Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Joey and Topthorn have boarded the ship to France. By the time they arrive, "the wounded", remarks Joey, "were everywhere -- on stretchers, on crutches, in open ambulances, and etched on every man was the look of wretched misery and pain." Topthorn remains the greatest solace for Joey during this time, even going so far as to wake him up in the aftermaths of battles.
During the charge of a following battle, Captain Nicholls is killed, and Joey runs and runs until he reaches Captain Stewart and Tophorn on the other side. Horses lie dead everywhere.
"He'd have been proud of you, Joey," said Captain Stewart as he led me back to the horse lines with Topthorn. He'd have been proud of you, the way you kept going out there. He died leading that charge and you finished it for him. He'd have been proud of you."
Joey is introduced to his new rider, Trooper Warren, "not a good horseman" according to Joey. Eventually, however, Warren starts talking to Joey, revealing that his previous horse had been shot out underneath him and that he had been scared to ever ride a horse again. Though Warren looks after Joey "with great devotion", Joey secretly wishes somebody else would ride him in the battles.
In the winter, Joey and Tophorn keep each other company. Warren receives letters from his mother but not from his girlfriend Sally, who can't write -- "well not very well, anyway." They are able to make it to the spring, ready to face the war again.
"Do me proud, Joey," said Trooper Warren, drawing his sword. "Do me proud."
In the ensuing battle, Trooper Warren is horrified when he realizes that the field is surrounded by barbed wire. Several horses run into the wire, and one trooper, just before dying on the wire himself, is forced to shoot his horse when the wire impales it. Joey follows Topthorn as he jumps over the lowest portion of the wire, and they all find themselves surrounded by the enemy.
"Throw down your sword, Trooper," says Captain Stewart to Warren. "There's been enough useless slaughter today. No sense in adding to it." They look back and watch as the Germans begin shooting the horses still impaled on the wire, one by one. Warren and Stewart are forced to give Joey and Topthorn to the enemy since, after all, they are POWs just like them.
There was no time for long farewells -- just a brief last stroke of the muzzle for each of us and they were gone. As they walked away, Captain Stewart had his arm around Trooper Warren's shoulder.
"Two nervous soldiers" lead Joey and Topthorn away before they are tied up to a hospital tent, as several wounded soldiers "gawk" at them. A limping German officer in a gray coat with a bandage around his head orders the soldiers to stop staring at the horses, commanding them to find the horses some blankets. The man's name is Herr Hauptmann.
Hauptmann is outraged when a doctor in a bloody white coat reveals that the horses will be put to work pulling carts. The doctor understands, but reminds Hauptmann that the horses need to be put to work in order to help all the Germans and English who are already dying on the battlefield. Hauptmann is still annoyed: "When noble creatures such as these are forced to become beasts of burden, the world has gone mad. But I can see that you are right." The importance of this scene is that it shows the nobility between the Germans who fought in the war.
What the doctor does ask, however, is that Hauptmann volunteer to manage the two horses while they pull the carts. Hauptmann accepts. Noticing that Joey and Topthorn pulls the carts with ease (they've obviously done this sort of thing before), Hauptmann remarks, "I always knew the British were crazy."
Impressed, the doctor allows Joey and Topthorn to have "the luxury of a stable." That night, while they are trying to sleep, Joey is frightened by the sight of somebody coming into the barn -- it reminds him of Albert's father -- but it is actually just "a bent old man in rough clothes and clogs, and beside him stood a young girl, her head and shoulders wrapped in a shawl."
"There you are, Grandpapa," she said. "I told you they put them in here. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful? Oh, can they be mine, Grandpapa? Please, can they be mine?"
The German soldiers take a liking to Joey and Topthorn because they are helpful in pulling carts of those who are wounded. One soldier hangs an Iron Cross around Joey's neck in admiration. The Iron Cross is hung on a nail outside their stable door.
In the evenings of the summer, Joey and Topthorn are visited by the little girl and her grandfather. The little girl's name is Emilie. She dreams of riding them through the fields when the war is over. Come winter, however, she stops coming to see them, and the grandfather eventually reveals to them why. Emilie is only 13, but her parents were killed only a week after the war began and her brother was killed at 17. She prays for them all despite the fact that she is dying of pneumonia herself. Primarily, however, she prays for two things: that Joey and Tophorn survive the war and lived into old age, and that Emilie can grow up with them. "If you can understand anything of what I said," the grandfather says, "then pray for her to whatever horse god you pray to -- pray for her like she does for you."
On Christmas night, the grandfather feeds them extra mash, telling them that Emilie has been trying to get out of bed to see them.
"The only way that German doctor could get her to stay in bed was to promise to go on with them as long as the cold weather lasted. So go inside, my beauties, and eat your fill. We've all had a Christmas present today, haven't we? All's well, I tell you. All's well."
Monday, September 26, 2011
The book begins with a notice by Michael Morpurgo describing a "dusty painting of a horse" he once saw in an English village schoolhouse. Across the bottom of the bronze frame at the bottom of the painting, according to Morpurgo, reads the inscription, "Joey. Painted by Captain James Nicholls, Autumn 1914."
War Horse opens with a bit of narration by Joey the horse, at a time when he was barely six months old: "My earliest memories are a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables, and rats that scampered along the beams above my head. But I remember well enough the day of the horse sale. The terror of it stayed with me all my life."
Joey remembers being separated from his mother at an auction ("I screamed for my mother and heard her reply echoing in the far distance") to a mean, alcoholic old "owner" who lumps him in with an older horse named Zoey. The owner's 13-year old son, Albert Narracott, takes a liking to Joey despite his mother's insistence that he leave him alone.
I knew then that I had found a friend for life, that there was an instinctive and imemdiate bond of trust and affection between us.
Albert raises Joey over a period of winters and summers. "His whistle," claims Joey, "imitated the stuttering call of an owl -- it was a call I never refused and I would never forget." Albert's father is sometimes kind, but is often nasty, especially when drunk. Because of this, Albert begins putting Joey in the stables with Zoey to ensure that he is kept safe during his father's drunken rages.
One night, Albert's father makes a bet with some other farmers that he can have Joey "pulling a plow before the end of the week." Joey resists, kicking Albert's father and accidentally injuring him. He considers killing Joey for this, but Albert, now 15 and taller than his father, protests. His father than warns him that he'll sell Joey if he can't get him to pull a plow. Albert inists that he can train Joey to pull a plow as expected.
Eventually, Joey pulls through, and Albert's father wins his bet. Albert's mother tells him that a war is coming.
"If it comes to that, you'd make a good war horse yourself, wouldn't you you, if you ride as well as you pull, and I know you will. We'd make quite a pair. God help the Germans if they ever have to fight the two of us."
And then war is declared. Albert assumes that it will "be over in a few months", but quite the contrary.
By now, there is "a growing tension on the farm", and Albert is getting in more and more arguments with his mother and father. The mother insists that his father only drinks so much because he worries about the farm mortgage, and because he's getting older. "Albert and his father scarcely spoke to each other on those days," narrates Joey, "and Albert's mother was used more and more by both as a go-between, as a negotiator."
Then, on a Wednsday morning, Albert is asked to return a saddleback boar to the valley. He agrees only if he's allowed to take Joey out in the evening to train him for hunting season, which his father responds to with silence. After Albert leaves, his father uses it as an opportunity to go behind Albert's back.
"You'll be all right, old son," he said softly. "You'll be all right. They'll look after you -- they promised they would. And I need the money, Joey; I need the money bad."
Albert's father leads Joey into the village, baiting him by taking Zoey along, too. Albert's father then sells Joey to Captain Nicholls of the British army for 40 pounds.
Joey narrates, "I had just about give up all hope, when I saw Albert running toward me through the crowd, his face red with exertion. The band had stopped playing , and the entire village looked on as he came up to me and put his arms around my neck." Realizing he cannot stop his father from seeling Joey, Albert begs Captain Nicholls to let him ride Joey in the war, but the captain refuses. Joey is too young for the war -- to enlist, you have to be seventeen.
Captain Nicholls apologizes for not being able to help, reminding Albert that his father needs the money in order to run the family farm. But he also urges Albert to come and join the cavalry when he's older, saying he can use his name as a reference.
"Your horse belongs to the army now, and you're too young to join up. Don't you worry -- we'll take good care of him. I'll take personal care of him, and that's a promise."
Joey is trained by the army to be a cavalry mount, and doesn't like it one bit. "Gone was the gentle snaffle bit that I was so used to," he complains, "and in its place was an uncomfortable, cumbersome barbed bit that pinched the corners of my mouth and infuriated me beyond belief."
He specially dislikes his rider, Corporal Samuel Perkins, sort of a macho show-off who is feared by the other soldiers; although he doesn't beat Joey or lose his temper with him, he is not above whipping him to keep him going. Joey claims that his only "consolation" during this period is Captain Nicholls, who has held to his promise to take good care of him, and has even started sketching Joey as a hobby.
He tells Joey that he's preparing a portrait of him: "I can't take it with me to France -- there would be no point, right? So I'm going to send it off to your friend Albert, just so that he'll know that I meant what I said when I promised I would look after you." At one point, the captain confesses to Joey that he's pessimistic about the outcome of the war, and that he and a person named Jamie are the only ones who think the Germans might actually win.
Corporal Perkins gets into a debate with the captain over the merits of Joey complaining that "he has to learn and obey instantly and instinctively. You don't want a prima donna under you when the bullets start flying." The captain encourages the corporal to treat Joey better, reminding him that "a horse may carry you through, Corporal, but he can't do your fighting for you." The captain also tells him to feed Joey more. From then on, the corporal is less harsh towards Joey. The first battle takes place on Salisbury Plain.
I remember mostly the heat and the flies that day because there were hours of standing about in the sun waiting for things to happen. Then, with the evening sun spreading and dying along the flat horizon, the entire regiment lined up in echelon for the charge, and the climax of our last maneuvers.
During the battle, Captain Nicholls rides Joey alongside his friend Captain Jamie Stewart on a black stallion. They easily overtake the "enemy" position ("enemy" is put in quotes by Joey himself, perhaps ironically), and Nicholls proudly tells Stewart that the conflict could not have been won without Joey's great agility. Stewart counters with insistence that his black stallion, Topthorn, "is the finest mount in this regiment or any other." If Joey is the faster horse, he says, then Topthorn has more stamina.
Monday, September 19, 2011
We won't be seeing Steven Spielberg's War Horse until December, so in order to prepare, I've decided I'm going to read Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's book of the same name in advance. This will be an interesting experience because, in the case of Spielberg's films, the only time I can ever recall reading the book before seeing the movie was when War of the Worlds came out in the summer of 2005; I had made sure to read the H.G. Wells book first. It's funny because Spielberg isn't particularly thought of as a "literary" director criticized for his adaptations of certain books. Unless, of course, your name is George Jonas.
One might ask, "Why spoil a perfectly good Spielberg movie for yourself? Don't you want to go into the movie without knowing what happens?" True. And after all, War Horse is a children's book; it's not like it's supposed to be high-class literature or anything. At the same time, I will always regret my not reading The Color Purple or Schindler's List before checking out Spielberg's adaptations of them. Don't get me wrong: they're both wonderful films (especially Schindler's List, which -- as everyone knows -- I'll defend to the death). But by the time I finally picked up the Alice Walker and Thomas Keneally paperbacks, respectively, the images from Spielberg's films had already colored my perceptions of the stories. I don't think that's exactly what Walker and Keneally had in mind. Like any other literary giant Spielberg has collaborated with (a list that includes Richard Matheson, Peter Benchley, J.G. Ballard, Michael Crichton, Phillip K. Dick and Frank Abagnale), they relied on their readers to visualize their stories in their imaginations, and could only hope that Spielberg would come close to those visions. That's why the mediums of movies and books have remained friendly with each other for so many generations now. It's, like... an understanding, you know?
Another reason why I'm reading Morpurgo's book in advance is because I won't be getting to see the Tony Award-winning play that's making the rounds on Broadway as we speak. For some reason, the play isn't coming to St. Louis, so... yeah. I'll be sticking to the book.
But I guess the most important reason why I want to read the book/know the story in advance is because I don't want to be the guy who sees the movie in December, then gets in debates with devotees of the story and can only muster up a defense of, "I didn't read the book or see the play, so who cares about either when the movie's so good?" It's a Spielberg release, after all. We don't get as many of those as we used to. I won't take it for granted.
To keep up with what I've read from the book, over the next coming weeks I'll be uploading one post for each chapter, summarizing what I liked about each one. Quotes from the text will be included.
In the meantime, feast your eyes on this luminous theatrical trailer...
Thursday, September 8, 2011
The idea for this mash-up video first came to me in the summer of 2008. At the time, I didn't possess the technology and equipment necessary to complete it. So, in a way, this video is a fulfilled dream of sorts.
I actually had to go through about four cuts of this before deciding on a cut that I could live with. My hope is that Spielberg would be proud. And Zack Snyder, too, although I could care less what he thinks.