Nothing short of remarkable, War Horse is the deceptively simple tale of a young man and his horse who are torn apart by World War I. At its core, however, the play is a powerful reaffirmation of human compassion and peace.
The narrative focuses on individuals, whether they be simple farmers or seasoned military officers, while speaking on behalf of the entire world regardless of stature or race. The play opens with a simple, pastoral setting that turns cold and dark when World War I breaks out. Even in the bright moments that emerge from the darkness, there is still the weight of what has happened and the characters are never the same. The innocence of the pre-war era is lost forever. The difficult transition of childhood to adulthood rings true for Joey, his owner Albert, and all across Europe.
War Horse also provides many perspectives on World War I. In one of the funnier and more touching scenes, Irish and German soldiers see Joey caught in barbed wire; both camps send soldiers to go rescue him. The two soldiers, from rival sides, do so in peace and flip a coin to decide who gets to keep Joey. Both are cordial and amicable to one another for this entire transaction. Even in times of greatest despair, the human capacity for friendship and goodwill can still shine through.
The horses themselves are masterpieces all on their own. Particularly the adult Joey (the titular War Horse), who is so strong he can carry riders on his back, the mechanics and believability of the horse puppets are truly marvels to behold.
Fortunately, even with such amazing spectacle, the play exercises a strong restraint by not over-using them. The audience is given several moments of young Joey, alone on stage, to observe the jaw-droppingly realistic movements and subtleties of the horse puppetry, so by the time the human characters show up, the audience’s attention is no longer just on the horse.
This same restraint is what makes the final scene so exceptionally powerful. The reunion of Joey and Albert is a beautiful and emotionally satisfying moment, but the show is better weighted by Albert coming home to his mother. The play’s main character may be a horse, but the core message is one of pure humanity and compassion.