(Photo by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP, for Dream Works II)
NEW YORK – Michael Morpurgo’s 1987 young adult novel "War Horse," which became the inspiration for the hit Broadway play, has finally found its way onto the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s lavish and epic retelling of Mr. Morpurgo’s endearing story of a young Englishman and his beloved tawny hunter colt Joey, which is deployed into World War I combat. Unlike the play, which uses life-size equestrian puppets, the film employs a convoy of real horses; Joey is played by 14 different equines.
Anyone who has seen Mr. Spielberg’s "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" or "E.T." knows that there is no film director more expert in taking what are basically children’s stories and turning them into entertainment for audiences of all ages. "War Horse" seemed like a natural project for him to transfer to the screen.
Though the story might bring to mind many other films that featured horses, like "National Velvet," "Black Beauty" and "Seabiscuit," Mr. Morpurgo’s tale stands alone in its originality. Set during the Great War, he chooses to zero in on the little-known fact that horses played a large part in battle. More than eight million horses died during the hostilities; England contributed a million horses, of which only 62,000 returned at the end of the war. After World War I, the role of the war horse was all but obliterated by the introduction of such innovations as barbed wire and automatic machine guns.
When the stage version of "War Horse" opened at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Playhouse last spring, I had reservations about the play. I had enormous admiration for the extraordinary South African Hand Puppet Company’s expertise in replicating the horses, but I felt that Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of the book was flat dramatically and its attempts at conveying the story’s pathos mainly resulted in bathos. As I wrote at the time (Transcript, June 2011), the audience felt otherwise; it was so emotionally overtaken by the teary saga of Joey and Albert (the young Englishman played by 21-year-old newcomer Jeremy Irvine) that I thought I would need a lifeboat to exit the theater. Despite my misgivings, the play "War Horse" has proven to be an immensely popular success, garnering Tony and Olivier awards. It is currently launching productions across the globe.
For the most part, Mr. Spielberg’s film remedies many of the play’s faults. He is also helped by two excellent screenwriters, Lee Hall of "Billy Elliott" fame and Richard Curtis, who was responsible for "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral."
The larger canvas of the movie screen gives the story a new grandeur and allows the characters –both human and equine – more room in which to come to life. The film’s opening shot is pure Spielberg: a glowing technicolor aerial view of the Devon countryside, circa 1914, all green fields, surrounded by miles of hilly, verdant landscape and topped by puffy white clouds that look like they were pasted to a welkin blue sky. As he did in "E.T.," Mr. Spielberg, from the get-go, creates a community feeling here that this will be a film that is all about children and family and land and animals. It’s an another-worldly kind of place where a boy like Albert, with his ne’er-do-well father (Peter Mullan) and loving mother (Emily Watson), can flourish, and an unruly horse like Joey can be tamed and turned into a mythic war hero.
Because the film follows Mr. Morpurgo’s story rather faithfully, "War Horse" tends to be episodic, and when Joey goes to war, leaving the too-young Albert behind, the middle of the film tends to meander and drag a bit. During these early war scenes, Joey’s only acting partner is his equine war buddy and rival, Topthorn, a black steed. Things get back on track when Albert joins the force.
No contemporary filmmaker shoots the wages of war better than Mr. Spielberg, and here he is again in top form. He also has the unique ability to always be able to integrate the individual within the confines of the larger drama of the film. There are scenes among soldiers and horses in the later sections of "War Horse" that add a stunning touch of humanity to an already emotion-packed story.
With "War Horse," Mr. Spielberg has re-created the classic boy/horse film of yore and has remade that old-fashioned genre into something fresh, touching and new for today’s audiences. One caution: The film, like the novel and the play, is still a story for a young adult audience; younger children would find the war scenes frightening and the film’s running time of two hours and 22 minutes too long.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.