01/27/2012 3:10PM

Hovdey: Book paints vivid picture of horse at war

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No experienced moviegoer should be surprised that “War Horse” was among the Oscar nominees for Best Picture – if it was 1944. The movie’s pervasive tone was one of abiding nostalgia infused with a glowing sentimentality that tastefully packaged and sanitized both the horrors of war and the brutal oppression of tenant farming.

Also there was a cute little sick girl.

But wait. Perhaps I’m being unfair to 1944. There were only five nominated movies back then, compared to nine for 2011, and two of them – “Gaslight” and “Double Indemnity” – were gloriously nasty pieces of work, featuring the psychological torture of Ingrid Bergman by Charles Boyer in one and the murderous plotting of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the other. Who would do that to Ingrid Bergman?

Animal movies don’t as a rule get nominated for Best Picture, and only one other horse movie has received the nod. That was “Seabiscuit” in 2003. Other creatures who made the grade include a hound, a fish, and a talking pig (“Sounder,” “Jaws,” and “Babe”), while “The Snake Pit,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Elephant Man,” “Raging Bull,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Silence of the Lambs” were all nominated, but don’t count.

“War Horse” fits neatly into the retro mood of movie-makers and their fans (bear in mind a silent film in black and white called “The Artist“ is favored to win the Oscar). When it is not paying homage to every boy’s horse story ever written, “War Horse” tugs mercilessly at the heartstrings and piles preposterous coincidence upon preposterous coincidence until the viewer, like the German army, is beaten into submission. The stunts – both real and computer generated – are fabulous, the horses inspiring. It also should be noted that no violins were harmed during the scoring of the film.

Brough Scott, the accomplished British racing writer, knew all about real war horses long before Steven Spielberg got his hooks into the fictional material, based upon Michael Morpurgo’s book and subsequent play. Scott’s grandfather, General Jack Seely, wrote a memoir about his own heroically battle-tested Thoroughbred called “My Horse Warrior” in 1934, and Scott, on the ball, saw in the making of “War Horse” a fitting opportunity to share his grandfather’s story with a new and hopefully receptive audience. The result was the publication “Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse” by Racing Post Books, with original illustrations by Sir Alfred Munnings.

As ripping yarns go, “Warrior” tears up the room. Few images can compete with Spielberg’s when the director of “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” is on his game, but in the theater of the mind, the story of “Warrior” goes toe-to-toe with “War Horse” and has the additional advantage of being true.

Jack Seely’s dry, officer-class delivery of the facts has a way of holding at bay the grotesque business of war, which is precisely what the leaders of soldiers and cavalry had to do to help their men survive. After a few of the war chapters, however, it dawns on the reader that there apparently was no bullet that bore his name.

Why else would he have been carrying his general, who was commanding a redeployment, while standing nose to nose with another horse on a narrow bridge when the other horse was dropped dead by gunfire?

How is it that Warrior, after surviving a brutal day of the battle of the Somme, was nearly felled after swallowing a piece of shrapnel that had gotten in his hay?

What kind of horse gets to be stabled in the drawing room of a French villa, and then, when the General was off giving orders to his officers, has that villa blown to pieces by a shell from a huge German gun? Seely was sure that was the last of his brave horse:

“But no,” he wrote, “there was his head poking out from the few bricks still standing, with the joist of the ceiling resting on his back.”

Cavalry columns were regularly shelled by Richthofen’s German flyers, and once Warrior was buried by falling earth from a nearby explosion, with only a forefoot visible. They dug him out.

And there was the final great battle, when Seely and Warrior led the charge with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in the recapture of Monteuil Ridge, during the darkest days of Amiens.

“There was, of course, a hail of bullets from the enemy as we crossed the intervening space and mounted the hill, and perhaps half of us were hit, but Warrior cared for nothing,” Seely wrote. “His one idea was to get at the enemy. He almost buried his head in the brushwood when we reached the point of the wood at the chosen spot. We were greeted by twenty or thirty Germans, who fired a few shots before running, doubtless thinking there were thousands of us following.”

There were not, but the cavalry held the ridge, and the battle ultimately turned the tide of the war and led to the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918.

Warrior returned home to the Isle of Wight with Seely, later to become Lord Mottistone. Together they would ride to hounds and win point-to-point events, ever considering themselves among the very lucky who survived the carnage of the last great cavalry war. Warrior lived to be 30.

As far as the number of horses killed in the four years of the first World War, the figures are all over a very bloody map. Six million is frequently cited, but then would four or five make anyone feel better? British statistics cling to just under half a million dead horses from the island nation alone. Only they couldn’t kill the fictional Joey from “War Horse.” And they didn’t kill the real thing, either.