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Literature / War Horse

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And like Barleycorn, who rose from the grave, a new year will rise up again.

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 I 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. (39 Guinea!) 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 writers of the play and 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.
    • The father's backstory. In the film, he drinks because of his own experiences in battle. In the novel, however, he's just anxious about his financial difficulties, and in the play, he's also guilty or resentful about not fighting in the Boer war, unlike his brother.
  • Analogy Backfire: The English commander brings up Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg as an example of why a full on charge works, the only problem is that Pickett's charge failed spectacularlynote . Also doubles as Foreshadowing.
    • In the book, this also doubles as Foreshadowing—Captain Nicholls is worried about the charge because he's aware that horses vs. machine guns results in the horses losing, and he mentions The Charge of the Light Brigade, which failed spectacularly, and a charge in the Franco-Prussian War that failed as well.
  • 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.
  • Big Damn Reunion: After having been separated through a majority of World War I, Joey and Albert manages to reunite at the end.
  • 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.
  • Body Horror: The use of distorted masks in the play sends the wounded soldiers in the first act deep into this trope.
  • 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.
    • It's a little ambiguous whether she has died or not in the film. Her grandfather answers, 'The war takes everything from eveybody' when asked by Albert where she is. But when Albert asks her name he says 'Emilie. Her name is Emilie' hinting that she may still be alive. While it seems most likely she has died, there may be other explanations for why she is no longer with her grandfather.
    • It is possible she has left home and married, so she is no longer living with her grandfather anymore.
  • …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.
  • Canon Foreigner: Several prominent characters from the film and/or the play (Billy's uncle and cousin, the Schroder brothers, Andrew etc.) aren't in the original book.
  • 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.
  • Cliffhanger: The end of the play's 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: In the film, 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 pragmatists, who had Maxim guns.
  • 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.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Joey and Topthorn start out as rivals, but after Joey beats Topthorn during the practice run race, they become friends.
  • 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: In the film, 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: In the film, 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.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: Fridrich is continually appalled by the way the army treats prized horses, until his superior calls him out for caring more about the horses than about the millions of people dying around them.
  • 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. He's also enough of a jerk to bid up the price to double the going rate just to spite the British sergeant doing the bidding for Albert.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Several times in the film, so that it would not be rated R:
    • When the British cavalry charge meets multiple machine guns, we are only shown cuts of the cavalry advancing and riderless horses passing the guns.
    • 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.
    • The camera cuts away just before a tank rolls over Topthorn's body.
  • 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.
  • Irony: In the play, 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.
    • Albert remarks that he and Joey are both lucky - which may be true, but nearly everyone around them dies, especially the multiple parties that briefly possess Joey, so it doesn't rub off very well.
  • 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 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. And even though Joey manages to plow the field that Narracott Sr. was gambling the future of the farm on, 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. And it's even implied that, by the end of the film, the fact that his son went off to face the horrors of 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 homemade family-recipe Eye Scream via her extremely long and sharp knitting needles.
  • 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.
  • Mirroring Factions: 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.
  • Moment of Silence: In the movie, there are a Moment of Silence and subtle Playing the Heart Strings setting in shortly before Captain Nicholls is shot during the cavalry charge, combined with Slow Motion.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Epic field-plowing action!
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight: Realistically portrayed to the point of possible downplaying. The British army's first ambush charge on with the swords and horses against a camp of rifle-wielding German infantry was very 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: In the film, Michael keeps his vow to protect his brother Gunther by pulling him out of line and deserting with him. The officer who had earlier been lenient concerning the horses easily finds and executes them for deserting, with evident remorse.
  • Only the Leads Get a Happy Ending: In The Film of the Book only Joey and Albert (and his family as well) get a happy ending. The other characters die or are left without nothing to live for (Like Emilie's grandfather)
  • 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.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: At least one review complained about Joey and Topthorn becoming friends, citing this as being mere anthropomorphism, and was apparently unaware that horses can and do form strong friendships with each other, and have even been known to mourn for their deceased friends.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Nicholls and Fridrich.
    • In the film, the Upper-Class 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!
  • Rule of Drama: Narracott Sr. causes several of the problems over the course of the story with little to reprimanding. However, without his input there'd be no plot; Albert would never have bonded with Joey in the first place.
  • 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 on film.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: The explicit reason the film gives Narracott Sr. for being a drunkard. He came back from the extremely bloody Second Boer War, threw the medals he earned into the trash, and fell into the nearest bottle.
  • Shot at Sunset: The two German boys are executed by firing squad after the elder yanks the younger from the line marching to the front.
  • Shout-Out: The part at the end where a soldier wipes dirt from Joey's forehead to reveal his white mark at Albert's request is very similar to the end of the 1994's adaptation of Black Beauty, where Joe reunites with Beauty and recognizes him by removing the bangs on his forehead to see the white mark beneath.
  • 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 "Pickelhaube" helmets but later get "Stahlhelms."
  • Sibling Rivalry: In the play, the Narracott brothers, but not in either the novel or the film.
  • 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. The contest also requires Joey to plow only a short furrow, as opposed to an entire field.
    • Also, he was only able to do it after a rain shower softened up the ground.
  • 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.
    • The scene when Joey is forced to pull the gun is set to a truly terrifying and discordant Dark Reprise of the song that played when he first pulled the plough. The stage play employs this trope really well.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Friedrich and Emilie explicitly die in the book, but either live or have their fates left more ambiguous in both adaptations.
  • 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?"
    • 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 English. 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. In fact, he even corrects the Briton's comment that "You speak good English" to the more grammatically precise "I speak English well".
      • 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.
      • The one exception to this is also justified: two German soldiers speak English in order to criticize the war without a third officer understanding them.
  • Unwanted Assistance: The sergeant that takes over bidding at the end of the movie ends up antagonizing the French butcher, leading to a bid war that likely would not have happened otherwise and pricing them out.
  • 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, and 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. This winds up making him looking even more callous (and stupid) since both sides viewed draft horses as a strategic resource as critical as gasoline and rubber would be in World War II, and in Germany the supply of replacement horses was so short that instead of being needlessly wasted, as shown in the film and play, their well-being was often placed above that of the human soldiers.
  • Wham Line: From the play, "Where are the gaps?!"
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the film, it is not really clear what happened to Major Stewart and Lt. Waverly after they're captured in the first failed attempt to ambush the German forces.
    • Emilie in the stage version. She is last seen trying to indicate to Albert that she'd seen Joey before the tear gas strikes and she runs off.
    • In the film, we don't know if Colin and Pieter, who formed a friendship despite being on opposing sides, survived the war or ever met each other again.
      • In the movie, Colin is present throughout the following scenes, accompanying Joey even after he is reunited with Albert.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: See This Is Reality.