On not writing (much) about War Horse

Joey Come Home

I was going to write an in-depth review of War Horse. But I can’t. All I have are these: it’s a glowing ode to that familiar genre the Devon Western, complete with a righteous property owner and endearing accents. It’s a heart-warming rural family saga, with gigantic close ups of characters’ faces, many of whom with ‘interesting’ ones. All this is interrupted by a meditation on how cruel and random humans are regarding animals and each other. Horses wonderful, humans mainly not. It’s about friendships formed in unlikely places. It’s like Lassie  Come  Home, only with a horse instead of a dog. Or National Velvet, if Elizabeth Taylor was a comely farmer’s son and had a horse that couldn’t jump. Enough said. If you need a good cry then this is for you.

Epic: I Told You This Was Epic

Don’t mention the war

Any-who. As a writer, most often you’re told to explore tensions, turns or conflict. I’m more of a ‘story is a container’ type of writer, (after Ursula Le Guin). My writing, thusly, when it uses conflict at all, is more concerned with inner ones. However…

It sometimes troubles me that I find war stories – as stories or poems or films – so compelling. They are most certainly alien as experiences, since I prefer running away to arguments. But even the stories I liked as a kid, I mean everything from Asterix Comics to Ulysses 31, Lord of the Rings, even Dr Who were about war and/or occupation. Then there random books I found, like The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, not to mention endless repeats of MASH and Hogan’s Heroes and later China Beach. Even Sherlock Holmes featured Dr Watson, returned from military service and dealing with all that that means. Then there are those versions of Robin Hood and Joan of Arc, each exploring the results of warmongering and oppression. Shakespeare too, either addressed war directly, or dwelt on its results. All those Westerns I studied as an undergrad (for realz) were about war and its consequences, for the North, South, Frontier and for the Original Locals and the Recent Arrivals.

Did someone say the 1980s?

At some point I realised I could do a thesis on ’80s TV action dramas and their (unstated) goal in rebuilding the image of US soldiers in the wake of Vietnam. The A Team, Airwolf, MacGyver seem to say something like: Americans are regular guys, capable of great things, with guns or aircraft or paper clips, except for when the darned Govmint gets in the way… Probably, someone already has. Good for them.

What’s it good for?

From Henry V to All Quiet on the Western Front to Forrest Gump and The Constant Gardener war is everywhere. And it’s everywhere in our entertainment because it’s everywhere in the world. As removed as I am from the dangers out there in my little pocket of Australian suburbia, soldiers from my country were and are deployed on foreign soil. Neighbours even. Companies selling their products in my local supermarket benefit from arms races, war recovery and fomenting conflict. War infects everything. So what are we to do? Art is life, life is art. Why not write about what you know? Just ask Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon.

Adding Literal Conflict

But I can also see the appeal of such literal conflict for a writer. I mean, where else can you find rapid rapport building, high stakes, tension, drama, action and momentum, plus unique settings and interesting demographics to explore? Add war to your spaceship and you’ve got you know, those films set in a galaxy far, far away, and also Firefly or Battlestar Gallactica. Add war to your sailing ship and you’ve got Horatio Hornblower. Add a short Corsican to France – war. Add battles and weirdness and you’ve got Buffy or Supernatural. Add war and basically, you’ve got a story.

No, no, not the face

Admiring a well told war story is one thing. It is not the same as finding enjoyment in pain, suffering and violence. I’m in no way a fan of stuff like Saw, (read torture porn). I do appreciate horror, but there can be horror without much gore, or even any at all. I think it’s more creative that way. Psychological tension is much craftier than obsorbing physical trauma.

The learning? 

I wonder too, whether it’s a lack of imagination as humans that we resort to such things as entertainment? Or do we kid ourselves that we ‘learn’ from war stories? Because pretty much any casual glance around indicates humans haven’t learned much. Knowing about A has never prevented B. Or is it because, as humans, war is perhaps that one past time that defines us? By dividing us so comprehensively it unites us all? In the end I can’t say, I’m not qualified. I’m just a leftie, peacenik whale hugger who finds something of value in the well told war story.  I mean the truth untold/ The pity of war, as Owen wrote, the pity war distilled.

The humanity

As I’ve indicated, I live a quiet life in a quiet part of the world. I can’t, first hand, understand the experiences of my forebears who knew active duty, or my ancestors who escaped oppression only for their grandkids to be gassed under Verey lights in trenches so far away. But I can bear witness to stories about their likenesses. And I like to think, on a personal level, I’m learning something. About some of the things that make us human perhaps? And characters in war stories show us, maybe the most directly, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, whether they are brave or stupid or stupid brave, whether they can kill with remorse or die in dignity, or love a horse. Or none of the above. So while I haven’t written war stories, I can appreciate why other’s do, some more successfully than others.

Here’s a random list of war related stuff.

  • Beneath Hill 60
  • Glory
  • Hildago
  • The Last of the Mohicans
  • Breaker Morant
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Defiance
  • The Reader
  • Downfall
  • Henry V
  • The Lighthorsemen
  • Casablanca
  • Goodbye to all that
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Eagle has landed
  • Blackadder Goes Forth
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • The English Patient
  • The Seventh Seal
  • Kingdom of Heaven
  • Braveheart
  • War Horse
  • Gallipoli
  • Poetry of Wilfred Owen
  • Platoon
  • Catch-22

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