Gretchen Haertsch reviews “War Horse” by Michael Morpurgo
I was fortunate to nab tickets to War Horse at the New London Theatre in the West End of London this spring when I traveled with a group of Arcadia University students [see my April 2010 blog]. The play is based on a 1982 children’s novel of the same name by English writer Michael Morpurgo. Along with human actors, the amazing play uses life-size puppets to represent horses, vividly recreating the fearsome battlefields of France during World War I.
So intrigued was I by the first act of the play, I couldn’t resist buying a copy of the novel – an English version with evocative illustrations by Francois Place. Within weeks, my daughter, her veterinarian-student boyfriend, and my sister, a long-time horse owner, had all devoured the book and pronounced it a winner, true to both the period and to equine sensibilities.
The play is due in New York this coming spring and the novel has become the basis for Steven Spielberg’s next big film (more about that later). The story of how this previously little-known novel, first published nearly 30 years ago, hit the big time is an intriguing one for any aspiring children’s writer.
As I’m sure Spielberg would be the first to say, everything starts with a good story, and Morpurgo’s novel hits the mark. The middle grade novel is told in first person fashion – a la Black Beauty – by the main character, Joey, a red-bay horse with a fine white cross down his nose and four perfectly matched white socks. It’s a war story, of course, but also a tale of friendship and loyalty between the horse and his thirteen-year-old master, Albert, who grows into young manhood by novel’s end.
Joey starts life as an auctioned farm horse, albeit with thoroughbred bloodlines, who as a colt is sold away from his mother to a bitter, alcoholic farmer trying to scratch a living from a poor farmstead in the Devon countryside. Lucky for him, Albert is a natural horseman and has learned to ignore his father’s counsel when it comes to most things, including horses. When his father sells Joey to the army at the outbreak of the Great War, Albert tries to join up but is turned away as too young. Chapter 4 concludes with a promise to Joey from Albert, but by novel’s end, Albert has learned not to promise what he can’t be sure of delivering. The ending may be too predictable and sappy for some, but not for this reader. Joey’s journey as a cavalry horse illustrates what the best historical fiction always does: intrigues with “story” but teaches the reader more about history then the best lesson plan.
Morpurgo’s inspiration for War Horse? In an article in the London Evening Standard, he explains it this way: “[a] chance conversation in the local pub nearly 30 years ago with an old soldier who had been to the First World War as a 17 year old ‘with ‘orses’…” A bit of digging, including at London’s Imperial War Museum and Morpurgo learned that eight million horses had died in the war, including a million from Britain. For those horses that survived, there was a final betrayal at the war’s close when the battle-weary equine war veterans were auctioned off in France, often to butchers. The horses were worth too little to transport home to England.
“In the writing of it,” says Morpurgo, “I knew I had to tell the story of the soldiers of both sides at the front, and of the families, and people in France and Belgium, whose villages and farms were turned into battlefields. My horse would witness it all, the pity and the futility and the huge senselessness, and the hope, too.”
Though it is a tear-jerker for sure, Morpurgo manages to make the happy ending just about believable, and never is the reader driven away by the violence or cruelty of Joey’s situation. Everywhere, Joey encounters kindness along with the inhumanities of that loathsome war. No wonder Spielberg sees the merits of the story in today’s world.
Morpurgo reports that the “book nearly won the Whitbread Prize but didn’t, and then languished, rarely read thereafter for 25 years but kept in print by kind publishers all this time.” Then, by chance, the mother of Tom Morris (a man of importance at London’s National Theatre) read the novel. She knew her son was looking for a story with an animal lead to showcase the work of Handspring Puppets, the South African puppeteers. Morpurgo heard the news that War Horse was being considered for such a production “out of the blue.” That was in 2005. Since its debut in London in 2007, the play has been a critical and commercial success. The production is slated to open in New York at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre on April 14, 2011.
In June, Steven Spielberg announced he will direct the film which is being produced by DreamWorks in association with Reliance and Disney. The London Evening Standard quoted him as saying, “Its heart and its message provide a story that can be felt in every country.”
British theatre actor Jeremy Irvine leads the cast as Albert. Additional casting includes: Oscar-nominated Emily Watson and David Thewlis (Albert’s parents), Peter Mullan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens, Nicolas Bro, David Kross, Leonard Carow, Rainer Bock, Robert Emma and Patrick Kennedy. Disney will release the film in August 2011.
For a video clip and ticket information on the London theatre production: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/warhorse
For more about books by Michael Morpurgo: