War Horse – The Real Story Review: Cutting The Spiel

WAR HORSE – THE REAL STORY: Sunday 4th March, 8pm

Trotting along behind the War Horse bandwagon currently being pulled by Steven Spielberg, comes War Horse: The Real Story; a documentary which uses archive footage, testimonies from war veterans and expert interviewees to tell the sad truth about real life war horses. A soaring sentimental soundtrack and numerous cuts to soldiers silhouetted against orange skies make for some rather cringe worthy attempts to imitate the horsey epic, but the sheer volume of grisly facts and period footage makes this no shallow spin-off.

Almost one million animals suffered alongside our men in the freezing mud of the western front between 1914 and 1918; a fact which this Channel 4 programme has clamped firmly between its teeth for the entire gruesome hour.

Kicking off the horsey history lesson with a shot directly at our tear ducts, an emotional WW1 veteran tells of the day that the army descended on his small Suffolk town. In one two-week period in 1914, over 140, 000 horses were purchased by the army and Len Whitehead remembers the day they took Boxer, Violet and Duke like it was yesterday. “They left us with only one horse…I cried myself to sleep that nightâ€?, he says.

The emotionally charged fact offensive continues with shocking period photos and footage. Many people think of a war horse as a surly steed charging towards the enemy, clamped between the muscley thighs of a sergeant major…but only 2% of animals were used as cavalry and had the opportunity to suffer such a “gloriousâ€? death, the grandson of war hero Jack Seely explains.

Most of the animals were worked to death shipping essential supplies could be transported between the British camps, ending their days drowned in the mud, blasted by shell fire or rendered lame after stepping on metal spikes planted by the Germans. Forget a painless bullet to the brain, exhaustion, disease and extremes of weather were the biggest killers. The hour long documentary is determined to evoke compassion for these forgotten heroes, with contributions from former RSPCA head vet (and part-time Land Rover deconstructor?) Mark Evans, almost blubbing at the sight of the magnificent beast s who he so elegantly describes as “built like brick shit housesâ€?.

Not to be outdone by its Hollywood predecessor, however, this film stars its own uplifting story of man and horse. The aforementioned Jack Seely was, in fact, something of an “Albertâ€? and his horse Warrior, the corresponding “Joeyâ€?. The pair rode triumphantly together throughout the Boer War and went on to survive WW1, ultimately leading a game-changing attack on the German line.

Fans of the film will no doubt enjoy the heart-rending addition of this story and, whether or not its inclusion would have been so necessary in a pre-Morpurgo universe, it certainly makes a nice break from the tragedy.