Sunday, November 11, 2012

War Hearse

Last year, Spielberg's latest movie war movie, War Horse was released to the acclaim of audiences and disdain of critics everywhere.  Since it was about the last time that horses were allowed to be used during a war, I thought it might've been influenced by Charley's War, since it too had several scenes involving horses.  Considering it influenced two mocking reviews of the movie, it's safe to say that the results were somewhat of a mixed bag.

Actually, War Horse was based on a young adult's novel by Michael Morpurgo.  Still, it's probably a good thing that it wasn't based on the British comic.  If it actually had been inspired by Charley's War and people didn't like it, it might've turned the public away from the legendary WWI comic.  This is better known as the Howard the Duck effect.  For fortunate individuals who've never seen this legendary British war comic, I'm offering a limited offer to download the entirety of the first major arc, The Somme for today only.  (This will expire at 11 A.M. the next day)  These are high-res photocopies that are missing certain details that weren't present in the torrent downloads, including some missing pages.  The cursive letters to Aunt Mabel were difficult enough to read at a reduced size.  If you want to read more, you have two choices - either buy the books from Titan Books (with added annotations) or wait until next year.  (Assuming any of us are still around after the Mayan calendar ends)

As with most classic comics, the early chapters are rather verbose, but it gets easier reading later on once the writer gets the general pacing of the story down pat.  Fittingly enough, the very first act of Charley's War opens up with a scene involving a horse.  Charley isn't much in the smarts department, but he's a general good-hearted bloke.  So when he hears from his "friends" that the war department is looking for prospective horses, he figures that the retired stagecoach horse is suitable enough for the job.

Once he finds out the truth, he decides to pay reprisal on the pals he once trusted.  Seeing nowhere else to go, he decides to enlist by lying about his age.  Even though he lists his age as 18, but lists his date birth as 1900, the army is willing to let the oversight by, since they're in desperate need of men to provide as cannon fodder.

Along the way to the trenches, an Ambulance horse is spooked by the blasts of mortar shells and dragging the wounded into a mudhole.  The horse's about to be shot for behaving like a wild beast when Charlie gets the idea to calm said horse by covering his eyes with Aunt Mabel's scarf.  He later writes in his letter that her scarf came in handy.

Later having survived the horrors of trench warfare, shelling, sniping, rats and other hazards, Charley gets the opportunity to see the impressive sight of a Cavalry flank swooping down on their German enemies.  Like the soldiers, the horses had gas masks custom fit to protect them from poisonous gas.

Around this time, Charley was beginning to lament using horses during war, since they seemed out of place in a battlefield that was beginning to use tanks and machine guns in place of swords and bayonets.

After some drama involving some German soldiers with a vendetta, Warrior gets some shrapnel in his leg, and Charley is just about to shoot the beloved horse...

...when it suddenly makes a miraculous recovery.  This being a children's war comic, there were certain boundaries that couldn't be crossed.  While Warrior was lucky enough to escape unscathed, that didn't stop the mercy killings of other unlucky horses spread out among the battlefield.  Despite these limitations, even toned down, the amount of pathos and brutality present in WWI still manages to shine through.

Charley wouldn't see Warrior again until Ypres when after another minor moment of distress, the white horse rears up on his hind legs to the distaste of Captain Snell, a superior commander whose casual snobbish manner of treating the war as a minor inconvenience made him more of a threat than the enemy they were fighting against.  He was part of an elitist upper class who truly believed that the war would all "blow over by Christmas", even as he played Cricket on the battlefield and used live soldiers as flesh shields during gunfire.  In short, he's the representation of every entitled officer who believes they knows what's best for the men despite all evidence to the contrary.

Captain Snell is about to shoot the beast for insubordination until Charley manages to calm Warrior again by removing the offending barbed wire.  Only after the "nag" calms down does Captain Snell decide that the animal is suitable enough for his own personal property.  Around this time, the war effort had gotten bad enough that Charley decided to make things slightly less hazardous for him by reluctantly agreeing to be Captain Snell's personal steward.  When you've got to swallow your own pride and be in service to someone you hate in order to survive, that's never a good sign.

After several weeks under Captain Snell's command, the last straw comes when Charley finds out about orders to paint the once-proud white horse brown, because he didn't comply with army regulations.  Charley decides to use this opportunity to get some payback for Captain Snell's obsequiousness by "accidentally" painting his saddle as well.

Once Captain Snell realizes that his khakis are stained and he's been made a fool of, he pays in retribution by taking his anger out on Charley's hide.

For all the punishment he's taking, Charley can't strike back, because according to the rules, striking at a superior officer is grounds for execution.  Even so, he's not the kind of guy who's just going to stand there and take it, and is willing to risk death in order to stop Snell's constant sneering.  Just as he's lingering between hesitation and action, another Lieutenant happens upon the scene, and admits that Captain Snell can whip Charley all he likes, since he knows he can't fight back... but HE can.  And proceeds to knock Snell's lights out.  Before the two officers can even write each other off for their behavior, the shelling starts again, lighting the stables on fire, causing the horses to panic, and are only saved by diverting them into the shellholes.

The next morning, Charley hopes to see Warrior at the horse's hospital, but receives unwelcome news that the horse's been stolen.

Despite his friend's proclamation that he'll never see his beloved horse again, Charlie does manage to find Warrior again against all odds, but that wouldn't happen until near the end of the war in the Falklands.  When Charley recognizes Warrior still wearing the trademark brown paint decked out on him, Warrior's now been reduced to a carriage horse instead of a proud cavalry horse.  Quite an ironic fall of status considering how this whole horse affair got started.

During their assault on advancing tanks, Warrior gets caught in the blast, and Charley finally resigns himself to shooting the horse that he'd been unable to do so so many years ago.  By then, Charley had already long since graduated to the cruelties of combat.  At least Warrior is spared any further suffering.  Charley's still got to see this thing through to the end.

Charley's War may be melodramatic at times, but it never feels less than authentic.  In fact, the ONLY unrealistic thing about Charley's War is the amount of creative swearing in place of ACTUAL swearing.

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