It's one of the few scenes where the film-makers (and Spielberg and Kaminski's camera) are not focused on the horse—he's at his most vulnerable here—but on the two sides at war who are witness to his suffering, while in the middle of making war on each other.
It's not some fanciful creation, either—a sugar pill inserted by Spielberg to lighten things up (it's now long past the point in his career where one can accuse the director of having not growing up and making "infantile" films—although there are those who still persisit). In 1914, during the First World War, leading up to Christmas, there were a series of "unofficial" cease-fires between elements of the British and German forces, where the entrenched troops first began to sing carols to each other across "No Man's Land," then to hold joint burials of their dead, and then to exchange gifts. Such activities were discouraged, of course, by the generals, and the next year, it barely happened.
But, it did happen, and the legend of the "Christmas truces" have become a part of History, and used by author Michael Morpurgo for his novel, the subsequent stage-play, and the Spielberg film.
The Set-Up: From the moment of his birth, "Joey" the Bay Thoroughbred has always been paired with another: his mother; the boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who trains him; Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who rides him into battle; Topthorn, the inspirational horse of Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch); German deserters Michael (Leonard Carow)and Gunther (David Kross); young Emilie (Celine Buckens)...and these two trench soldiers (Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann), who come into his life namelessly, briefly, and disappear.
EXT. BRITISH TRENCH. THE SAME.
GEORDIE SOLDIER (O.S.) Stand to, stand to -
A young soldier, a Geordie, is on look-out duty. He looks through a periscope. He alerts his colleague in his thick, northern, Newcastle accent.
GEORDIE SOLDIER (CONT'D) There's something moving.
SOLDIER What the hell is it?
GEORDIE SOLDIER It looks like a cow.
He passes the periscope to the second soldier.
SOLDIER What the hell would a cow be doing out there?
We see what he sees - nothing but morning mist on the surreal landscape - and something strange. It is Joey in the distance
SOLDIER 2 That definitely isn't a cow.
SOLDIER (handing over periscope) Well, what is it?
87. EXT. GERMAN TRENCH. THE SAME.
We see an almost identical scene of several German soldiers looking out at Joey just as the British soldiers had done.
SECOND GERMAN It can't be a horse. Nothing alive could be out there.
THIRD GERMAN It isn't a horse. It isn't a horse.
The first German looks through his periscope. We see what he sees - Joey in the mist:
SECOND GERMAN Yes - it's a horse.
The second German looks through the periscope, stunned.
A third German (PETER) lowers his binoculars.
PETER Yeah, it's a horse.
EXT. BRITISH TRENCHES. THE SAME.
Now all the soldiers are gathering to look out at Joey. A CAPTAIN now has the periscope.
Well, bugger me. It's a horse.
GEORDIE SOLDIER Lads, we should call him.
BRITISH SOLDIER How do you call a horse?
The Geordie starts clicking his tongue, followed by all of his comrades.
They all try to attract Joey's attention with tongue clicks.
EXT. GERMAN TRENCH. THE SAME.
The Germans hear the clicks and respond with a chorus of whistles.
EXT. BRITISH TRENCHES. THE SAME.
Now both sides are whistling.
Even the captain joins in.
88. EXT. NO MAN'S LAND. THE SAME.
Joey tries to rise, but remains entangled. He whinnies in pain.
EXT. GERMAN TRENCH. THE SAME.
Peter lowers his binoculars.
PETER He's caught on the wire.
EXT. BRITISH TRENCHES, THE SAME.
GEORDIE SOLDIER Oh sod it...
Geordie climbs up the side of the trench, and waves a white handkerchief tied to the end of his bayonet.
BRITISH CAPTAIN What do you think you're doing?
Get back, do you hear me? Corporal, that's an order! Get back!
Geordie, not receiving fire, is emboldened to stand up.
BRITISH SOLDIER Listen to him, sir. We can't leave him.
He waves the handkerchief to clearly signal he is no threat.
EXT. GERMAN TRENCH. THE SAME.
The Germans look at the young soldier making his way over No Man's Land.
PETER What's he doing?
SECOND GERMAN It's a trap.
PETER No, I don't think so. I think he's trying to help.
The second German cocks his rifle and starts to take aim.
THIRD GERMAN Scare him back into his hole.
The second German takes a shot aimed over the Geordie's shoulder.
89. EXT. NO MAN'S LAND. THE SAME.
The Geordie crouches for cover, waving his handkerchief more frantically.
GEORDIE It's a white flag...
You see the white flag!?
I'm just after tending to this here horse, is all!
The Geordie marshals his courage and stands again, waving the handkerchief.
BRITISH CAPTAIN Get back, you stupid git!
There's no fire from the German trenches. Muttering to himself, the Geordie marches forward towards Joey:
GEORDIE The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he leadeth me into green pastures, he lay me down beside the still waters...
The Geordie walks very slowly across the mud - there are bodies - the ground squelches beneath his feet. He waves his handkerchief as he walks.
He crosses a narrow bridge that spans a flooded bomb crater. Joey, lying on his side, wrapped head to toe in barbed wire, covered in mud, watches Geordie approach. When Geordie gets too close, Joey freaks out and begins thrashing about. Joey whinnies a high scream of pain, because wire is cutting into his hide in several places, and as he thrashes it cuts him deeper. Particularly worrisome is a strand that's wrapped around his head, crossing right over his eye, threatening to slash it. The Geordie calls out in a soothing voice:
GEORDIE (CONT'D) Poor beastie. Poor babbie. It's alright.
It's alright. Don't buck and wriggle so, you're only shredding yourself.
Joey calms a little, still moving his head up and down.
GEORDIE (CONT'D) You'll blind yourself.
He reaches Joey and surveys the formidable tangle of wire in which Joey's bundled. The Geordie soothes and at the same time gingerly tests other strands, trying to figure out where to begin.
90. GEORDIE (CONT'D) Bugger me worthless - I didn't think to bring gloves or something to cut the -
He stabs his hand on one of the barbs.
GEORDIE (CONT'D) OW! DAMN! OW!!
There's a noise behind him, and the Geordie turns around to see the Peter (the German from the trench) standing several feet away, holding some wire cutters.
PETER I thought perhaps you might need these.
He holds out the wire cutters. The Geordie, still frightened, stares stupidly at them.
PETER (CONT'D) For the barbed wire?
GEORDIE Yeah, yeah I... Ummm, thanks. Cheers. Cheers...
He reaches out and takes the proffered cutters.
GEORDIE (CONT'D) Thanks.
He returns to Joey, nervous about turning his back. He tries to figure out where to begin cutting. He lifts a long strand of wire that wraps around Joey's neck, stretches across his shoulder and torso and around one of his front legs. He puts the wire in the crux of the cutters and is preparing to snip when Peter steps closer to him.
PETER That...That's a very long strand. When you cut it, it's going to release this -
He points to a wire wrapped around the wire the Geordie's lifting. Then he points to two other wires, similarly ENTANGLED:
PETER (CONT'D) - and this, and this, and they'll coil back rather violently, which I'm afraid will only wound the poor fellow further.
The Geordie nods.
GEORDIE You speak good English.
PETER I speak English well. (re: the cutters) May I?
The Geordie hands them over and Peter surveys the wires.
PETER (CONT'D) What if we cut his head free first? So he won't try to stand up and blind himself? And then -
GEORDIE Pity you didn't bring a second pair. Then I could cut the wire here -
He points to one of the wires entangled with the strand he'd been prepared to cut. Peter stands and shouts in the direction of his trench.
PETER WE NEED MORE WIRE CUTTERS!
All at once one, two, three, six pairs of cutters come soaring through the air and splash into the watery crater.
Moments later - Peter and the Geordie kneel beside Joey, each with a pair of cutters. Joey is calming down again. The Geordie positions himself across Joey's body so that when he's cut the wire, it won't coil back and cut Joey. Peter positions himself to be able to cut the two wires in quick succession, holding the first wire to stop it from springing back. Joey's completely still now. Peter points between Joey's eyes.
PETER (CONT'D) His blind spot.
The cutters won't frighten him.
If you could cut here, holding this wire -
He points to wires that intersect the wire that crosses Joey's eye. Then he points to the wire across Joey's eye.
PETER (CONT'D) I could -
GEORDIE Say no more, I'm right behind you.
As they reposition themselves, the Geordie says to Joey:
GEORDIE (CONT'D) And you understand what's happening, do you not, O Best Beloved? That you must lay so very nice and still.
GEORDIE There's a lad, you're a remarkable horse, you are, helping us help you.
GEORDIE There's a lad.
GEORDIE There's a remarkable lad.The Geordie looks into Joey's huge eye as he and Peter get to work on their cutting. Joey returns his gaze.
GEORDIE (CONT'D) So how's things in yonder trench?
PETER Delightful. We read, we knit sweaters, and we train our rats to perform circus tricks.
GEORDIE Well, if ever you need any more rats, we can always send ours over. `Cause we've more than we need, strictly speaking.
Besides, they scare off all the pretty girls.
PETER Our girls aren't afraid of rats.
GEORDIE Big strapping German girls, eh? Kind what gives robust massages?
PETER Every Thursday! And they bring rum cake on your birthday.
Both men smile at this while Joey is completely still; they work quickly, in concert, cutting the horse's head free of the wire.
Joey raises his head, gives it a shake, neighs and then stirs a little.
The two soldiers smile at one another. Then they set about cutting the rest of the wire; it's much easier now.
The Geordie cuts through the last wire binding Joey's legs. The two soldiers help as the horse staggers upright.
GEORDIE Look at that horse!
Look at the muscles he's got, them long legs. They're made for running, horses. Runnin' away from danger.
PETER Running away is all they have.
GEORDIE Yet we taught `em opposite. Running into the fray.
PETER War horse.
GEORDIE Yeah. War horse. And there he is. What a strange beast you've become.
The Geordie grabs hold of Joey's halter, though Joey shows no sign of running. Joey is finally free. The two men look at each other.
PETER And now?
GEORDIE I take him back with me, yeah?
PETER Since I supplied the cutters, the horse is mine. This is fair, no?
GEORDIE In a pig's eye. He's English, plain to see.
PETER Oh, you mean because he's so filthy?
GEORDIE Because he's so smart. And you're none too clean yourself.
PETER We could box. And the winner gets the horse.
The Geordie smiles.
GEORDIE No, thanks, pet. Must be careful not to start a war.
(patting his pockets:) Do you have a coin of any sort?
PETER Coin toss?
He takes a coin from his pocket, hands it to the Geordie, who looks at it.
GEORDIE (CONT'D) All right, Fritz - you're on.
He flips the coin back to Peter.
PETER My name is not Fritz - it is Peter.
GEORDIE Peter - I'm Colin.
PETER You call it, Colin.
Peter spins it in the air and lets it fall into the mud. They look down.
Peter shakes his head, resigned.
PETER That's the face of my Kaiser and he does not look pleased with me. The horse is yours.
They collect their helmets as snow begins to blow around them.
PETER The horse is yours.GEORDIE Gone quiet, hasn't it?
PETER (CONT'D) But wait half an hour and we'll be shooting again.
GEORDIE I'm a terrible shot, Pete, don't believe I'll ever hit the target.
He hands back the cutters.
He notices the Geordie has offered his hand, as well. A beat, then Peter shakes with him.
PETER (CONT'D) Cheerio, mate. (RE JOEY:) You'll take good care of him, yes?
GEORDIE I will.
PETER Our strange beast.
GEORDIE And you take care of your own strange self.
Peter tosses Geordie his cutters.
A pair of German cutters - in memory of your handsome friend from Dusseldorf.
Peter nods, and walks back to his trench. As he goes, the Geordie calls after him:
GEORDIE (CONT'D) I'll use `em back in the garden in South Shields. You keep your head down, now, Pete me lad!
As he walks away, Peter turns back briefly, calling:
PETER Remarkable! A remarkable horse!
The Geordie leads Joey towards the British trenches.
Words by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis
Pictures by Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg
War Horse is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Touchstone Home Entertainment.
For Scott, who reminded me.