26 October 2014

Picture This: A Different Beast

My latest column for BLink, the Hindu Business Line's Saturday paper: 

Only recently did I see a film that brings the terrible pathology of war home to us through eyes that I have never before considered — those of an animal.

This year marks 100 years since World War I began. There have been several great films made about the Great War, as it was called, until it was superseded (in the worst possible way) by World War II. Some of the most famous of these place us terrifyingly in the midst of battle: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), or Stanley Kubrick’s withering Paths of Glory (1957). Others, like August Renoir’s humanist masterpiece La Grand Illusion (1937), are set away from the frontlines, in a POW camp. The 2001 film A Very Long Engagement provided the rare perspective of a woman: she does not go to war, but must wait endlessly for one who does.
It was only recently though, that I saw a film that brings the terrible pathology of war home to us through eyes that I have never before considered — those of an animal. War Horse (2011) is adapted by Steven Spielberg from British writer Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel for children, into an epic film, whose staging of one marvellous set piece after another somehow rings true. Like the most famous book ever written about horses, Anna Sewell’s still-bestselling 1877 classic Black Beauty, Morpurgo’s book is written in the voice of Joey, the thoroughbred chestnut stallion at its centre. Spielberg’s film does not have the horse speak, but Joey is certainly the unifying element in a cinematic journey that takes him (and us) from the open moors of Devon to the killing fields of France and Germany.
Bought in a stubborn moment of whimsy by a near-penniless farmer called Narracott, Joey starts out as the proud possession of Narracott’s son Albert. In an early scene of man-animal connection that would move the stoniest heart, the teenaged Albert manages to coax the “fancy” young horse into ploughing a field that’s more stone than earth. But this near-magical ploughing is not nearly enough to end their run of bad luck, and the elder Narracott ends up selling Joey to a soldier (Morpurgo has spoken of how he was inspired by an old man he met in a pub who had worked with horses in the Devon Yeomanry regiment, and another who remembered Devon villagers selling horses to army men).
It is through Joey’s eyes and ears that we catch our first glimpse of an army camp, and the windswept madness of the first cavalry charge at Salisbury Plain. Watching him sail into battle with his new owner, the youthful Captain Nicholls, it is suddenly clear that no soldier can charge if his horse doesn’t want to. There must be an uncanny unity between horse and man. Spielberg’s staging of the battle scenes is enormously powerful, conveying the carnage of war without being gory, often simply by showing us how the harmony between man and animal is continually broken and renewed. We do not see Captain Nicholls die, but we see a riderless Joey flying over the cannon fire into German hands, and we know.
In the German camp, Joey and Topthorn, his jet-black companion from the British side, are adopted by two teenage brothers, who on being ordered to separate, decide to desert. In one of the movie’s most affecting scenes, the brothers are found and shot; we watch their time run out from behind the slowly turning blades of a windmill. Having watched Joey refuse to be separated from Topthorn, one cannot help but think of the poor dead boys as young colts, who were only trying to stay together. And as the film progresses, and you watch the horses turned into cannon fodder as much as the men in trenches, further forms of equivalence emerge between man and beast. The war is an insatiable ogre that demands fresh meat, both human and animal.
In a magisterial 1977 essay called ‘Why Look at Animals’, the critic John Berger pointed out that animals were not just man’s first companions, but also our first symbols, our first metaphors. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss famously explained, the human practice of using animals as totemic symbols for different tribes emerged because the visible differences between animal species made them “good to think with”. Berger cites Homer’s Iliad, one of the earliest human texts we have, as full of examples where human qualities are evoked through comparisons with animals: “Menelaus bestrode his body like a fretful mother cow standing over the first calf she has brought into the world.” Or “He was like a mountain lion who believes in his own strength...”
One could multiply examples. Think of the many yoga asanas derived from the postures of birds and beasts — bhujangasana, cobra pose; marjariasana, cat pose; vyaghrasana, tiger pose; bakasana, crane pose; kakasana, crow pose — the list is endless. Or American Indian names, that emerged in a world where the only references were natural, giving us ‘Bear making dust’, ‘Wild dove’, ‘Salmon whose head rises above water’ or ‘Coyote with long ears flapping’.
Today anthropomorphism may feel embarrassing, but that awkwardness arises from the fact that we no longer live with animals. The post-industrial world is a world shorn of animals, barring the purely spectacular domain of the zoo or the fetishised domesticity of pets. To watch War Horse is to enter, however briefly, into a world where an animal’s face could still hold up a mirror to the human condition.

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