by Rob Stimpson
British cinema audiences are on red alert; Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of War Horse is nearly upon us and, rather embarrassingly, this means it’s nearly time to cry in a cinema again while watching a film about an animal. Even the trailer about this ‘miraculous kind of an’ ‘orse’ stirs up the emotions, let alone the film itself. There is just something about animals in films that causes emotional meltdowns in audiences everywhere, whether they are set in the heroic battlefields of the First World War, or in some small backwater town anywhere in the world. The films themselves can at times be forgettable, but they always contain some kind of heart-wrenching scene towards the end that involves a cherished animal dying, nearly dying but not quite, or some kind of tear stained reunion with a grinning owner that always reverts us back to a child like state of balling our eyes out for reasons we can’t quite grasp. It’s nothing to get embarrassed about, it just means we have a heart, right?
By way of preparation for War Horse, then, here are the Top Five Animal Tearjerkers. Steady those nerves; and beware, massive spoilers are contained below.
5. King Kong (1933)
We only have ourselves to blame for this one! While not reaching the greatest heights on the tearjerker scale, King Kong still puts the audience in the awkward position of wanting the giant ape-man-gorilla-beast-thing to actually conquer his human oppressors. They could have just left him on the island, couldn’t they? But no, they brought him back to New York to show everyone, and then blasted him off of the Empire State Building when he went on a rampage. Of course, Kong was a giant gorilla which isn’t exactly fluffy and cuddly, but still, he’s an animal with fur, so we love him; and he didn’t even want to come here, we dragged him here in chains; and then we killed him. Nice one, guys. As much a damning critique of the human condition as anything else, it is in the aforementioned frantic finale that King Kong pulls at the heartstrings, when of all things he falls in love with a human female, which ultimately helps leads to his bloody demise. We’ve all been there, I guess.
4. Marley and Me (2008)
I did say they weren’t all classic films didn’t I? While this film is a rather turgid affair with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston on teeth rotting form, the final half an hour will transform anyone who has ever owned a dog, known someone who has owned a dog, or anyone who has just seen a dog on the TV, into a bigger blubbering wreck than the audience at a One Direction concert. As Marley ages and starts to struggle through his walkies, and when his body starts to fail him, you might well up a bit, but when the family pack him into the car for his final trip to the vet and say their goodbyes you will be dabbing heroically at your sweating eyes. But any hope of staying strong and surviving with dry cheeks are obliterated when Marley is lying on the vets table and Owen Wilson whispers his farewells. Why do dogs do this to us? The full blown burial scene shortly after is a bit weird, though, and allows you enough time to recover some stoicism before the end credits.
3. Watership Down (1978)
I could just leave this one at ‘Bright Eyes’, but I won’t. The least child-like of all childhood films, Watership Down is forced upon children as some kind of horrific rite of passage from the world of whimsical fantasy and nursery tales into the grim realm of reality; but because the story is based on talking rabbits with big floppy ears and fluffy tails it is considered fine. The part about a small herd of rabbits struggling their way to safer, more peaceful life while having to conquer humans, dogs, cats, birds and even other rabbits wanting them dead, and at times succeeding, is conveniently left out. It is perhaps the noble, dignified death of Hazel in the closing stages that cracks even the toughest nuts, though. Having successfully relocated most of his herd to safety, Hazel simply lays down, peaceful and content, knowing that he has completed his task, and lets his spirit scamper off into the ether with the Black Rabbit of Inle. All of that and I didn’t even mention Bigwig getting caught in a snare!
2. Eight Below (2006)
It’s Disney, it’s schmaltzy, and yes, it has dogs in it, but this film will still leave you crying and smiling in the most fantastically idiotic fashion you can imagine. From the moment Paul Walker’s canine girlfriend Mia crawls out over the ice to save the brilliantly named Davis McClaren from drowning and/or freezing in the Antarctic wastes, the audience falls in love with these eight huskies. Naturally, though, when the expedition team needs to make a hasty exit away from their snow storm ravaged base, the dogs are left behind, chained up outside so that another team can pick them up later. When these teams get cancelled, the dogs are left to fend for themselves, and while their adventures are both entertaining and sad to watch, it is the reunion of humans and dogs in the finale, running towards each other with giddy joy, that really melts the ice around your heart.
1. Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)
Based on a true story of a loyal dog in Japan, this somewhat overlooked film is incredibly moving. And yes, it’s another dog film, sorry. The story doesn’t follow the classic formula of ‘man adopting puppy, living through the highs and lows before seeing the poor thing die.’ Oh no. This time it’s the owner, Richard Gere, who dies suddenly, leaving the poor young pooch Hachi minus one master. While the rest of the family move on with their lives, Hachi spends the rest of his waiting outside the local train station in the same spot where his beloved owner used to meet him after his days at work; waiting and waiting for a man who will never return. It is the reunion of Gere’s widow (Joan Allen) and an aged and bedraggled Hachi, still waiting outside the station ten years later, that might be your downfall. If you have a dog, you will hug it after this film.
I guess screenwriters don’t really like cats do they? Hopefully this recap of tearjerkers past has adequately prepared you for War Horse; but if it hasn’t, take Benedict Cumberbatch’s advice from the trailer itself: ‘Be brave! Be brave! Be brave!’ Good luck!