On War Horse, Modernism, and the Beautiful Lies of Storytelling

[Ed. Note: I wrote the first draft of this essay in February, 2012, about a year before I started this blog. I am posting it today in commemoration of Armistice Day—one hundred years after the start of the Great War.]

On War Horse, Modernism, and the Beautiful Lies of Storytelling

I tell you it is the vilest baseness to use horses in the war.
—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

About a week ago, I went to see Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse with my mom (my mother is a bit of a horse nut—and I mean that in the most affectionate way). A few issues with the dialect coach aside, I thought it was a pretty good movie.

This post isn’t a review of War Horse, though. It’s not really about War Horse at all. This post is about storytelling: about the desire for a story to have a happy ending, in spite of the painful facts of reality.

[Spoilers for War Horse ahead!]

As its title suggests, War Horse is set during a period of war, specifically World War I. The movie tells the story of Joey, an unusually strong horse (both in body and personality) and Albert, the kindhearted farm boy who raises him. When the war breaks out, Joey is “drafted” as a cavalry horse in the British Army. Albert, who is too young to volunteer for duty at the start of the war, is forced to stay behind. Albert promises Joey that one day, no matter what happens, they will find each other again.

Albert and Joey
Image © DreamWorks Studios. Intended Fair Use (U.S. Copyright Act Section 107) for the purpose of non-commercial media criticism.

Thing is, Albert doesn’t realize that he, Joey, and their entire nation are about to be drawn into one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history. [1]

The number of casualties from the First World War are insane—downright incomprehensible. According to BBC History, the British Army lost as many as 60,000 soldiers in the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone.

60,000 soldiers dead or wounded. That’s nearly twice as many people as the population of where I live. And that’s just for a single army. On a single day.

I spent a lot of time studying the World Wars in college, so I had a pretty good idea what would happen throughout the movie. As soon as a subtitle announced that Joey had reached France in 1914, I turned to my mom and whispered, “this can’t end well.”

Horses + machine guns + trench warfare = bad things happening.

The movie’s plot may be a work of fiction, but its scenes show a past that really did happen. The failed cavalry charge decimated by machine gun fire, the tired workhorses struggling to drag a cannon to the top of a hill, the trenches flooding with clouds of gas, the rain of bullets, the wastelands of mud and barbed wire…

Those were real.

A German trench occupied by British Soldiers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. Photograph Q 3990 from IWM collection no. 1900-13. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the movie, I went home and turned on my CD player. I pulled an album off my shelf, one I’ve had for about a year now, and I slipped it out of its case. I pressed play.

Whatever else one might think of her music, PJ Harvey’s latest album does not shy away from the horrors of trench warfare. I think that one of the reasons Let England Shake topped so many ‘Greatest Albums of 2011’ charts last year is because of how raw, how unflinching it is in its imagery. “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,” Harvey sings in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder,’ echoing shell-shocked soldiers returning from the Western Front. Harvey’s lyrics are stark, even brutal. She wails like a siren, or a banshee calling the dying soldiers in her songs to their final rest.

One song in particular stood out to me after War Horse. The song, ‘On Battleship Hill,’ begins with Harvey singing in an eerie high pitch:

“The scent of Thyme carried on the wind
Stings my face into remembering
Cruel nature has won again
Cruel nature has won again

On Battleship Hills caved in trenches
A hateful feeling still lingers
Even now 80 years later
Cruel nature, cruel, cruel nature”

The song—and indeed the rest of Harvey’s album—reminds me of nothing so much as the modernist poetry written by soldiers who fought in the Great War. There’s a definite resonance between the lines above and the immortal words of John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Field, 1915’:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

I’ll spare you the complete literary analysis, noting only that the two works use a similar meter (they can be sung to the same tune) and that they both touch on similar themes (contrasting nature with recollection of war).

Let England Shake, like War Horse, reminds me of the Modernists because each of them, in their own way, speaks to the legacies of World War I.

After the war, people in Europe wanted to forget the horror they’d experienced. With over 37 million dead,[2] everyone had lost someone. What’s more: the postwar world didn’t appear to be getting any better. In Germany, for instance, inflation caused prices to skyrocket, which helped trigger the hereto unprecedented financial disaster that was the Great Depression.

So people turned to art and to literature, to cabarets and to jazz—to distractions that would help them escape.

Thing is, memories of The Great War permeate the works of the Modernist period: from the recurring character of the ‘shell-shocked’ soldier to poetry evoking images of a wasteland; the war seeped its way onto every page. Even the artwork of the period suggests a damaged psyche, from Cubism’s eschewing of perspective to the ‘anti-art’ Dadaist movement, which drew its name from a meaningless word repeated like the sound of the drum: da-da, da-da, da-da…

Pain from the war was so fresh, so intense, it was inescapable.

Without context, all three of these movements—Modernist literature, Cubism, and Dadaism—seem totally bizarre to modern audiences. Yet once you remember that these works were created after the War…


“Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,” Hannah Höch. 1919. Public Domain in the United States. Source: Wikipedia.

They make a certain sense in that light. It makes sense that Woolf would write about the anxieties of a ‘shell-shocked’ soldier in Mrs Dalloway, or that Yeats would write about “mere anarchy [being] loosed upon the world” in ‘The Second Coming.’ It makes sense that Remarque would open All Quiet on the Western Front—considered by many to be “the greatest war novel of all time”—with the following words:

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. I will simply tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

A sense of loss, of uncertainty and doubt, surges through these works, like electricity through a wire.

Europe changed after the First World War. All of the ideals of Western Civilization— honor, valor, duty—seemed to pale in the wake of those fields filled with blood. The Second World War further cemented these changes, as the dangers of Nationalism, of extreme patriotism, were made all the more apparent. After the war, the old certainties didn’t seem to hold truth anymore. Happy endings seemed shallow, unreal.

“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,” Tijl Vercaemer. 2007. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

…and yet, in spite of all of this—in spite of all of my knowledge of the war and its number of casualties, in spite of my fondness for Modernist literature with its profound skepticism, even in spite of the hopelessness depicted on the screen, I still wanted War Horse to have a happy ending. I wanted the movie to tell me a beautiful lie: to show me that Arthur and Joey would survive, even as [spoiler!] their best friends were slaughtered (Because in war movies, it’s always the Plucky Best Friend™ who bites it, never the hero).

I think that desire for happy endings—that wish to be told a beautiful lie, instead of the painful truth—is part of what makes us human. We know, on some level, that the world isn’t fair, that life oftentimes can be harsh and unsympathetic, and that most problems can’t be divided into black and to white. Still, we like to believe that The Good Guys will always win in the end.

We like to believe that a noble horse and his good-hearted farm boy will both survive the calamity of war and will one day find each other again.

Modernism tended to give up on that wishful thinking. Or maybe it attempted to avoid it all together. The Modernist texts I’ve read do not have happy endings. At best, a few of them manage cautious optimism; none of them have a Hollywood-style Happy Ending™. That’s why I like them: they’re a shot of much-needed reality for someone like me who expects everything to turn out all right in the end.

World War I, in my mind, is not a story with a happy ending. It is not a story of glory and honor: it is a tragedy of blood and pain and death (As the Modernists might say, even the word ‘tragedy’ seems inadequate).

Movies, on the other hand, are allowed to have a happy ending every now and then.

…especially ones that involve horses.


1. Yes, something that happened almost a hundred years ago still counts as ‘recent’ history.
2. Source: Wikipedia. I’ve seen the figures for Total Number of Casualties in WWI range anywhere from 10 million to 65 million, depending on which official records you use. “Over 37 million” seems as good an estimate as any for the sake of this essay.