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What Does a Gay Horse Eat? A ‘Haaaay’ Reading of Steven Spielberg’s ‘War Horse’

What Does a Gay Horse Eat? A 'Haaaay' Reading of Steven Spielberg's 'War Horse'

So last night – in an attempt to catch up on the ridiculous amount of December releases this year so I could make an honest top 10 list (which I should have up here by early next week) – I finally saw Steven Spielberg’s ‘War Horse.’ In many ways it was exactly what I expected: beautifully shot, horribly written (I laughed out loud a good dozen times at some of the dialogue), unabashedly sentimental and artistically old school in a lazy kind of way… But there was one thing I was definitely not expecting. For ‘War Horse’ to be so downright campy, and – on multiple occasions – most definitely warrant a gay reading.

Now, I must note that the specific screening I attended probably aided in how bizarrely gay the film felt to me. It was a Toronto screening for the cast and crew of the city’s upcoming stage production of ‘War Horse.’  For 20 or so minutes before the film started, I was surrounded by theater humor and catty anecdotes from dozens of stereotypically flamy men and overdramatic, sassy women that sat all around me. And then throughout the film, I got a pretty amazing commentary from the same folks: It was all ‘Ohhh myyy goddd War Horse, don’t do it!,’ or ‘The German soldiers are sooo much hotter than the Brits.’ And of course, there was uncontrolled, dramatically noted sobbing as far as the ear could hear for the last 20 minutes of the film.

But as for the film itself – and there’s considerable spoilers ahead so stop here if you want an organic ‘War Horse’ experience (if there even is such a thing) – the gayness somehow topped what was going on in the audience.

First and foremost, War Horse himself – or “Joey,” as lead character Albert names him – is totally gay.  You can simply read this in the textbook way that he’s “different” from the other horses (mainly because no one thinks he could “plow a field,” ha) but it also gets a lot more literal.

When Joey gets sent off to war, the British soldiers segregate him next to a big, black beautiful horse – named, I kid you not Topthorn – who the soldiers also deem “different” and “unruly.” It’s only a matter of time before Joey and Topthorn are getting intimate, kissing each other, snuggling, and clearly growing to find an affectionate and mutual dependence on one another. They go through quite a lot: Being captured by the Germans (more on that later), spending some time with a over-the-top French girl (and on that as well), and they always have to fight not to be separated. 

In the most dramatic display of Joey’s love for his mate (who given his fur is often simply referred to in an oddly racialized way as the “black horse”), he stops the Germans from making Topthorn the lead on a working line that he likely won’t be able to handle because of his poor health condition. Joey does so by making it clear he’s the right horse for the job instead, thus saving Topthorn’s life but threatening his own.

More over, it is continuously noted throughout the film that Joey and Topthorn are the most beautiful horses the characters have ever seen. They both always look 10 times more meticulously groomed than the other horses in the film (despite doing hard labor at war).

One explanation for that is that the horses’ caregivers all warrant gay readings in themselves.

His first post-Albert caregiver is a handsome, dandy-ish British soldier played by Tom Hiddelson who buys the horse from Albert’s father (and introduces him to his lover horse). At one point he is caught drawing pictures of the horses. “I want to draw a picture of the horse for the boy,” he says in a oddly excited manner. This line reading perhaps drew the loudest laugh from myself personally, though the rest of the audience seem to find it less hilariously creepy.

When the horses are captured by the Germans toward the beginning of the film, the soldiers hand them over to two young brothers (the older of which is played by David Kross of ‘The Reader’ fame). The relationship between the brothers is perhaps the most oddly homoerotic element of the entire film. They are intensely touchy, and the older brother’s protection of his younger brother is presented in an excessive, campy manner.  When the army threatens to separate the two brothers, the older one risks both their lives to keep them together.  “We must stay together,” he announces like something out of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.

And in one of the two or three mentions of women in the entire film, the younger brother asks the older one what the women were like at an event they are reminiscing about from before the war.

“Not as a good as the food,” he responds.

One of only two female characters in all of “War Horse,” Joey and his lover’s next caregiver is a campy, over-the-top little French girl (who scorns at the idea that her bearish but effeminate grandfather might have bought her an ugly dress). She treats them like her gay BFFs, talking to them about her boy troubles and re-naming them after “two boys that fought over her heart.”

And though not technically his caregivers, there’s the two boys that save Joey (who at this point in the film has – spoiler alert again – lost his lover). In what is intended to be one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, a British solider and a German soldier wave white flags to solely go on the battlefield to free Joey from barb wire he’s become entangled in. As they work to unravel the horse, the conversation between the two of them gets exceedingly flirty, with the Brit asking the German if he misses “big strapping German girls” and then the German ending off the conversation by giving the Brit a set of pliers and saying, in reference to himself: “In memory of your handsome friend from Dusseldorf!”

Then of course there’s Albert (played by the dreamy Jeremy Irvine)…  Joey’s true love.  Albert is obsessed with Joey from the moment they meet at he beginning of the film. He cries and pleads with his father not to sell him to the British army, which I suppose is relatively reasonable.  But then four years later he’s gone to war – suggestively for the sole purpose of finding his horse – and all he can do is talk about the fucking horse. So much so that it seems the entire British army is well aware of Albert’s long lost love. (Please, please note: I don’t intend to be drawing a correlation between homosexuality and beastiality here, I assure you. Because Joey is so humanized, Albert’s relationship with him feels the same way).

“He’s writing a love letter to his horse,” one of the other soldiers quips when someone asks what Albert is doing.

The only moment in the film that suggests Albert has any interest in girls is toward the beginning, when he races Joey against another boy in his town, who is riding in a fancy car with a girl. The girl pays much attention to Albert, though in the end Joey can’t jump over a fence and thus Albert loses the race and her attention.

Years later, both Albert and the boy in the car are in the trenches together at war. Albert starts taking about the incident with the girl and the car..

“Who was that girl,” he asks.

“There was a girl?,” the other soldier responds, smiling.


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