I strongly recommend “War Horse,” which is one of the best movies of the year. Let me warn readers in advance that it is very sentimental and if anyone but Steven Spielberg had directed the film, it would not have worked. The movie calls attention to World War I, a conflict that most Americans have relatively little knowledge of and that has long been overshadowed in popular culture by World War II.
In June 1914, a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, triggering a series of military alliances that began World War I, the first major European war in a century. Crowds across the continent cheered the coming of the conflict and both sides expected a short war. Instead, the battle between the Allied Powers of Britain, France, and Russia and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, dragged on for over four years, killing 9 million soldiers and devastating Europe. When it finally ended on November 11, 1918, it was called the Great War or “the war to end all wars.”
World War I played an instrumental role in shaping the rest of the 20th century. By its end, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires had collapsed. The harsh peace imposed by the victorious Allied Powers in the Treaty of Versailles weakened the European economy, paving the way for the Great Depression of the 1930s. In particular, the settlement imposed huge reparations on the defeated Germans and demanded they accept guilt for starting the war, virtually strangling the democratic Weimar Republic at its birth. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis Party flourished in this climate, builiding political support by claiming that Jews and others had “stabbed the country in the back.” The war weakened the czarist regime in Russia, resulting in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union. Finally, after promising the Arab world its independence in exchange for joining the fight against their colonial overlords, the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France carved up the region between each other. They created countries like Iraq and Jordan, which had previously not existed, drawing national borders to suit their own interests. These artificial boundaries are responsible for many of the problems in today’s Middle East.
Of course, “War Horse” does not focus on such weighty geopolitical issues. (SPOILERS) It is the story of a young British boy who trains a horse that his family must sell to the British military in order to keep their farm. In the course of the war, the horse is used by the British, German, and French militaries on the Western front in France. Joey, as the horse is called, is never used by the U.S. Army, which only arrived in 1918. Under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, the United States tried to avoid entering the conflict, only declaring war in April 1917 following the resumption of German submarine warfare. Given our small peacetime army at the time, it took almost another year to train units to send across the Atlantic, but our fresh troops eventually helped bring about an earlier end to the war.
The film illustrates how combat during the First World War changed from previous wars. New industrial technologies facilitated a different kind of battle than seen in the biggest Western conflict of the 19th century, the American Civil War. While armies still used the cavalry charges of the last century, weaponry like machine guns and tanks led to higher casualties, as the two sides got bogged down in trench warfare for four years in France. Weapons of mass destruction like poison gas were used for the first time. Spielberg’s depiction of the fighting in No Man’s Land, the region between the trenches, is every bit as impressive as the now-famous portrayal of D-Day in the opening 30 minutes of his “Saving Private Ryan.”
Many historians consider World War I the first “total war,” where civilians experienced the full impact of a conflict. (Minor spoilers) The section of the film where the French Army repeatedly confiscates goods from a local farmer and his granddaughter illustrates this phenomenon. There is little ideology and politics discussed in the movie, which is largely about soldiers and civilians trying to maintain their humanity during the tragic conflict.
When the war was finally over, the Allies, including the United States, emerged victorious, but at a huge cost that would echo for generations. Yet most Americans know little about the conflict, even though 53,000 soldiers died in combat. The U.S. was only involved in the war for 18 months and did not suffer the heavy losses the Europeans did, while our home front was not nearly as affected. Furthermore, World War II, commencing a mere 20 years later and causing even greater destruction, is much more dominant in the American memory. Few major films have depicted World War I and none has achieved commercial success comparable to that of movies about the Civil War, World War II, or Vietnam.
“War Horse” will likely be a nominee for best picture and provide yet another best director nomination for Spielberg. It almost makes me forget how much I disliked “Adventures of Tintin.” More importantly, when I discuss World War I with my students, I will now be able to cite a film to illustrate some of my points.