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File:War horse 9969.jpg


War Horse is a book and later play adaptation by acclaimed children's writer Michael Morpurgo. Appropriately enough, the play was originally done in Europe, then ported to America with some long-distance collaboration, meeting great deals of success both commercially and critically. Steven Spielberg's film adaptation was released on Christmas 2011.

War Horse takes place in 1914 during the outbreak of World War One in Great Britain. It follows the life of a young foal, Joey, and his initial interactions with his owner, Albert Narracott, the son of a drunk who spent nearly double the estimated value on the horse at an auction. [1] A bond swiftly forms between Joey and Albert as he cares for and trains Joey to farm life. However, when a badly-timed rainstorm takes out the farm's yearly crop, Albert's father is forced to sell Joey to the military in a desperate attempt to pay the rent. Joey departs for the war in France, with Albert promising to find him again when the war ends.

What happens next is Joey's journey through both sides of the war, interspersed with Albert joining the military to make good on his promise.

War Horse is noteworthy for its narrative twist on war, attempting to show the conflict from the viewpoint of horses who switch sides several times over the course of the war, and their observation of humaneness on both sides. While the featured horses in War Horse are just puppets, several surreal usages of special effects and 3 puppeteers per horse lead to affecting plot progression and Manly Tears shed by all. War Horse won the Tony award for best play in 2011, and at a whopping 2-and-a-half-hour playtime of emotional prodding, it's hardly a surprise.

War Horse contains examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Albert and Joey. Especially Joey.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: As if the book wasn't sad enough, the filmmakers seemed to go out of their way to add more tragedy and drama, like the scene in which Albert and Joey are reunited: in the book he and a friend are merely cleaning mud off the horse and slowly realizing that it's Joey, but in the movie he's blinded from mustard gas and Joey is two seconds away from being shot.
    • To be fair, this was taken from the play.
  • Anyone Can Die: Even the horses.
  • Apron Matron: Mrs. Narracott - in the film it's pretty clear how devoted she is to keeping the family together.
  • A Boy and His Horse
  • Badass Mustache: Benedict Cumberbatch sports a rather impressive one.
  • Black Best Friend: Taylor to Albert. Topthorn to Joey as well, if we take the trope name at face value.
  • Bloodless Carnage: The film does this for humans, most noticeably when Taylor gets shot in the leg. The horses are shown with cuts and scrapes though. And, the film shows that bloodless carnage is still horrifying violent carnage.
  • Book Ends: Joey being auctioned.
  • Bus Crash: Emilie dies at some point during the time skip, which leads her grandfather to try and purchase Joey after the war as a keepsake of her.
  • But He Sounds Handsome: In the play, Albert can't write, so he dictates his letter home to Taylor. Said letter proceeds to mention just how handsome a friend Taylor is.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Joey's ability to pull a plow gets him taken off the front lines and used to pull hospital carts instead.
    • Albert's special whistling call also.
  • Cliff Hanger: The end of the first act shows Joey and a fellow horse charging towards the enemy, then forced to take a leap of faith over some barbed wire quite literally into the audience.
  • Cool Horse: Joey, naturally, and Topthorn as well.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Major Stewart is shown to be more than willing to fight via ambush, which irks Captain Nicholls. Pity they were both beaten by even stronger German Combat Pragmatist, who had Maxims.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Colin and Peter during the barbed wire scene which also constitutes Casual Danger Dialogue, occurring (as it does) in the middle of No Man's Land during a very tentative ceasefire.

 Colin: So, how's things in yonder trench?

Peter: Delightful. We read, we knit sweaters and we train our rats to perform circus tricks.

Colin: Well, if you ever need any more rats, we could always send some of ours over because we have more than we need, strictly speaking. Besides, they scare off all the pretty girls.

Peter: Our girls aren't afraid of rats.

Colin: Big strapping German girls. eh? Kind what give robust massages?

Peter: Every Thursday. And they bring rum cake on your birthday.

    • Joey himself seems to be this at times.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Pretty much everyone except Albert who takes "ownership" of Joey.
  • Determinator: Nothing is going to stop Albert from finding Joey, nor Joey from finding Albert.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Albert spends three years in the trenches and comes home with his horse. Joey survives four years of the same and comes home with his human.
  • Epic Fail: Albert impresses David's upper class girl friend by having Joey run even faster than their car. He tries to up this by having Joey jump over the fence. Joey couldn't. But he could sure brake very quickly.
  • Eye Scream: Implied - Albert is caught in a cloud of mustard gas in the trenches, and the next time we see him, his eyes are bandaged. He recovers, however.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: David and Albert overcome their class differences after the war and seem to become friends. David even volunteered to help declare Joey as an officer's horse to ensure he does not get auctioned off after the war.
  • Fake Nationality: Friedrich is played by a Scandinavian since the accent sounds similar enough to the average moviegoer.
  • The Film of the Book: Inverted. The play came before the film but after the book. Both the book and the play are of a high quality. And it turns out the movie is too.
  • Foreign Queasine: At the auction at the end of the film, the crowd murmurs about a French butcher who has been buying up horses for his slaughterhouse. *Cue fat Gaul stereotype twirling his mustache*
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Several times in the film, so that it would not be rated R:
    • when the British Cavalry charge, Those who are gunned down by the Germans are not shown being shot.
      • Made even scarier by showing the horses jumping over the German line, without their riders.
    • when a gray German horse is put down.
    • when the two German boys face a firing squad for desertion, a windmill blade crosses in front of the camera when the guns are actually fired and next we see the boys' bodies on the ground.
    • when Albert is gassed, the smoke fills his vision and he is not seen again until he already has bandages over his eyes. His comrade who was gassed before him is never shown again. Real images of gas attack victims are very NSFW.
  • Hair of Gold: Captain Nicholls in the film.
  • Irony: Albert's cousin Billy, with whom Albert competes with before the war, is given a knife by his father and told, "let this knife protect you as it did me and my father." He ends up being shot after being taken prisoner because he possessed a knife.
    • There's also the fact that Joey was originally intended to be Billy's horse, before Ted bought him. Billy ultimately rides him into battle.
  • Horsing Around: Joey is really stubborn about refusing to jump, but at least he didn't throw Emilie on her behind.
    • Almost deconstructed earlier on in the film: Joey knocking Albert's father down in protest at the horsecollar nearly gets him shot in a rage.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: The landlord is not fond of Narracott Sr.'s drunkedness and inability to pay his rent on time, and while repeatedly harassing him for these faults, he does extend the payment's due date till the harvest so the family has a chance to save themselves. Besides, he is running a business, not a charity.
  • Karma Houdini: Outside of some implied beatings from his wife, Albert's drunk father, while he caused his family debt, sold his son's only friend into war, and consequently his son, gets off without much more than a frown from the neighborhood.
    • This seems to be rather averted in the film adaptation. The prideful father puts his family in financial danger but is portrayed as flawed and more sympathetic and more remorseful of his action.
      • To be specific, Joey manages to plow the field that Narracott Sr. was gambling the future of the farm on, but a torrential rainstorm ruins the crop. In order to make the rent he has to sell Joey to the war effort, and he is visibly remorseful while doing so.
      • It's even implied that by the end of the film that the fact that his son went off to face the horrors war like he did managed to get him to sober up.
  • Mama Bear: Albert's mum, who after seeing the landlord harass her husband and son one time too many threatens to dish up some home-made family-recipe Eye Scream.
  • Manly Tears: All over the place--it's a war movie, after all. During an interview, Love Actually director Richard Curtis commented that Tom Hiddleston's eyes are so piercing that Jeremy Irvine started crying in the scene where Nicholls buys Joey just to "distract people from the blueness."
  • Memento MacGuffin: Ted Narracott's regimental pennant.
  • Never Bring a Knife to A Gun Fight: The British army's first ambush charge against the Germans on with the swords and horses was quite effective... until the Germans dive behind the forest to reveal their arsenal of Maxims.
  • Never Learned to Read: Albert is illiterate in the play, but not in the film.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Michael keeps his vow to protect his brother Gunther by pulling him out of line and deserting with him. Of course, an officer promptly finds and executes them.
  • Not So Different: Both sides are clearly shown to have leaders who keep throwing blood and metal into the war, whereas their troops and horses are decent people just trying to survive.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Captain Nicholls.
  • Please Wake Up: A heartbreaking non-verbal example is done in the film as Joey keeps nudging Topthorn to try and get him back on his feet even after he's dead.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: A single goose is constantly providing stupid antics during times of great stress, such as when Joey is training to plow and right before he enlists in the army. It even gooses Albert's father after a particularly stupid blunder.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Nicholls and Fridrich.
    • In the film, the Upperclass Twit (who is an officer only because of his father's wealth) becomes this. First he asks Albert to leave him behind since he has been wounded, and later, helps Albert to get Joey back.
  • Recycled in Space: Black Beauty in WORLD WAR ONE!
  • Scenery Porn: The English countryside combined with Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. Steven Spielberg himself even called it the most beautiful place he'd ever shot a film.
  • Shell Shocked Senior: The explicit reason the film gives Narracott Sr. for being a drunkard. He came back from the Boer War, threw the medals he earned into the trash, and fell into the nearest bottle.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Barely averted. Joey is almost euthanized at the end after barely surviving the war. Albert was being kept in the same hospital that Joey was outside of after going blind from mustard gas, and uses a familiar call that they developed together to save his life.
  • Shot At Dawn: The two German boys are executed by firing squad after the elder yanks the younger from the line marching to the front.
  • Shown Their Work: All weaponry is introduced into the play at the same time it was first used in the war. Even tanks.
    • The film also does this with costumes - for example, the Germans start with picklehaube helmets but later get stahlhelms.
  • Single Tear: Emilie.
  • Somewhere an Equestrian Is Crying Yeah, Joey probably wouldn't be able to plough a whole field with no experience, no training and also being a young horse who is the wrong breed for this type of work anyway, let ALONE pull with enough strength to slice through rocks.
    • Partly averted in the play, where Joey is half-Thoroughbred, half-unspecified breed of draft horse.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Used to unsettling effect when Joey and fellow horse Topthorn are crossing the Channel in a troopship. As the soldiers sing a jolly little marching song, a lightning storm seems to rage around them (as suggested by the lighting and sound effects), huge waves crash, and there's ominous music and explosions. The horses whinny and stomp while the boys Just. Keep. SINGING.
    • There's also Albert and his friend singing "Goodbye Dolly Gray" while they're going over the top, and they keep singing even as men around them start to fall from gunfire. They're cut off when a shell lands near them, but still.
  • This Is Reality: "Did you really think a garrison in an open field would go undefended? What kind of world do you think we live in?"
    • Did Not Do the Research in that the fields of fire of the machine guns include the tented camp, so the cavalrymen raid the camp before coming onto the guns. The camp also appears to have no sentries or pickets of any kind.
  • Title Drop: In the film, during the barbed wire scene.
  • Translation Convention: There are scenes where characters are speaking German or French while the actors are speaking Englsh. The dialogue makes the failure of comprehension clear. It does seem strange that no English or German soldiers know any foreign languages and that no communication is possible even if the words spoken would be almost the same in English & German.
    • Done in the film, even when the French and Germans speak with each other. In fact, it's not completely clear what language they are supposed to be speaking in those scenes.
      • Both armies developed workable versions of pidgin French quite early on in the war.
    • Averted in the film for one scene, where a British soldier trying to free Joey from some barbed-wire in No-man's Land compliments a German soldier who lends him some wire-cutters on the German's mastery of English.
      • often referred to in contemporary accounts. Germans with a history of working in England as waiters, barbers and heavy industrial workers of various descriptions are commonly described. German-speaking Englishmen, less so; usually officers. Robert Graves is probably the Trope Codifier
    • Averted and justified in the play - the German and French characters speak German and French to each other, bar one German character who speaks English to Joey and Topthorn because it's the language they're most familiar with.
  • War Is Hell: Even the horses think so. Arguably, the length of the play could be interpreted to show just how long the first world war seemed to drag on.
  • We Have Reserves: A German Captain pretty much treats Horses this way, having them pull guns until they die of exhaustion.
    • Truth in Television in that the life expectancy of a draught horse was about 18 months on the Allied side and rather less on the German side due to poor feed and overwork.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It is not really clear what happened to Major Stewart and Lt. Waverly after being captured in the first failed Ambush to German forces.
    • Emilie in the stage version.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: See This Is Reality.
  • World War One

Notes

  1. 39 Guinea!
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