Sunday, February 27, 2022

Don't Make a Scene (Redux): War Horse

It's been a terrible week, what with the situation in the Ukraine, and I had a long thought about the scene to put up. The cynical side wanted to post something from Dr. Strangelove, so incredibly buffoonish is the crap coming from the Kremlin. Some Civil War scene, as brother could be fighting brother with Russian troops firing on transplanted Russian Ukrainians transplanted during Stalin's time? But, no, this scene...where "better angels" apply, and the entrenched stupidity of war is forgotten...just for a serve a common good.
The Story:  Even as this extraordinary scene from War Horse was first un-spooling before me at a theater, I knew it would make a great Sunday Scene. Its combination of grit and humor, of civility set in one of the most misbegotten corners of insanity in History—the No Man's Land of World War I—done casually and conversationally (credit Richard Curtis for that), and with a bizarre tentativeness and a crusty grace, just appealed to me in ways that the more formalistic and almost John Ford-inspired rest of the film did not.*

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 persist). 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.  



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?
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.
THIRD GERMAN  It's a horse.
A third German (PETER) lowers his binoculars.
PETER  Yeah, it's a horse.
Now all the soldiers are gathering to look out at Joey. A CAPTAIN now has the periscope.
BRITISH CAPTAIN  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.
The Germans hear the clicks and respond with a chorus of whistles. 
Now both sides are whistling. 
Even the captain joins in.
Joey tries to rise, but remains entangled. He whinnies in pain.
Peter lowers his binoculars.
PETER  He's caught on the wire.
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? 
BRITISH CAPTAIN  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.
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.
The Geordie crouches for cover, waving his handkerchief more frantically.
GEORDIE  It's a white flag...
GEORDIE  ...ent it? 
GEORDIE  You see the white flag!? 
GEORDIE  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. 
GEORDIE  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.
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.
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. 
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. 
PETER  The cutters won't frighten him. 
PETER  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. 
GEORDIE  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?
They laugh. 
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! 
GEORDIE  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.
GEORDIE (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  Yes. 
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. 
PETER  Thanks. 
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.
PETER  Colin! 
PETER  A pair of German cutters - in memory of your handsome friend from Dusseldorf. 
GEORDIE  Thanks.
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.

War Horse

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.

Sadly, the second video somewhat mangles the rest of the scene.