A four-legged friend goes to war

"War Horse': Animals as friends

2 minute read
My wife and I recently attended a mid-week, mid-day showing of War Horse in Sacramento, where we live. All but two of the 35 people in the audience had gray hair. But not since Forrest Gump have I experienced such an emotional response to a movie.

When Joey the horse became helplessly impaled on the ubiquitous barbed wire of the World War I western front, four or five people were seriously sobbing. At the end, the audience broke out in loud applause.

Now, it must be said that Sacramento has a reputation for standing theater ovations. We Sacramentans, generous to a fault, want actors to know how much we appreciate their efforts, and maybe that they're better off here than in more sophisticated but less appreciative cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles.

But an ovation for Joey the horse? What was happening?

Well, for one thing, Sacramento has long been referred to, with some validity, as an overgrown "cow town." More of us than in California's other larger cities have rural and small town farm roots. We (or surely our ancestors) grew up around large animals, especially horses. Families depended on their labor. Children were brought up to respect them.

It's well known that the British and German infantry alike in World War I drew their "cannon fodder" disproportionately from the working poor of small cities and rural areas. The film's depiction of soldiers on both sides caring deeply about horses rings true, as does the special companion relationship between Joey and the tall black stallion Topthorn.

"They are like big dogs," says a former farmwoman I know. Joey merits that designation.

When a German unit appropriates both horses for pulling artillery, an officer notes, without irony, "The war takes everything." And so it does— the two British officers who first ride them into battle, two German brothers who attempt to hide them on a French farm, and the farm girl who hides and befriends them.

Thanks to mechanization, horses rarely wind up on the front line any more. That blessing aside, the message of War Horse persists: War takes everything.

What, When, Where

War Horse. A film directed by Steven Spielberg. For Philadelphia area show times, click here.

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