A Hundred years sounds a very long time, doesn’t it? It’s nothing. It was yesterday. Because in the end we’re almost in the same place – we’re tearing ourselves apart (again!) and the voices of Sanity, of Justice and of Peace are being listened to only superficially. Power, greed, hatred and indifference drive bitter conflicts around our sorry planet, and we haven’t moved on much past the Great War. But in telling that story; of the European rivalry that tore through the continent and bled out to the colonies; of the death of authority; of utter despair and emptiness; of men holding onto their humanity, onto faithfulness, friendship and honour despite being thrust into hell – in telling these stories perhaps we can hold off the worst that may come. Because if Community is powered by memory, by story, then this is a story that feeds our whole world.
Why do I choose a story about a horse as my way of marking the centenary? The simple answer is, why not? But let me also say this – that our humanity (our pride, stupidity, honour, friendship, kindness, cruelty, indifference, goodness) is most clearly seen from the outside, from one who is not human – and yet in ways more human than some of us. Traditionally, in tales and in popular thought the Horse is amongst the most noble of creatures. He is the warrior’s constant companion not only to carry him, but to partner in battle. He is the symbol of Poseidon, the doorway of Troy’s doom, in winged or horned form a symbol of both power and purity. So to see our actions and lives through his eyes is not a trivial matter.
For me, there were two things that drove this story: That true friendship is fueled by Faithfulness above all things and That if War in its essence is an ugly, terrible curse on us all and a thing to be avoided, that does not mean that all who partake are ugly and terrible – but it can also bring out the most ugly and terrible parts inside us. (yes, I cheated because the second thing there was really lots of things.) The skill of all the storytellers involved in the complexities of this woven tale is way above my head. How they got us to understand what a Horse is thinking and feeling, I will never know; but they did. It was probably all in the eyes. (And it’s not just once we get into the War that we see things through Joey’s eyes, the friendship between Albert and him is seen largely from his perspective, albeit with interpretation from Albert. The ploughing of the field shows the courage and stubbornness that true friendship fueled by faithfulness can elicit. It’s the first of many moments in the film where I had to get out my tissue)
And so Albert and Joey are separated – Joey is conscripted to be used as a Charger. And partakes in a charge that sums up a lot of what was wrong with this war – it was one in which the combatants were in completely different centuries. Advances in technology have always gone hand in hand with warfare, but it needs the attitude of the generals and leaders to change too. The Brits simply hadn’t got the memo that warfare was now squarely in the 20th Century, and it was no place for a grand charge of horse – noble though it may seem (although, it wasn’t really that noble, they were charging the tents of sleeping men first thing in the morning). Needless to say, Joey’s first encounter in the war goes badly for his rider and thus starts a chain of custody (for want of a better phrase) wherein he passes through the hands of both monsters and angels. And with him, we watch boys not very successfully trying to be men; families clutching onto each other and to hope in the midst of darkness; men treating the horses (and each other) as mere tools, things to be used up and discarded. We watch as dignity, purpose and honour are trampled – yet survive as sparks. We rest and breath a sigh of relief in the short episode at the farm and we fear for the family who have given us succour. We witness kindness from enemies, gentleness in hell and friendship forged in fire.
When folk talk about the Fruit of The Spirit and get to Faithfulness, then talk about how it’s Faith in God – it kind makes me both cross and sad. Mostly sad that they have little to no understanding, and potentially no experience of, true faithfulness. If you want to understand what faithfulness is, just read this book, watch this play, experience this amazing film. Both Albert and Joey put themselves through the ringer in the name of faithfulness. But neither gives up. And the irony of a horse showing more loyalty, honour and nobility than some of the men in the story is certainly not lost, and neither is it simply poetic licence to further the story. It has the feel of truth about it, the feel of honesty. And the faithfulness that Joey shows is not only to Albert, but to his equine compatriot – again the aspect of faithfulness that is embodied in putting yourself through pain that a loved one cannot deal with is often overlooked. Faithfulness is pulling a cannon for someone else when you know pulling it WILL kill them and MAY kill you.
So of course, I cry every time I watch this. I miss friends I am far from, as Joey and Albert miss one another. I mourn for the way in which men treat each other and the planet. I feel anger at the apologists who still cling to the idea that war is noble. Even in a righteous cause (and defending Neutral Belgium from German aggression was a good cause – and for part 2 of the story, defending Poland and standing up to the evil of Nazism was a very good cause) we need to hold the tension of standing for justice, but still feeling sad that it has come to war. To acknowledge the horrors whilst still progressing the cause of justice – what is it that can keep us sane in such an insane world? Only the honour of defending our neighbour; the comfort that you fight beside brothers, friends, companions ; the true faithfulness that ties us all together.
So yes, this story shows us our war. It shows us the terror it was and the grand mistake of arrogance. It shows us the drudgery and cost. And it shows us that through it all, true faithfulness endures and upholds – and builds our relationships, builds our communities. And Faithfulness includes remembering those who have gone, faithfulness includes telling and sharing their stories. Share this story with a friend, it will be a lasting memory you build together.