“I haven’t seen it, but I hear the puppets are great.”
“They sure are.”
– A semi-fictional encounter, circa 2007
Although it is credited as being based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, the true inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is most likely the award-winning, record-breaking stage play of the same name. Taking its cues from Morpurgo’s story of a thoroughbred from Devon separated from his young owner and taken to fight in Europe, the production (originally staged at the National Theatre) pulled off a tremendous feat of telling an enormous story on stage using full-size horse puppets to truly remarkable effect. Arguably, with the lead character of the story being Joey the horse, the ability of the puppeteers to instil him with personality and an inner-life play a crucial role in bringing the story to life. So, naturally, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation would live or die on the strength of the horses.
Screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Notting Hill, Love Actually) have chosen to focus on the humans that Joey encounters on his odyssey through war-torn Europe. From British Officers to German soldiers and French peasants, we are shown the effects of war through different eyes. No particular side are cast as villains – although the mistreatment of horses forced to pull the Kaiser’s artillery is truly monstrous. Instead, we see their common humanity expressed through their connection with one special horse. Is there perhaps something primal in that bond between man and steed? Since time immemorial, people have lived, worked and died alongside their equine friends. After the dog, is there any other animals that we feel greater love toward?
Filling the roles of the human characters is perhaps the finest British cast ever assembled for a picture that doesn’t involve wizards: Peter Mullan and Emily Watson play the parents the young hero while David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tony Kebbell, Eddie Marsan and Liam Cunningham all drop in to play supporting roles. A number of European character actors (including A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup) also make appearances, though one can’t help but be reminded of ‘Allo ‘Allo when French characters start speaking to each other in heavily-accented English.
The scenes that take place in the Battle of the Somme, though quite brief, are shot with the tremendous clarity that made the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan such an unforgettable sequence. In a time when violently shaky and handheld shots have become de rigueur for all war movies, Spielberg has retained his genius for filming compelling and cohesive action scenes.
There is a lot of beauty and accomplishment to be found in the film of War Horse: Janusz Kaminski’s beautiful cinematography, the lush (though over-used) Vaughn Williams-referencing score from movie maestro John Williams and, of course, the excellent casting. The only downside is -however strange it may sound- that the horse characters weren’t as fleshed out as they needed to be. As the story of a remarkable horse who defies all odds to return home, it felt like we really needed more emphasis on the animal in order for us to connect with the story. The stage show got this just right with immaculately judged performances by the puppeteers. But on screen, this thoroughbred just under performs ever-so-slightly.