Something that confused me after my first viewing of War Horse is the fate of Emilie, the young girl who finds the stray Joey on her grandfather’s farm in France.
At the end of the film, Grandfather appears at a horse auction hoping to buy Joey, and suggests that Emilie may have been killed. When asked what has happened to his grand-daughter, Grandfather replies:
“The war has taken everything from everyone. He [Joey] is all that I have left of her.”
Later, when handing Joey over to Albert, he says:
“He belongs to you. That is, of course, what my little girl would have wanted. And she was the boss.”
At the scene’s end, however, Grandfather refers to Emile in the present tense when asked what her name was:
“Emilie. Her name is Emilie.”
So what gives? Should Emilie be referred to in the past or present tense? Is she dead or alive? The obvious answer is that she’s dead and Grandfather refers to her in the present tense as a way of keeping her memory alive.
However, it’s also possible that Emile is still around and that her ‘death’ is metaphorical rather than literal. In other words, the young, vivacious girl Grandfather once knew has been replaced by someone who has been corrupted by the violence of war.
Grandfather’s purchase of Joey is an attempt to restore some hope in the girl’s life and bring the Emilie he knew back. His decision to hand Joey back to Albert therefore becomes even more poignant than it had initially been. War really has taken everything from everyone - and there’s no way to get it back.