"From Human-Animal Friendship to Human-Animal History: Steven Spielberg’s War Horse" by Barbara Klonowska
Barbara Klonowska is an associate professor in the Department of English Literature and Culture at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, where she teaches a variety of courses on literary theory, English literature and culture, as well as elective seminars on various topics related to literature, film, or utopia and dystopia. She published two monographs, Contaminations: Magic Realism and Contemporary British Fiction (2006) and Longing for Romance. British Historical Romances 1990-2010 (2014), and co-edited two volumes of articles on utopian studies. Her current research interests include human-animal history, post-humanism, cinematographic utopias and dystopias and genre theory. Email:
Friendship is simultaneously one of the categories most elusive to theorise and define and one of the most desired and treasured existential experiences. The emotional comfort, safety and support usually associated with this concept in everyday practice are commonly believed to be based on a similarity of views and attitudes, as well as a community of experience and shared lifestyles. Identity and convergence, then, seem to lie at the foundations of informally understood friendship. Yet, a friend, as the Greek philosopher Zeno famously observed, is our second self, an alter ego; thus, paradoxically, what this saying suggests is that friendship always presupposes perhaps not so much, or not only, identity or similarity, as also otherness. Similarly, Giorgio Agamben, commenting on friendship and its conceptualisation proposed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, draws attention to its differentiating function, its heterodoxy and variance located at the very heart of the concept. As he observes,
The friend is … another self, a heteros autos. [In Greek] heteros (Lat. alter) is otherness as an opposition between two, as heterogeneity. […] The friend is not another I, but an otherness immanent in self-ness, a becoming other of the self. […] Friendship is this de-subjectivization at the very heart of the most intimate perception of self. (Agamben 6)
Friendship, then, both according to Aristotle and as analysed by Agamben, is not an imitation and multiplication of oneself and one’s experience; on the contrary, it is a discovery of difference and heterogeneity, a celebration of alterity. It is a difference which is a source of discovery and pleasure and which commands respect; an otherness which is to be embraced and celebrated rather than used as a justification of hostility or exploitation. Friendship, as analysed by Agamben, is an existential concept: one of those words described by linguists as “non-predicative – terms, that is, on the basis of which it is not possible to construct a class of objects in which one might group the things to which one applies the predicate in question” (3). It is filled with meaning by its actual existence and by the constant manifestations of its presence.
If, then, the combination of radical difference and respect (praised by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics) is the essence of friendship, perhaps nowhere is it as visible as in friendship with an animal, a creature both close and distant. Friendship with an animal is perhaps a most striking and challenging variant of friendship as it is a friendship with a radical Other – one like us, and yet drastically different. The irreducible difference, central to the conceptualisation of friendship, is in this case very pronounced – and it may lead to a discovery, pleasure and respect, a mutual co-existence, and community of a human and a beast. Thus, the attitude to an animal may be treated, for one, as a laboratory case not only of the relationship of friendship, but also as a measure of a larger attitude towards various Others: a litmus paper revealing cultural values and politics.
Friendship with an animal is not frequently conceptualised along these lines; more often than not, it is represented as a quasi-infantile feeling for an animal befriended by a person who becomes pals with a beast. This sentimental vision perpetuated by literary and cinematographic classics like Lassie or Black Beauty is based on the anthropocentric concept of human superiority and animal submission, according to which a human, as far more superior and strong, ‘takes care’ of an animal and protects it. The anthropocentric paradigm of culture and knowledge underlying such representations is founded not merely on the premise of the central position of the human being in respect to all other elements of the environment, but also on the conviction about human superiority over it. Such a standpoint, therefore, practically excludes any possibility of friendship between other than human agents, as neither respect nor equality, implied by the concept of friendship, is possible in such a hierarchical structure.
It is only the dislocation of the anthropocentric paradigm of knowledge and culture, which – according to Ewa Domańska – posits the central and dominant role of man (13), towards a more extensive vision of the world including and respecting its other than human subjects that may make room for a friendship conceptualised as a respect for the Other rather than its patronising and exploitation. Yet, such dislocation and expansion, as Éric Baratay observes, requires a revision of well-ingrained concepts and “the rejection of the premise that an animal is merely an object, a passive and empty element … [and accepting that], to the contrary, it is a living creature that feels, experiences, adapts and acts” (34; my translation). Recognising the subjectivity and agency of animals; admitting that they have their own equally important – though different – existence; and the respect for their otherness without conceptualising it as inferiority or treating it as a justification for their exploitation are the conditions that need to be fulfilled for the human-animal friendship to appear. The emergence and development of animal studies and the research done by zoologists, primatologists, ethologists and philosophers have led to a gradual shift and expansion of the anthropocentric paradigm of knowledge and an increasing awareness of the role and autonomy of agents other than human. As Ewa Domańska notes, the developing post-humanism tries to “build a science which criticizes and (or) rejects the central position of man in the world” (13), and thus may lead to a gradual reassessment and reconfiguration of the position, status and agency of both humans and non-humans. The logical contradiction that lies at the heart of this project consists of the fact that it is human being that should willingly resign from its privileged position and locate itself on a par with animal being; yet, doing so, it is precisely the human being that makes decisions and is in control of the process. Thus, paradoxically, the attempt to abandon hierarchy involves at its very heart the hierarchical structure. If, however, such hierarchies are inevitable and, at least at the beginning of the process, hard to eliminate, the post-humanist perspective would suggest that at least they should not be used as a justification for subjugation or exploitation; and that they could potentially lead to more comprehensive and inclusive models of human relationship with its environment.
Similarly to post-humanism, popular culture reacts with a changing representation of animals and of human-animal friendship, which – though perhaps still far from equality – has recently been represented as a relationship more aware of and attentive to the subjectivity and dignity of animals. This essay aims to analyse Steven Spielberg’s recent film War Horse firstly as a cinematographic narrative which makes a human-animal friendship one of its central themes, and secondly as a rare attempt to present to the general public a human-animal history. It will discuss the plot and character construction of the film, paying attention to the relationship of human and animal figures, and it will focus on an extended vision of history that the film posits – in this case, the history of the Great War and the Western front – as a history including not merely human participants. In so doing, the film tries to present the so-far little known or celebrated part of the past and may be analysed as an interesting attempt to show the war not so much from the animal point of view – perhaps not yet – but at least as a war involving animals, too, and noticing its other-than-just-human actors. The article will argue that, in presenting the past as a common history of both humans and animals, Spielberg’s film is not only a gesture of friendship but an important – fictional and popular – step towards a more spacious vision of history, including rather than excluding Others, even as radically other as animals.
Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was released in 2012, in the anticipation of the centennial celebrations of the Great War and the various events and projects accompanying it. As Éric Baratay poignantly notices, in the very rich historiography of this conflict, the theme of animals is surprisingly small and insignificant, despite the vast material and numerous documents showing their role and fate; as he observes, “they have become silenced as insignificant anecdotes, and the renewed historiography of the Great War has not thought about including animals in its history of suffering” (Baratay 19; my translation). Thus, in the context of silence and oblivion, Spielberg’s film may seem original in showing the cruelty and pity of war from other than merely human perspective, including in its picture also other than human actors. In so doing, although without any revolutionary rejection or replacement of the human interpretation of the conflict, it manages to broaden the vision of the past towards its more comprehensive and complicated picture.
War Horse tells the story of a friendship between a boy and a horse, started in a pre-war English Devon village: almost one-third of the film’s time (approximately about an hour) sentimentally shows the turbulent but happy childhood of a village boy who, despite many obstacles, manages to keep and train a beautiful horse well beyond his financial means and, thanks to his perseverance and hard work, supports his family. This part of the film, owing to its pastoral landscapes, lush photography and melodies alluding to English folk music tunes, creates a rather nostalgic picture of the good pre-war England, where not everything was perhaps perfect but where things were safe and stable. This nostalgia and clear idealisation is sharply contrasted with the brutality of the second part of the film, which shows the beginning of the war, which for both the boy and the horse means separation, warfare, suffering and near death. Shown in alternating episodes, the fates of the horse and the boy turn out surprisingly similar: both characters become pawns in the hands of some superior powers, chance and luck; both are moved and ruled without any consideration of who they are and what they want; both are exploited beyond their limits and treated as cannon fodder. The degradation of both animals and men is painfully shown in a series of brutal scenes exhibiting the cruelty of warfare and the helplessness of creatures of all species involved in it. This surprising equality of fate shows vividly the “democratic” brutality of war; more interestingly, however, it implies an unexpected and unacknowledged equality of humans and animals. The clash between the idealisation of the first part and the brutality of the second has its clear political undertones, too: the first scene of combat dramatised in Spielberg’s film, that is the scene of a cavalry charge by a British battalion, by officers equipped with sabres, on an unprepared, yet machine gun-equipped German camp, vividly shows and overtly criticises the romantic illusions and unrealistic thinking behind the vision of “good old England”: stripped of its sentimental beauty, it emerges as impractical and weak.
War Horse, however, is not a revisionary movie aiming at debunking myths and revising national legends. In keeping with the Hollywood strategy of avoiding controversies, it rather steers in the direction of aesthetic mainstreaming, defined by Robert Stam as purging the film of “moral ambiguity, narrative interruption, and reflexive meditation” (43). Thus, the clash of nostalgia and brutality is merely temporary and shows a disturbance in the nostalgic view of the past without leading to its serious revision. In keeping with both the logic of a Hollywood production and the genre of the film, which is a kind of a romance, a story of forming a bond between a horse and a man, War Horse shows an idyll shaken yet not crushed. After a period of trials and tribulations the original stability and balance are restored: the war is won, and it is won by the right party, the man and horse are reunited, the family is together again. The hegemonic order, so brutally endangered and attacked, turns out strong and triumphant in the end. Thus, Spielberg’s film, despite its critical moments, is not revisionary when it comes to the general vision of the Great War and the way it is presented. It does not question its political sense, nor does it subvert well-established interpretations. Yet, following more recent trends in historiography, it tends to show the past via its ordinary actors and shows the human and individual (occasionally also animal) rather than political and global perspective on the war; it avoids any glorification of warfare and instead shows suffering; it tries to refrain from presenting the unusual and focuses on common experience, on individual private rather than general public viewpoints, and on civilians as well as on soldiers. It comes close, then, to what Georg G. Iggers describes as the “history from below” perspective, present in twentieth-century historiography (Iggers 1997: 7), which exhibits interest in the ordinary and concentrates attention on typical actors of the past rather than the elites. This (post)modern filter, however, does not undermine or question the rather traditional framework of the whole project, which may be summed up as a presentation of the common heroism of common people faced with uncommon events. In so doing, the film emphasises and glorifies rather than probes the traditional set of values associated with war since the times of Homer, i.e. heroism, honour, fraternity or courage. In essence, then, War Horse offers a rather conservative vision of the Great War, only partly modified by the latest tendencies of its interpretation.
Nor is Spielberg’s movie revisionary species-wise: far from offering an experimental, avant-garde radicalism, it does not challenge the predominantly human point of view and the perspective on the conflict. The frames and scenes showing the horse’s vision or dramatising his emotions are infrequent and few (only two shots show the human world reflected in the eye of a horse); so are the episodes showing the perspective of animals and their reactions. Taken together, they do not manage to challenge or dislocate the dominating human perspective. Thus War Horse is much closer to traditional filmmaking with its external narration and human perspective than to experimental narratives where, as Jan Alber, Henrik Skov Nielsen and Brian Richardson argue, the so-called “unnatural” or non-human narrators and unexpected points of view function as a method to transgress automatised conventions (353). To be fair, granted the still-limited knowledge about animal perception and cognition, any attempt to fully and adequately represent a horse’s point of view on the war would meet both serious epistemological limitations and ethical problems. Inevitably, any attempt to show in film the true perspective of a horse would have to be based on imagination rather than hard fact; it would be therefore an act of human construction rather than a genuine representation and its informational value would be rather low. Moreover, its reliability being highly problematic from the start, it would additionally raise ethical objections as an – unintended perhaps – act of anthropomorphic projection, if not an arrogant human usurpation. Therefore the fact that the film does not develop the inevitably imaginary horse’s perspective may not necessarily be interpreted as an evasion – rather, in the light of the still-limited knowledge of animal experience, it may be read as an act of humility and respect.
Similarly, Spielberg’s film does not seem to follow the path devised by Leo Tolstoy’s “Kholstomer,” analysed by Victor Shklovsky as an example of the use of an animal perspective to defamiliarise the well-known and taken-for-granted human world (Shklovsky 7). For one thing, the two shots of the horse’s eye are far too little to establish any serious animal perspective and do not decisively break with the predominantly human vision. They signal an attempt to include and expand rather than to replace the anthropomorphic perspective and are much too limited to change it entirely. Likewise, at a more general level, the film does not seem so much to defamiliarise as to expand the representation of the Great War and does not seriously question traditional ways of showing it on screen. Hence, for various ideological, ethical and formal reasons, War Horse does not estrange human perspectives on war. Yet, the very inclusion of an animal and granting him a co-leading role in the film may be interpreted as a significant change in the politics of representation; a change which, while perhaps a small-scale modification only (as is the case with the presentation of war), is yet an important one.
Firstly, the very idea of focusing on an animal actor of the Great War rather than exclusively on a human being is a significant gesture. Documents from the Great War frequently mention animals which were employed during this conflict on an unprecedented scale, mostly horses and dogs serving in the army in various capacities. Also the animals accompanying soldiers have been documented: rats, flies and lice (see Baratay 27-29). Finally, many sources mention domestic animals – cows, pigs or chickens – used for feeding the army. Rarely, however, are these animals treated as subjects deserving their own history, or at least such a history of the Great War which would do justice to their presence, role and suffering, too. In other words, what animals still mostly lack is a history of the Great War which would not treat them as statistical numbers and examples only but as subject and agents, and which would offer them a narrative power to assert their position as important parts of the past. Making a horse one of the two main protagonists of the film about the Great War and showing its fictional fate is, in this context, an interesting gesture that may be interpreted as a step towards such an extended, human-animal vision of the past. Despite its simplifications and conservatism, Spielberg’s film may be read as an attempt – incomplete, perhaps, or not radical enough – to break through the confines of anthropocentrism and at least include, if not adequately represent, other than human actors of the past. Insufficient though the part of the horse might seem, the very fact that it is there already signals a paradigm shift.
Likewise, the story of the horse and its war combat, and the presentation of its subsequent stages, surprisingly accurately reflects various chores performed by horses after their inception by the army. Thus Joey, the horse-protagonist of the film, becomes a pars pro toto for other horses mobilised during the war. Although the accumulation of the tribulations he goes through seems hardly plausible in that usually they befell a number of animals rather than one, yet, in keeping with the film’s title, Spielberg’s horse may be interpreted as a representative of many, if not all the horses caught up in the war apocalypse. As Éric Baratay describes, in the first stage of the Great War horses were primarily used by the cavalry and employed as officers’ horses used for riding and for charges (Baratay 2014: 177). This role that horses played is adequately portrayed by the initial war episodes of the film showing Joey bought by Captain Nicholls and serving as his riding horse. After the Captain’s death during a charge and the German army’s interception of the horses, via Joey’s adventures the film portrays another function frequently performed by horses, namely ambulance work. Filmic Joey, together with his horse-friend Topthorn, draws ambulances collecting the wounded from the battlefield and bringing them to field hospitals and dressing stations. The following episodes of the film, in turn, show yet another fate that frequently befell horses, namely that of domestic animals stolen or intercepted by the army for military purposes. Hidden in a remote French village and tended by an old man and his granddaughter, the two horses are discovered and taken away by the German army as suitable for work and needed in the warfare. Subsequently, the film shows also probably the most painful, brutal and lethal job performed by the horses during the war: that of drawing heavy artillery guns. Éric Baratay reports that
[a]s the war progresses, in the artillery the horses transport increasingly heavy guns, in spring and autumn in trodden and muddy ground, in winter – on ice; as a result they flounder and sink, often up to their bellies, or trip and fall, hardly able to stand up again. (179; my translation)
It does not come as a surprise, then, that, due to the extreme effort, poor and inadequate diet, wounds and infections, terrible conditions and overwork, horses frequently fell sick and died. As Baratay reports, the death rate of horses during the Great War was astonishing: its average reached 61 percent of mobilised animals and became over three times higher than in previous military conflicts; it was much higher than in the case of human soldiers – the war turned out to be much more cruel to horses than to people (Baratay 2014: 189). This sad number, however, is hardly known and remembered by the general public; the involuntary suffering of animals during the war tends to be either taken for granted or conveniently overlooked. Spielberg’s film, then, showing in detail the brutality of the artillery work with the perspective of the horse at least included, is an interesting gesture breaking the silence and oblivion surrounding the exploitation of animals during the war. With its world-wide distribution targeting all kinds of audiences, the film may be seen as a means of informing and sensitising the general public to the problem of animal participation in the war, their role, and suffering.
Probably the most controversial episode of the film, at least from the point of view of the plausibility of events, comes towards its ending, where the horse escapes from the artillery work, runs through no man’s land, becomes entangled and trapped in barbed wire and is subsequently freed from it by both an English and a German soldier, working at the task together with the support of their fellow soldiers, who stop firing until the horse has been saved. The scene, though overtly fictitious, is however only slightly exaggerated for the purpose of the story and may function in the film as an allusion to and a dramatisation of the known episodes of fraternity and the spirit of peace between British, French, and German soldiers reported by witnesses and historians, e.g. the Christmas truce of 1914 (see Brown and Sheaton 1984). Therefore the temporary cooperation of enemy soldiers and their lack of hostility are not as implausible as they may seem. No less likely is the effort to free a horse from such a predicament: the episode is dated 1918, shortly before the ending of the conflict, when the armies practically ran out of horses, and a living horse, even in a poor condition, might seem an attractive trophy. Thus, though far from documented or even probable, the episode is not entirely far-fetched and serves as a visual encapsulation of the war fates of both men and horses. Its plausibility is further suggested by the visual setting: the shots showing the silhouettes of the soldiers moving through the wired no man’s land and trying to approach the horse strongly remind of the war photographs showing the conditions of warfare. The episode, therefore, brings an important emotional climax of the film, showing a capability for friendship both across the national and the species divide.
Consequently, the horse represented in the film becomes an important actor in the joint animal and human history – both an individual subject who acts and whose fate deserves recounting, and an element of a broader picture whose role in the presented historical episode is important and worth remembering. Though the fate of the horse is shown predominantly from the human point of view – no access is given to his emotions or thoughts, and no attempt is made to imitate or imagine his perception of the events – the very fact that such a subject is presented at all is in itself significant. Thus, both adequately and accurately showing the fate of horses during the Great War, and strengthening the position of animals in the accounts of the past, Spielberg’s film is an example of and contributes to raising interest in other than just human histories.
Therefore on closer analysis, despite its sentimentality, nostalgia, conservatism and implausibility, War Horse does introduce interesting innovations. Showing the fictional story of a friendship between a man and a horse, and their fates during the war, on the one hand it follows the beaten path focusing on the human point of view (after all, it is a man who befriends a horse, the sentiments of the latter remain unknown) and showing the war as a primarily human endeavour. On the other hand, however, it may be interpreted as an attempt – unsuccessful or insufficient, perhaps – to break out of the anthropocentric paradigm and at least to take into consideration, if not to do justice to, the experience of other-than-human species and elements of the environment. It may mark, then, one of the initial steps of the gradual process of the slow shifting towards other, more inclusive, post-humanist paradigms of knowledge, in this case of historical knowledge. One may interpret Spielberg’s film as a gesture towards the Other, towards including it, too, in the common, human and animal history. Thus, the film may be seen as doubly “friendly”: in the most obvious sense, by representing the story of a human-animal friendship, and in a more metaphorical sense, as a gesture of respect and solidarity towards the species radically different and yet involved in similar circumstances and sharing similar existential challenges to our own. What War Horse ultimately illustrates is an attempt made at putting into practice the project of human-animal history, an inclusive account of the past and an extended vision of subjects deserving their histories, which may be perhaps some of the most significant and valuable manifestations of the spirit of friendship.
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- Spielberg, Steven, dir. 2012. War Horse. Perf. Emily Watson, David Thewlis. Glendale, CA: Dreamworks.
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