Spielberg’s Spirited Steed Inspires Memories of Literary Heroes

Magnificence of message, which not even Walt Disney or David O. Selznick captured at the top of their games, appealed to captivated audiences on Christmas Day, 2011.  Nature in its original pastoral loveliness — appreciated by valiant, well-meaning humankind — ought never be defiled by greed, violence, enslavement, assembly-line manufacturing of weaponry or the nightmarish mania of wars.  

Steven Spielberg’s compelling masterpiece, “War Horse”, shines brightly as a successful throwback to and tribute to film-making at its pinnacle at the close of the 30s and the beginning of the 40s.  Seasoned film buffs delight in script development, credible characterizations, memorable soundtracks, lovingly achieved production values, and themes which inspire – this movie qualifies as a forgotten dream come true. 

This classically revealed epic assesses, through the eyes of one spirited steed, the rewarding importance of man’s kinship with animals, as evidenced by the moments of kindness Red Bay “Joey” elicits amidst the grotesque horrors of warfare.

As a toddler, I recall a brief timeframe of “cries and whispers” within our household.  Family upheavals accompanied by personal secrets do happen.  Words got s-p-e-l-l-e-d by those taller and older than I so that I would remain in the dark and not inadvertently share any of our little family’s angst with others who might be nosy.  My mother routinely read to me each evening before bedtime, assuming the only result would be sleepiness. (My mother’s credo?  Turn back the cover of a book simultaneously with a comfy blanket.)  I startled her by reciting, from memory, the first few lines of her frequently selected “golden book”: “This is the story of Timothy Tim. This long-eared bunny belonged to him…” 

Thus, I rated inclusion in our family affairs from that point as someone who paid pretty close attention and deserved some respect…and maybe “hush” money type bribes!  (In a breach of security, at age seven I blabbed to Brownie Scout Troop 210 leader Edna Gates that my great, great, great, great grandpa served as George Washington’s butler.  Amused, Mrs. Gates tattled on me to my mother who corrected this misinformation to …  my kinsman’s designation as the president’s bodyguard instead…)

Within a handful of years, the Mesdames/teachers Sheehan and Woodham and Miss Betty Leffel sufficiently had instructed me to read well on my own and guided me toward a discerning selection of the very best classics available.  My first and my favorite?  Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty”.  Anna authored only one story, but it’s a honey.  (Margaret Mitchell’s sole literary contribution being “Gone With the Wind”, Harper Lee later joined their worthy “one shot wonder” club with her sensationally popular “To Kill a Mockingbird”.)

This edgy, episodic story of an exceptionally fine horse named Black Beauty, chronicled from youth to old age, leaves its mark — upon any child — as permanently imprinted as the white star beneath Beauty’s forelock.  Treat animals kindly…always, under all circumstances, and throughout your lifetime.  Ms. Sewell never ever rode a horse; her closest proximity to such an animal would be via carriage rides.  Her legacy, intent, and gift to us consist of her promotion of and sensitivity toward animal welfare – humane respect for all living beings.

I still possess black and white proof that I myself actually saddled up a grand total of…once!  My dad purchased a horse named Maude for my sister Shirley and brother-in-law Guy when the couple moved to the Thorncreek farm they have owned for now more than 60 years.  My sister Sarah and I accompanied Daddy to a downtown East Van Buren Street, Columbia City business, located up a long flight of wooden stairs, to purchase a saddle and bridle for Maude in the early 50s so that my sis could take riding lessons from Dale Fisher and thus ride Maude all by herself.  Prior to Sarah’s equestrian escapades, both of us sat atop that gentle mare for a brief photo opportunity with a Brownie camera aimed our direction.  Guy steadily held the reins so that Maude would not soar down the dusty road with her tiny passengers all atumble.

Michael Morpurgo’s compelling and compassionate novel “War Horse”, written in 1982, somehow never got collected by Susie Bibliophile for my impressive library of animal volumes housed in several book-cases upstairs and down.  Recently, the paperback version arrived via wonderful Mike Huth, perhaps the friendliest UPS gentleman on this or any other planet. 

How fortunate that this sweet, short novel — reminding us to value life at all times and in all of its forms — impressed playwright Nick Stafford who adapted the book into a stage play (the horses depicted through puppetry) of the same title and which recently garnered a Tony Award.  Next, its sheer magic ignited genius director Spielberg to outdo himself with his powerhouse Golden Globe nominated film at a time when the world at large sorely needs to be jarred back to common sense and an accompanying universal respect for “all things bright and beautiful…”

An absolutely divine quotation introduces “The Young Black Stallion” (another beloved equine hero of myriad books in a series) written in 1989 collaboratively by Walter Farley and his son Steven: 

We need another and a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals…  We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.  ~ Henry Beston, “The Outermost House”

Thus, I have shared adventures and misadventures with Timothy Tim’s long-eared bunny, a family member named Maude (and very many other fuzzy, scaled and feathered siblings too numerous to mention throughout all the years), “Black Beauty” ,“The Black Stallion”, Marguerite Henry’s stable of horse stories, “The Yearling”, “Moby Dick”, “Old Yeller”, “Lassie”, Jonah and the Whale, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”, Noah and his ark, and now Joey the English plow horse embroiled within, yet determinedly elevating himself — and us — above, a man-made World War I.  I recommend, from personal experience, that worthwhile tales be read to the young and that pets be adopted until children themselves gather up the mantle, guided by the gentleness and wisdom of parents who consistently encourage inclusiveness, compassion – and unconditional love. Yes, joyfully open countless classic books and view inspirational films which will in turn expose young hearts to the grand possibilities of harmonious existence with “all creatures great and small…”  

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