete respect for her clearly beloved grandfather, sometimes lightly joking in a way that prompts him to, also lightly, tell her to respect her elders.
"The war's taking everything," Grandfather says miserably. "And everyone."
It took the horses too.
Britain sent more than 1 million horses to war between 1914 and 1918. Just 62,000 returned.
The lives of horses, neither then or now, are as valuable as the lives of men. And yet we're so used to seeing men die on film that I wonder if we've become desensitized to their ends. I wonder if that's why seeing animals in peril—horses, dogs, cats—sometimes moves us more. We simply don't see it as often.
In War Horse, we witness the horrible toll that war indeed takes, on everything and everyone. Albert comes home from the front, but he comes home wiser and sadder. Grandfather loses nearly everything. Many others do not survive at all. Based on a children's book written by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is no sanitized story meant for youngsters. This is a story about lost innocence and the atrocities of war, told in sometimes heartbreaking fashion.
It's also perhaps the most moving, beautiful and inspirational movie of the year.
In the midst of the terror, we see moments of heroism, self-sacrifice and love. In the midst of cruelty, we see demonstrated humanity—some of which, ironically, come from a horse. And as we look through the eyes of Joey and Albert, we catch a glimpse at how we too can push through the hard seasons that come to us all.
When Emilie surmises that her parents died in the war, she imagines they died bravely—fighting for what they believed in. Grandfather says that, yes, they were indeed very brave. Then Emilie—perhaps out of grief or anger, accuses her grandfather of being a coward. In response, Grandfather suggests that maybe there are different forms of courage, and he points to carrier pigeons—pigeons who, no matter what, always return home—as an example.
"Can you imagine flying over a war, and you know you can never look down?" Grandfather says. "You have to look forward. Or you'll never get home."
War Horse looks ever forward.