War Horse: The Use of POV in Book & Movie

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, published in 1982, was a favorite book of mine as a kid. I remember reading it multiple times (back in the days when I actually had time to read things more than once!). When I heard it was going to be made into a movie, I was a little leery of seeing it, in case the movie didn’t live up to the memory.


Perhaps luckily for me (and Steven Spielberg) my memory is not so good. All I really remembered from the book was that it was told from the horse’s point of view, and that he “fought” on both the English and German sides.

I wondered how Spielberg and the movie writers would handle the whole POV issue. Aside from the rather cheesy option of having a horse voice-over, there didn’t seem a way he could pull it off. Turns out that he did have some non-horse POV in there, which worked well and allowed the human story to come through.

What I thought was brilliant, though, was that Spielberg and the writers understood something about the book that I, as a child reading it, did not. Most war stories are told from one side or the other. Someone is always the bad guy. In War Horse, the horse Joey tells the story. He is on neither side—or rather, he is on both, beginning as English cavalry and then working as a German ambulance and artillery horse. This allowed Morpurgo and Spielberg to simply show the war and let the readers or viewers make up their own minds. Instead of vilifying either side, the movie held up the insanity of war, cast an impartial eye on it, and asked us if this was the best humankind could be.

World War I was especially heinous because the armies were at a crossroads of technology. They were still fighting with cavalry tactics against machine guns and tanks. Thousands of soldiers died needlessly in stupid attacks that should never have been tried. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie (spoiler alert!) was an English cavalry charge on an unsuspecting German camp. The sweeping visuals of 300 horses charging in formation, the thunder of their hooves, and the shouts of their riders made them seem invincible. Indeed, the German soldiers, caught unprepared, fell in droves as they raced for the shelter of the nearby woods. The woods…I nearly jumped up out of my seat, wanting to scream at the cavalry to retreat, retreat!

In an eyeblink, everything changed. The massive cavalry charged right into a line of machine guns hidden in the woods. In a beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching few minutes, the machine guns chattered away, and a stream of riderless horses leapt over the gun line. An eternity of riderless horses… It was one of the most powerful images in the movie, and one of the most compelling scenes as a whole that I have seen.

By maintaining this impartial eye, Spielberg was able to show us humans at our best and at our worst. We are left to wonder if we have come very far from the carnage of World War I. If we have learned anything at all. If we could be as strong, forgiving, and noble as the four-legged hero of this film. If we are worthy of a War Horse.

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