“The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori”1 – Wilfred Owen (English poet and World War I soldier, 1893-1918)
We like to build myths and memories about war.2 “God, King, and Country” has been a rally call and national motto for numerous nations and armies. British solders marching into battle recited it, Belgium granite markers depict it, and the Kingdom of Serbia (approximately 1943) placed it on banknotes and coins. Uniformed humanity, weighted down with pack and weapon, has stomped forth with rally calls and beliefs in duty. Historical memories of trench war are always splattered with mud.
Trench warfare was not new to World War I. Roman legionaries built earthworks at nightly stops along their campaign to subdue the known world. France and the rest of Europe was dug up during Napoleon’s campaigns. Confederate and Union soldiers lived in their own muddy trenches, especially toward the end of the American Civil War when opposing military leaders began to recognize the lethality of the rifled barrel. However, none of these conflicts reached the scale of World War I. The trenches of the Somme became a grave for over 350,000 British soldiers. Mass trenches had become a counter-measure to the machine gun.
Countering new weapon technology is the natural evolution of warfare. The knight and horse were rendered moot by the pike. Long lines of massed infantry in the Civil War were felled by artillery and rifles. Tanks and aircraft moved significantly safer across and above World War I’s no-man’s land. The nuclear weapons of the Cold War caused Soviet-American confrontation to move to regions that allowed war through surrogates. Today, the industrialized wars of the 20th Century have transformed into the wired3 wars of the 21st Century.
This graphic shows war’s brutality. It is from an article that discusses a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report on the numbers associated with civilian casualties from the Iraq War. This report and article argues that Americans do not care about civilian deaths, and American leaders speak constantly of American service member deaths without mentioning civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Society once viewed soldiers’ deaths as nothing more than another destruction of war material. The transformation to today’s wired war is an attempt to keep the destruction of soldiers to a minimum. This movement is not necessarily a result of America’s inability to accept military deaths, but it is a movement that leans toward technology over brute strength. The world is a violent place, but it may not be as violent as we believe. In the end, it makes sense how we can ignore civilian war deaths, this is a country that stomachs daily violence against women, children, and animals. Our neighbor’s common violence doesn’t stop our daily travels to school, work, and Wal-Mart.
World War I was a violent place for horses though. At the beginning of the Great War, a horse4 had a life expectancy measured in months. Toward the end of World War I, this life expectancy was shortened to weeks. Approximately 8 million horses were slaughtered during World War I. Steven Spielberg would have you believe that only specially endowed horses were fortunate enough to last all four years of the Great War. Spielberg revels in anthropomorphism5 in War Horse.
I “reviewed“6 Spielberg’s new movie War Horse awhile back prior to viewing it. I have now seen the movie and my belief that this review was accurate still stands.7 I will admit that I am a cynic and expect a little too much from popular entertainment. At a minimum, I expect a movie that cost approximately $77 million to make would be historically correct.
First, let’s discuss the film’s inaccuracies. The Battle of Somme, where Albert (once a boy then a soldier) is reunited with Joey (once a smart horse then a really lucky and smart horse), was from July to November 1916. In War Horse this battle seems to take place in November 1918 at the end of World War I. Serendipity8 isn’t the only unrealistic thing to this movie. Albert the soldier is also a really lucky boy. Albert is wounded by German mustard gas, which is known for its ability to permanently blind (if not killing) its victims.9 However, Albert is only temporarily blinded… Spielberg can’t seem to stomach blood or permanently wounding his main characters.
It seems World War I was the most bloodless war of all time. During cavalry charges and trench warfare (including artillery barrages), soldiers and horses die without a single gory explosion. Men and beast are destroyed without a single drop of blood being spilled. German machine gunners must have been the greatest shots in human history because, as one scene shows, British cavalrymen are gunned down (without bloody impact) without slaughtering numerous horses.10 Finally, it seemed Spielberg doesn’t trust the reading proficiency of his audience. Everyone in the movie spoke English so there are no subtitles; the Germans, the French, and obviously the British speak plainly so the viewer can completely understand the dialogue.11 Everyone, also, loves Joey the magical horse.
The movie did have moments that made me laugh though. Actually, my fellow movie goers made me laugh. The elderly couple behind me, between sniffling and cheering, loudly complained that their granddaughter “Daria” would NOT being seeing this movie because of the violence.12 I was also entertained with being in a very tiny minority in the theater who didn’t get moved to tears. I wasn’t moved at all… well I was moved to irritation.
Movies that use overblown cinematography and sweeping music to draw a viewer down an emotional trail, or at least to get the viewer to understand what the movie is saying seems a little lazy. Blunt use of scenes and music comes across as an assumption, on Spielberg’s part, that the movie goer is extremely ignorant and needs to have their heartstrings tugged by something other than by good and intelligent script writing. I can’t accurately articulate how disgustingly Gone With the Wind-ish final scenes are.
War Horse is not a good movie. War Horse is not realistic. It does, however, expand the myths of war, bravery, and negates the brutality of warfare. We probably don’t care about civilian deaths in war, but it seems we care about a single magical horse. Tommy,13 grab your bayonet and Enfield rifle, follow me over the top of the trench… I promise your death will be bloodless.
1. This is a line from the Roman poet Horace’s Odes, it is translated as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
2. Unlike the story of the 1914 Winter truce. British and German troops did declare a winter truce in Flanders and did play a game of soccer in no-man’s land. Unfortunately, this type of peace was never replicated in the following four years of the war.
3. Wired refers to the proliferation of cyber attacks (see this article on Russia’s cyber attacks on Georgia… no, not the state of, but the nation-state of) and the networking of military weaponry.
4. Horses were viewed as a piece of war material, not a living creature.
5. I like my humanized animals to be cartoons, such as the Squidbillies.
6. “Reviewed” as in I spouted uninformed opinions.
7. Seems I am not the only one who has given it bad marks.
8. Seriously, after 4 years of war, Albert and Joey are reunited on the battlefields of France???
9. My grandfather (my mother’s father) was permanently blinded in one eye by mustard gas in the trenches of World War I.
10. I do have to admit I found it interesting in the way the movie switches shots of mounted British cavalrymen mounted and charging and then going to a scene of the German gunners firing as riderless horses jump over them. The point was made that these machineguns were slaughtering the riders quickly.
11. Spielberg does ensure everyone has the appropriate accent they would have if they did speak English. One scene did cause me to laugh, and it was meant to be humorous. English soldier: “You speak good English.” German soldier: “I do speak English well.” Not everyone in the theater got this.
12. I wanted to turn around them and inform them that Daria would be a lucky girl to not having to sit through this movie and it had nothing to do with the “violence.” Daria will be truly spared.
13. Not to be confused with Warren Zevon’s “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.”