Monday, October 3, 2011
War Horse (1982): Chapters 11-15
Joey and Topthorn now have the ability to come to Emilie whenever she calls them. She is still sick, however, and sometimes has to heave herself onto Joey's back in order to ride him. Climbing Topthorn is harder, and sometimes she has to use Joey as a "stepping stone" in order to mount him.
One evening, Joey and Topthorn are greeted with good news from Emilie after she and her grandfather speak with a doctor. "They don't need you anymore to pull their cats," she tells them. The doctor, apparently, has agreed to let the horses stay with Emilie. She vows never to let the army take them away from her.
The grandfather sets Joey and Topthorn to work cutting and turning hay on the farm, insisting to Emilie that they "like to work. They need to work." But then an artillery troop enters the farm one evening, demanding that they need to take Joey and Topthorn because they're short 2 horses. Emilie cries that they can't, but the grandfather says there is nothing he can do and tells her to shape up and say goodbye to Joey and Topthorn.
She walked directly toward the officer and handed over the reins. "I want them back," she said, her voice strong now, almost fierce. "I'm just lending them to you. They are my horses. They belong here. Feed them well and look after them and make sure you bring them back." And she walked past her grandfather and into the house without even turning around.
Back in the war, Joey and Topthorn are saddled alongside other horses, including the hulkish Heinie and the nasty Coco ("When Coco was eating," Joey recalls, "no one -- neither horse nor man -- ventured within biting or kicking distance"). Also with them are two ponies with blond manes and tails whom the soldiers dub "the two golden Haflingers." They have to ride in the winter, when the mud has begun to freeze. It is a cruel existence, full of hard work and lacking good food for the horses, and the only nice soldier in the bunch is "the kindly old gunner I had noticed that first day when we were taken from the farm," who likes to feed Joey and Topthorn black bread and talks to them more than he talks to the soldiers.
The horses begin deteriorating. Heinie is shot by the vets one morning and left in the mud ("a collapsed wreck of a horse"), and when Coco is hit in the neck with shrapnel, he is euthanized as well. "No matter how much I disliked him -- and he was a vicious beast -- it was a piteous and terrible sight to see a fellow creature, with whom I had pulled for so long, discarded and forgotten in a ditch."
Joey notices that Topthorn's health is failing when he starts having trouble pulling the gun, and when he starts lying in the mud having coughing fits. When he is inspected by a vet, the vet protests to the spectacled officer that Topthorn is too fine to pull a gun and that he needs rest.
"He will have to do what the others do, Herr Doctor," said the major in a steely voice. "No more and no less. I cannot make exceptions." If you pass him fit, he's fit and that's that."
He's fit to go on," said the vet reluctantly. "But I am warning you, Herr Major. You must take care."
Although they survive into the spring, Joey notices that Topthorn's health is still deteriorating. Luckily, they are both so fat that they are never plunged into any battles due to being fattened up.
The old gunman, "Crazy Old Fredrich", tells Joey and Topthorn that he thinks himself "the only sane man in the regiment." He scoffs at the fact that so many men in the army don't know what they're going to war for. "You two are the only rational creatures I've met in this stupid war," he rails, "and like me, the only reason you're here is because you were brought here." Joey believes that Fredrich had more affection for Topthorn than for him.
"If I have to die out here away from my home," Fredrich confided to Topthorn one day, "I would rather die alongside you. But I'll do my best to see to it that we all get through and get back home -- that much I promise you."
Tophorn is admired by two young soldiers, Rudi and Karl. But then tragedy strikes.
As Frederich takes the horses down to the river to drink, Topthorn drinks a lot of water, then begins stumbling as they make their way back up the hill. Suddenly, Topthorn stumbles to his knees, falls, breathes heavily and looks up at Joey. Joey narrates, "It was an appeal for help -- I could see it in his eyes. " Then Topthorn slumps over and dies, his tongue sticking out.
Fredrich is saddened and angry at Topthorn's death, but Rudi tells him there's nothing he can do. When the vet comes to inspect, he is just as upset. All the soldiers gather around, mournful.
Just then, there is an explosion. Several men bathing in the river are hit by shells. Fredrich tries to pull Joey away, yelling at him, but Joey is too transfixed by Topthorn's death, and upon trying to escape by himself, Fredrich is struck by a shell and dies beside Topthorn.
The last I saw of my troop were the bobbing blond manes of the two little Haflingers as they struggled to pull the gun up through the trees with the gunners hauling frantically on their reins and straining to push the gun from behind.
The next day, tanks roar down the hill, and Joey runs away from them, crashing into the river. He runs through "deserted, ruined villages" before reaching a meadow. When he awakes, the night sky is alive with gunfire.
Falling into a crater, Joey is snagged by barbed wire that wounds his leg before he manages to break free. "This was to be the longest night of my life," he remembers, "a nightmare of agony, terror, and loneliness."
Eventually, Joey hears voices and stumbles into the mist towards them. He can hear soldiers bickering over whether they can see a cow or a horse in the distance.
Once the mist clears, Joey realizes that he's in a battlefield surrounded by barbed wire, much like the one he was in earlier.
I remembered I had been in such a place once before, that day when I had charged across it with Topthorn beside me. This was what the soldiers called "no man's land."