Where were you when you first heard about 12 Strong? I remember my first time: It was opening weekend for Thor: Ragnarok, and a trailer for your run-of-the-mill, contemporary war movie with Chris Hemsworth began playing. I didn’t care; I’d seen this stuff before.
But then they showed Thor on horseback holding a machine gun with one hand.
And then the booming trailer voice said the full name of the movie: 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers. I gasped audibly. Horse ... soldiers? Are the soldiers themselves the horse soldiers—simply, soldiers on horses—or are these here horses considered actual soldiers in the fight against Al Qaeda?
I had these questions—and honestly, about 400 more—on my mind for months until, mercifully, 12 Strong opened Friday. I ran to the nearest cinema; I asked for a ticket to the “Horse Soldier movie.” Nobody corrected me.
Perhaps that’s because it does a better job encapsulating what this movie is about than “12 Strong.” The movie is about a group of unsung heroes—the first Americans who fought back against Al Qaeda following the September 11 terrorist attacks—who used the unorthodox method of riding horseback in battle. These men deserved a movie that highlighted their bravery (and resourcefulness).
But this was also a movie that demanded number-crunching of all things Horse and Soldier; 12 Strong cannot be grasped without a statistical knowledge of its parts. This is the Super Bowl, and I’m the editor-in-chief of Equine Football Focus. Here are the most important stats about the Horse Soldier movie, horse-related or otherwise. All of this is true, and backed by science and maths.
Number of people who denigrate the horses: Four, including Michael Shannon and Michael Peña.
Percentage of those people who then came to love horses: 75 percent. Michael Shannon never came to like the horses, though for good reason: The first and only time he rode a horse, it separated a disk in his back and he basically rolled around in pain the rest of the movie. Now, you’d hope that a person would address that traumatic event with nuance and understand that his old-ass back is more to blame than the majestic animal who’s been dragged into a conflict he doesn’t care about, but what can I say? Humans are simple creatures.
Number of horse-related lines that made me laugh: Three. I’ll share them with you:
- “The horses know these are American bombs.” (Wait, they do?!)
- “We’re fighting with horse men against tanks.”
- “I’m sick of that fucking horse.”
Number of Michael Shannon scowls: Infinity. Let me put it this way: Someone in 12 Strong described him as having “killer eyes,” and a truer thing has never been said.
Number of times someone says “9/11”: Zero.
Number of times someone says “Bush Did 9/11”: Zero. (This was surprising.)
Number of times you can feel the IRL love between husband and wife Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky: Three. I don’t know this for sure, but I assume Hemsworth used his movie-star leverage to get his IRL wife cast as his on-screen wife so they could hang out more. But here’s the thing: Pataky is barely in the movie. There’s no way they shared a lot of days on set together. However, when they did share the screen, it was adorable.
Number of times a woman says she understood what she signed up for when she married a soldier: Three. And yes, one of them was Pataky.
Number of Rob Riggle lines: A lot—I lost count.
Number of Rob Riggle lines that are exclamatory: Two. He drops only two F-bombs, which might be a record low for Rob Riggle in any movie ever.
Number of negotiations with an Afghan shepherd to buy and eat a goat: One. This really happens, and is the only time Michael Peña gets to use his natural charisma. I could have used two to three more goat negotiations.
Number of times Afghan general Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) talks shit to Al Qaeda via walkie-talkie: Four. Again, this really happens, and is honestly the best part of the movie. He keeps an open line with the opposition for the sole purpose of shit-talking. The threats basically amount to, “I’ve got the Americans with me, and we’re going to bomb your ass.” FYI: This guy is now the real-life vice president of Afghanistan.
Number of horses who died: It wasn’t zero, so too many for my count. #JusticeForHorseSoldiers.
Number of times I did a double-take seeing William Fichtner as a bald U.S. general:
Three. It’s unnerving.
Most importantly: What percentage of the Horse Soldier movie is Horse, and what percent is Soldier? Unfortunately, those looking for the next great movie in the Horse pantheon (War Horse, Hidalgo, end of list) will come out disappointed. At most, 12 Strong is about 15 percent Horse to about 85 percent Soldier, as the film incorrectly assumes we’d be more invested in the human conflict than the collection of horses that are somehow unafraid of drone strikes and gallop straight into gunfire. We didn’t even get to know the name of a single horse. There was no horse character development.
That’s sad, because I wanted to know everything about this badass fella.
Number of people who left the theater early: Two. It is unclear if this was because they didn’t like the lack of Horses in 12 Strong, or if they were just bored with the movie. (And I know they weren’t just going to the bathroom; no I didn’t follow them—I just saw them leave with jackets and backpacks in hand. C’mon, grow up.)
Percentage of people polled outside the theater who wanted to see more horses: 100 percent.
The true story of the Horse Soldiers deserves to be honored, but this wasn’t the way to show it. 12 Strong doesn’t do nearly enough legwork to make any of the soldiers more than one-dimensional archetypes, and what’s worse, the horses themselves are just narrative window dressing. I’m not sure how this got lost in development, but Cooler Horses = Cooler Movie. That’s basic math.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch Seabiscuit.