I love horse stories. There wasn’t a Marguerite Henry book in the 50’s that I did not read many, many times over. King of the Wind was my favorite, closely followed by Misty of Chincoteaque. Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse was originally published in the UK in the 80’s and I did not hear of it until it was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, featuring the Handspring Puppet Company as the horses. And now adapted to a movie from Steven Spielberg. I have now read the book and seen both productions.
I loved War Horse the movie. It is memorable and remarkable. Young people need to learn about war and death and horror and we adults need to be reminded of it. The most popular vehicle for those images today is video games – what do you imagine our young people are learning from those? This story of a horse, trained, loved and lost by a boy who becomes a soldier and the horse that also becomes a soldier in WWI, teaches all of us. The book is better than the movie, though both are schmaltzy and predictable. Most great stories are. I plan to discuss it with my great nieces and nephews - the war, the cruelty to animals, to humans and how it continues to this day. Well done, Spielberg. You have made a great vehicle for learning.
But the play – with the huge puppet-horses, attacked all senses. There was no question that the puppets were real horses – they were “more real” that horses, jerking at tufts of grass, flicking their tails, snorting, and galloping right off the stage. The production was alive with puppeteers, never concealed, but visibly manipulating their puppets until you realized there were not two entities involved, but one – the goose, the bird. And the horses with six and sometimes eight puppeteers who became the one horse.
The play is more horrifying than the movie – when the animal dies, the puppeteers die as well. And, to fit the abbreviated stage length, large bits of the story are left behind. But these were parts that more humanized War Horse, and we are left with a more visceral taste of the horrors of war.
Other memorable books about The Great War came rushing to mind as I reflected on this trio:
Johnny Got His Gun – a didactic, horrifying novel by anti-war activist and black-listed author Dalton Trumbo
Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road – a trilogy by Pat Barker about the psychological effects of war. The Ghost Road won the Booker in ’95.
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks haunting novel about sappers – the men, mostly British coal miners, who tunneled under the trenches in WWI.
Goodbye To All That – Robert Graves autobiographical recollections of WWI, some of which is reflected in the Pat Barker trilogy.