On Saturday afternoon I watched Warhorse on Sky TV and was very surprised as how good and enjoyable this film is. I believe it was on Andrew Marr’s show in the morning that the author of the book was interviewed and who admitted that it had sold few copies before the National Theatre created a play which is still running and which led to Speilberg deciding it would make a great film. It was not a great film but enjoyable as I have said.
The film begins in the English Devon Countryside as the son of a tenant farmers watches a neighbour raise the foal of a thoroughbred horse from birth until it is ready to be sold at auction. His father, a man prone to drink too much, since his experiences as a soldier in the Boer War attends the auction to purchase a shire horse for ploughing but cannot resist buying the horse in competition with his landlord and uses part of his rent money to compete the purchase as a consequence. When the landlord calls to collect his due and finds he only receives a portion he gives the man more time on the basis that the horse will be used to plough the bottom field with is full of stones and rocks. The landlord and several neighbours turn up top watch the son attempt to plough which he is able to do eventually under terrible weather conditions but only because of the special relationship which has developed between him and the horse.
Unfortunately coinciding with the commencement of World War I the crop fails due to exceptional weather conditions and the man is forced to sell the horse to the army where it is bought for the maximum price available, sufficient to save the farm from closure. Distressed at the failure of his father the boy has complained to his mother who has explained that something happened to her husband during the Boer War which he would not speak of yet the man had a gallantry medal which he threw away on his return but his wife had kept wrapped material which had gone through the war and which the son now attached to the mane of the horse when it is sold. The officer who buys promises to return the horse if they survive after the boy is unable to join up because he is too young.
We follow the horse as it journeys to the War Front with the officer making sketches of the creature which he intends to send to the young man. The cavalry unit are sent on an early surprise raid on a German encampment where the scout has not properly checked and discovered the hidden machine gun placements in a nearby wood. Although the German troops are caught in their tents the majority are able to make for the trees where after they have reached safety machine guns mow down the advancing horses and their riders. In this instance the horse escapes and bolts while the officer is killed. A colleague sends the sketches to the young man with a note about what happened. The note does not mention the fate of the horse.
We the audience know that it is found by the sick grand daughter of a jam making farmer sandwich between the two armies. This is after the horse has been captured by the German army and is cared for by two brothers who use the animal to pull an ambulance wagon for the injured. However when the unit is called to the front the young brother is told to participate in the advance while the second is told to stay with the horses because he has shown aptitude. However this breaks a promise made to their mother that he would protect his brother with both boys signed up by their father. He decides to rescue his brother and they effectively drop out and attempt to hide in a Mill on their way to Italy but they are discovered and shot but without the horses being found where they are rescued by an orphaned young woman brought up by her grand father. She has fragile bone disease but insists on learning to ride the horse and one day gallops straight into another German force that seize the animals and most of her father’s produce.
The two horses are used to help haul guns up a hill where other animals have failed and been shot for their ineffectiveness. Because of its experience using a plough and harness it is ideal for the task as leader of a pack of horses and becomes a much valued by their keeper.
Meanwhile as the War draws to its close the boy who trained the horse has joined up and is experiencing the realities of battle and on one instance on an over the trench top charge he is told to stay back and shoot any one who returns before the German trench is taken. When some soldiers do return before the battle is over, the young man cannot shoot them and goes into the open ground helping to take out a machine gun position. When he and his friends reach the German lines he is affected by a mustard gas bomb attack.
Meanwhile the horse has also survived and in the heat of battle the horse runs off along trenches and onto the no man’s land between two lines of trenches where it becomes enmeshed in barbed wire. Seeing the animal trapped a British soldier attempts a rescue and is joined by a German soldier with wire cutters and they the free horse and then the Englishman wins the horse at the toss of the coin and takes the animal to the field hospital for its injuries to be treated only to be told that it must be put down. The horse has gained a reputation for its miraculous survival and of the one million horses sent to the front from the UK only 62000 are known to have returned home.
The young man who trained the creature also hears of its survival and although still blinded he is able to make contact with the horse and the young man who rescued the animal hands him over and the doctor in charge agrees to do everything to save the animal as well as help the young man to regain his sight.
At the end of the war a problem arises because only horses of officers are to be repatriated home with the other animals sold at auction. There is a collection among his colleagues which raises some £30 for him to bid for the horse. At the auction he is out bid first by a butcher and then by the grandfather of the girl who rescued the horse at one point and who the grandfather discloses has died. When he realise it was the young soldier who originally trained the horse he hands back first the ribbon of his father and then the horse saying it what his grand daughter would have wished. The young man and the horse are therefore able to return home to be reunited with his parents.
What is of interest is that the writer of the book was influences by two survivors of the war, one who had been involved with horses and the other with the Cavalry and the use of horse pulling guns and powering ambulance vehicles. However the fate of the horses has to placed in the perspective of the eight hundred and eighty thousand men who died, one in eight of those who went to war from the UK and 2% if the British population at that time.