mon 27/05/2019

War Horse: The Real Story, Channel Four | reviews, news & interviews

War Horse: The Real Story, Channel Four

War Horse: The Real Story, Channel Four

Documentary about real life equine war heroes falls at a fence called Perspective

Blinkered: 'War Horse' raises many a nagging doubt

If you had felt so inclined, you could have watched three straight hours of War Horsiness last night. Now, I’ve seen the play of Michael Morpurgo’s novel and figured I got the mechanics of its impressive stage-craft (Sky Arts 1, 7pm). And, having seen it, I had absolutely no intention of watching Steven Spielberg gloss the already highly questionable boy-goes-to-war-on-account-of-a-horse message for the big screen (ditto, 6pm). So I opted for Channel Four’s War Horse: the Real Story - and pretty much got what I expected.

Billed as “extraordinary and deeply moving”, War Horse was actually rather lightweight, as these things go, and with long ad-breaks to boot. As with all things Great War, of course, the stats were surreal and the circumstances appalling. At a time when the tank was about to become a reality, the army’s hunger for horse-flesh was insatiable, an entire logistical wing employed in drafting a million horses into service from Britain’s farms and villages. Belief in the effect of cavalry charges still prevailed, but the cavalry’s first encounter with machine-gun fire reads like a salutary lesson out of Sharpe: they lost control of their mounts, were generally shot to shit, and “none of the cavalrymen got within 600 yards of the German guns”. Many months later, unbelievably, there were still deploying lancers – with pennants – at the Somme.

If you want to erect war memorials to donkeys and give medals to pigeons, knock yourself out

Only two per cent of the horses were “glorious” cavalry, though. The rest were sloggers through the mud and toilers under the yoke – targeted all the more, perhaps, for their role in the vital supply-chain. This was a bad time to be a horse. In all, of the roughly one million that shipped out from Britain, only 60,000 returned.

So far, so extraordinary. But War Horse might have been more moving if it had not been bodged together on the sepia-hued outskirts of SpielbergLand. And although no one here ran away to war to get his pet back, I found that an alternative strain of the “Morpurgo problem” was immediately sparked into life. Despite being introduced with the warning that “this programme does show the realities of war” (as though we were about to see genocide footage from Kigali or Srebrenica), the predicating assumption of the documentary appeared to be that men and horses fought the First World War as equals.

General Seeley wrote of his famous steed Warrior that he was, under bombardment, “pretending to be brave” (by my count, two levels beyond the verifiable), and the narrator bought right into it, describing Seeley’s genuinely chivalric charge against the Germans at Amiens in terms of “stealth and courage from both man and horse”. Talking heads spoke of horse mange as though – on the grand scheme of things – it were trench foot and hoof-spikes as though they were anti-personnel mines. The implied instances of equality got so heavy that one of the military experts felt moved to highlight the sacrifice of actual soldiers; but the 20,000 British deaths on the first day of the Somme were dealt with in under 10 seconds. When our narrator illustrated the instructions to officers for putting a wounded horse out of its misery – “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he said to the unnecessary horse-in-shot (so to speak): “this isn’t going to happen for real” – he omitted to mention that several times during WWI, this had indeed happened for real, to men.

There is no doubt that the equine experience of the war would have been terrifying, exhausting, and incomprehensible. But it was not “tragic." Nor, by the same token, “epic". This isn’t just a point of language: in the words of the RSPCA’s former Chief Vet, the horses “had no ability to understand what was going on”. Greater love hath no horse, literally. QED. If you want to erect war memorials to donkeys and give medals to pigeons, knock yourself out. Just don’t suggest that the men who rode into battle and the animals they rode in on were embarked upon the same moral enterprise. That’s insulting.

I'm not arguing that documentaries like this seriously detract from our awareness of the human tragedy of war; but we need to keep things in perspective. In one of the ad breaks near the end of War Horse we were informed that National Lottery funds are sometimes used to send veterans on trips back to Armed Forces cemeteries. An elderly man was seen kneeling by a grave. He wasn't visiting a horse.

Of the one million horses that shipped out from Britain, only 60,000 returned

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Comments

anything that shows the conditions of the mules and horses during WW1 to the general public is a o.k. but why when you show the close up of the G.S. Wagon and pair, the horses where not from these shores they where foreign,and the bridles where modern show types,tut tut not military kit, the driver dress and whip was dreadful. Get some one too advise you who knows about WW1 harness,dress etc.............

I don't think the documentary was disrespectful of the soldiers, as implied in this review. It was, after all, a documentary about horses in WWI, therefore one would expect horse specific content to be high and soldier content to be relatively low as a consequence of that. I also think the reviewer must not be familiar with horses. They generally *do* know what is going on. Horses are intelligent beasts. They can pick up on the subtlest moods and emotions of their riders. My god, they can often accurately judge the character of a (human) stranger from 30 feet away. (often far better than us humans can). I am quite sure the horses understood perfectly well what was happening when they were being ridden into combat. If their riders knew, the horses knew. As far as understanding the political forces, private funding, propaganda and so on which led to the war in the first place I am sure the horses were only slightly more in the dark than the average soldiers was. I would also suggest "terrifying, exhausting, and incomprehensible" would have summed up the experiences of the young men and teenagers as much as it would the horses. All of them sent to fight and die needlessly in a foreign land. Such is the nature of modern war.

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