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January 03, 2012

'War Horse' and the Ties that Bond

Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse is a war movie of sorts, showing us a slice of the bucolic life that characterized pre-World War I England, taking us to the fronts of battle in occupied France, and reminding us just how innovations in warfare helped produce a bloodier, deadlier, and costlier conflict than ever before. But, more than that, it is a story of a boy’s devotion to a horse. It is a story of true love—a story of an unexpected union, separation, and reunion between young Albert and Joey, a thoroughbred purchased by his struggling father at an exorbitant cost and who was eventually sold off to the British army for use in battle. In the broadest sense, the movie’s dominant theme is the power of the human-animal bond—itself a human inclination that has been as central and enduring a part of the human story as war and violence.

Horses at Duchess Sanctuary
Kathy Milani/The HSUS

War Horse” is a must-see film—tragic, spell-binding, gut-wrenching, and hopeful. You will be inspired by the seemingly unbreakable bond between a young man and his horse—but also by flashes of human kindness and decency that carry the story from beginning to end. [Spoiler alert] Time and again, humble people, in their own way and with their own brands of courage and heroism, come to the aid of Joey: a young British officer who sends a drawing of Joey to Albert; a young French girl and her grandfather, whose home and farm are plundered by German soldiers; a German soldier who is a custodian of work horses conscripted to drag impossibly heavy artillery; and even a British soldier and a German soldier who break off from their battle stations to venture into a smoking wasteland strewn with barbed wire to rescue a wounded and hopelessly entangled horse.

Later, after the French grandfather outbids a kill buyer at an auction at war’s end, he surprises himself by turning over the horse to Albert. Albert, who has just reclaimed his sight after being gassed in the war, accepts this latest act of kindness and then travels back to Devon. Joey has survived an incredible set of ordeals and hazards because of his own indomitable spirit but also because of serial acts of kindness from strangers. His reward is a life back on the farm with Albert, who is no longer a child, but a veteran of the war.

The service of horses during the Great War was a remarkable episode in the human-animal relationship, for its scale, its horror, and its implications. Horses played an essential role in the conflict, especially for off-road movement of artillery, munitions, and supplies. The United States enlisted 1.2 million of the more than 6 million horses who went to war, and the vast majority of them perished in the conflict, as machine guns and tanks came to dominate the battlefields and rendered cavalry charges quaint, ineffective, and suicidal.

Humane advocates accepted and supported the participation of horses and were instrumental in raising funds for veterinary care, ambulance service, and other comforts to ease the burden of the animals involved. More importantly, after the war, American humanitarians argued for a “square deal” for the horse, based on the service and sacrifices of millions of animal ‘soldiers’ just like Joey in “War Horse.” They supported limited workday hours and proper rest for laboring horses, pushed for the professionalization of equine veterinary care, and campaigned for an end to harsh practices and fads in riding, training, and equine fashion.

Spielberg’s masterful work is a timely reminder of our duties to the horse, too, because, in the worst of ironies, the release of “War Horse” happened to coincide with the renewal of the political campaign to bring horse slaughter back to U.S. soil after a five-year prohibition. It came in the form of a “November surprise” carried out by a handful of federal lawmakers who removed protective language barring the U.S. Department of Agriculture from funding inspection of horse slaughter facilities from an appropriations act. For those of us who have been laboring hard against horse slaughter throughout North America, it was a great disappointment when President Obama approved the appropriations bill on Nov. 18, with nary a comment about the evils of this commercial killing of horses. Today, we need a new “square deal” for the American horse.

Horse slaughter is the strangest of fights, for Americans don’t eat horses, and they almost certainly never will. We kill horses in slaughterhouses mainly because there are horse owners who are willing to trade away the horses’ welfare for the proverbial 30 pieces of silver. And of course, they find kill buyers, transporters, and slaughterhouse owners all too willing to make transactions. These ruthless people just see meat on the hoof, and they do not have the intuition of a young Albert and so many others throughout the world to exhibit a protective instinct for this part of God’s creation.

For his part, Spielberg said he hopes that “War Horse” raises people's awareness and encourages them to be kinder to animals. It has the potential to do for the horse what the novel Black Beauty did more than a century ago. In a public statement, Spielberg noted, “In this day, people don't have exposure, they don't have interaction with horses…I hope this movie makes people appreciate the innate and natural intelligence of horses. And I also hope this movie brings an awareness to the plight of horses both after World War I and the plight today in a very sad turn of events in which the slaughtering of horses is being permitted for food as a renewed export industry, which makes us all very sad.”

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