A War Horse of a Different Color

Posted: August 3, 2012 in Jennifer Epps
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A War Horse of a Different Color: Stage Vanquishes Screen

By Jennifer Epps

If anyone else has refused to watch Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of War Horse until they could attend the puppet version from Britain’s National Theatre, the fact that the Tony Award-winning theatrical hit has embarked on a 20-city tour of the U.S. may be welcome news. The equestrian extravaganza is currently strutting the stage in San Francisco, (while simultaneously continuing its long runs in London, New York, and Toronto) and has visits scheduled for Portland, Spokane, Dallas, Chicago, Des Moines, St. Louis, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, and more over the next 11 months – as well as tours of Britain and Australia in 2013. Fortunately, the tour kicked off with a run in Los Angeles, and I’ve kept my own vow by seeing War Horse live on stage first, then followed it with Spielberg’s movie on DVD. The contrast is striking and deep-seated.

Knowing that Spielberg has a tendency to, if not glamorize, at least fetishize, warriors and military heroism (i.e. his executive-produced series Band of Brothers, his opus Saving Private Ryan, most likely his upcoming Civil War ode Lincoln, and even a 40-min war film he made at age 14) it is hardly surprising that historian Jacques R. Pauwels wrote on Political Film Blog that Spielberg’s War Horse is “militarist” and fails to question the First World War. And it turns out I agree with Pauwels. But those who haven’t seen the National Theatre show that motivated the making of this movie epic of a horse and his boy ought to take note that the stage version is A Very Different Animal.

There’s the obvious difference that Spielberg and his producer Kathleen Kennedy relied on the usual animal wranglers and flesh-and-blood horses whereas the National Theatre hired South African-based Handspring Puppet Co. to bring jointed cane-sculptures to life, which they do remarkably realistically despite the puppets’ skeletal, see-through designs revealing the puppeteers inside. The film chose not to use animatronic puppets, CG animation, or other representational art to try to re-create the mystery and magic of the puppeteers; as it so happens, those qualities are scarce in it. At the same time, the horse on the silver screen is, ironically, less believable, even though he’s played by 14 real equine actors; it’s partly because the film is less sure it can manipulate the animal’s slightest response on cue and so leaves out much of the war horse’s characterization, and it’s partly because the screenplay calls on the horse to do more anthropomorphic things than his theatrical predecessor.

Differences in aesthetics, style, and content between the War Horse rivals quickly add up to major differences in theme as well. Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 30-year-old novel of the same name is a strong example of animal advocacy, not unlike the Anna Sewell classic Black Beauty, which helped to build the RSPCA when the novel was published in the 19th century (and has itself been repeatedly adapted for animation, film, and TV series). And this animal advocacy goes together with and aids the other important theme: War Horse on-stage is also a plangent anti-war fable, low on gore but high in often-symbolic shorthand for battlefield horror — a risky stance for a story that parents want to bring their kids to see. (For a long time, the show piles on the misery, probably pushing the audience as far as we can go in a general-audience entertainment before redemption rewards our patience.) Though I have not read Morpurgo’s novel, Stafford’s dramatization seems true to the author’s original purpose, as espoused in the play’s program notes. Morpurgo is quoted for wanting to “write a story of the first World War that wasn’t told from one side or the other.” He hit on the construct of a hoofed protagonist not as a staple of the genre (though he does generally write children’s fiction), but as the articulation of his theme. Morpurgo had speculated: “Wouldn’t it be an interesting notion to tell the story about the universal suffering in that war due to the 10 million who died on all sides – German, American, English, Scottish, French, Russians – telling it how it was, but through the eyes of a horse.”

(Battle scene as depicted on-stage with the Handspring Puppet Co. creations)

Though Spielberg saw the show, somehow he didn’t get the same program notes.

First of all, his film is not really a horse’s eye view. British screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis introduce the title character, Joey, literally through the eyes of the farm boy Albert (played by Jeremy Irvine), who watches his birth. By contrast, Joey’s puppet predecessor in the play trots nervously out alone towards the footlights at the play’s opening — we only meet 16-year-old Albert (Andrew Veenstra in the U.S. tour) a bit later; in other words, in the theater, we essentially see Albert through Joey’s eyes. On-stage, Joey is surrounded as a colt by jeering, hostile humans, hemming him in with long poles that double as fence rails, and he’s terrified – our sympathy is with him. Yet in the film, Joey has grown from helpless colt to strong stallion before he ever has to leave the verdant pastures of his foalhood. He is therefore much less vulnerable during his auction, and this allows the focus to slip off of him from an early point.

Though the play had some Jack London-style moments revealing the harshness of life for a domesticated animal, the film cuts out the whippings, mines for comedy in the plough-pulling test, omits the fight with a rival horse, and emphasizes throughout Joey’s courage and special nature. (Like many other fiction films about horses do.) In the play, we were urgently aware of Joey’s suffering and the extreme peril he faces when he goes to war; in the film, however, Hall (Billy Elliot scribe) and Curtis (known for comedic writing) keep most of that low-key until the harrowing climax. (At least they didn’t mess with the visceral effect of that.)

The screenwriters seem to use more dialogue than Stafford’s adaptation did, crafting numerous scenes beyond Joey’s earshot or understanding. In contrast, the stage production was more devoted to the visual than the verbal – an aspect that L.A. Weekly theater critic Steven Leigh Morris scorned in two different responses to the production.

But there’s nothing hierarchical about literary art over visual art; that’s why we have both libraries and galleries. The National Theater production had good reason to exploit the inherent fascination of the Handspring puppets and their deft manipulators. It also did very well to include black-and-white animated backgrounds in a jagged swath across the upstage scrim (we justify them, unconsciously, as drawings ripped from an officer’s sketchbook). The show’s excellent animation, designed by the late Peter Stenhouse of 59 Productions, morphs during the course of the play from representational rural landscapes (with clouds wafting gently by) to swirling, nightmarish, wartime abstractions – as befits an epoch that inspired new paradigms in art like Dada and Surrealism. This emphasis on the visual is also extremely appropriate for a horse’s tale because, if the autistic and renowned animal expert Temple Grandin is to be believed, animals think in images.

(Video montage of the animation used in War Horse stage show)

But when it’s Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s turn, they fill the frame with resplendent panoramas — carefully composed, luxuriantly lit. For the most part, Dreamworks’ War Horse is a series of inexplicably beautiful postcards. When the story slows down in the film (as it does teeth-grittingly often) for banal palaver between friends or family, the sun usually comes through a window and reflects off the dust motes. Even the muddied black spikes of No Man’s Land are bathed in a blue glow. It’s pretty hard to absorb the horrors of war when it’s so self-consciously pretty.

And whenever there’s an army around, Spielberg goes for epic, with rows on rows of troops and steeds. He never settles for 5 soldiers in a foxhole when he can have 50. Yet the stage production’s original directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, seem to have understood the advantages of their smaller space and scanter resources: when only a handful of bodies represent legions, the loneliness of war and the fragility of the individual come across.

One has to conclude that this was part of Elliott and Morris’ aim. In the play, the ‘Great War’ is senseless. No-one seems to know what it’s about (though the Brits blame it all on “the Kaiser,” just as Americans liked to single out Saddam Hussein), and naïve predictions are made that it will all be over in a few months. As the British ship takes the new recruits to the front, they sing a rousing martial chorus — only to be thrust into reality the moment they dock, when a ghost-like contingent of ashen-faced, maimed casualties hobbles across their path. (Some of these are puppets.) And this is only the beginning. From here on in there is nothing but barbaric, pointless confusion – very much as a horse might see the conflict.

Appropriately, Stafford’s playscript keeps the narrative simple. This is another of the L.A. Weekly’s criticisms, yet it allows for a consistent perspective that validates the horse’s point-of-view (without a literal adhesion to it). Who is the cannon going to shoot at? Doesn’t matter, dragging it uphill is agony for all involved. What’s the battlefield objective? Just the impossible task of staying out of the barbed wire. Whose side are the good guys on? Neither – and both.

There’s no quarrelling with the fact that the horses on-stage are innocent victims. With that as a starting point, it’s not too much of a jump to see the soldiers themselves – on both sides — as unwitting players, trapped in a war with no known purpose. Joey is the catalyst for this insight: he begins on the British side, then is taken by the Germans and co-opted to work for them. There’s symmetry between the characters in both armies. Both sides have cruel people and kind ones. Both risk, exploit, and are dependent upon horses. And both are just following orders, buffeted by forces beyond their power. At one point in the second act, even the icy, lethal German commander who abuses the horses cries out: “Damn this war!” (The open-mindedness impressed modern day Germany; the play is coming to Berlin next year.)

This absolutely central attribute of the story was somehow completely lost on the director of Schindler’s List. Whereas Spielberg presents the British officers as young, trim, handsome, and dignified, with perfect upright posture (and lacking any of the cavalier arrogance that was included in the play), he makes the German commanders surly, slouching, decadent, and unscrupulous. The Brits get decimated in an early battle through no fault of their own, while the Germans ransack civilians’ pantries, menace children, and puff on cigars – looking an awful lot like typical Nazi villains, though it’s several years too early. It is of course no rarity for Hollywood to make a war film along such lines, but it is a shame, seeing as how the production that had excited Spielberg and Kennedy to make the film in the first place eliminated that cliché, and carefully cultivated a moral equivalence between the two sides.

The other shame is how relentlessly uplifting Spielberg and Kennedy try to make the movie. (The co-existence of sentimentality and militarism in the same work are instructive; they do after all seem natural bedfellows, while honesty has to sleep on the floor.) In Dreamworks’ War Horse, class conflict is minimized, animal abuse is unseen, and the war isn’t too much of a bummer. Albert’s mother (Emily Watson) has the enduring strength of a PAX-TV movie mom, not deep-seated disappointment in her drunken husband. She even explains away his alcoholism in a big speech – that we’re supposed to take seriously. Moreover, Albert’s burning anger over being betrayed by his father (Peter Mullan) is curtailed in the film; though in the play, not only is the anger much bigger, the father and son never actually do reconcile.

Nevertheless, even more importantly, the parallel depiction of societal prejudices about war and peace is absent from the Hollywood take. In the play, the British villagers have made Albert’s father Ted ashamed his whole life because he didn’t fight in the Boer War. Their jibes of “coward” have actually turned him into one, and Ted hides in liquor, gambling, and bluster. This is paralleled in the second act when a German captain, fed-up with the brutality of the battlefield, deserts his command position and is likewise dubbed a coward. Yet we adore this gentle soul, he’s an oasis of compassion in a barren wasteland. We don’t look down on him for refusing to fight — it seems laudable, in fact; he’s devoted to the horses, and we want him to protect them. As a consequence, any audience members who had bought into the English villagers’ condemnation of Ted are now led to re-evaluate it.

The film does a hell of an about-face in this area. As Pauwels previously mentioned on Political Film Blog, it makes Ted a veteran. He didn’t stay home, he fought in the Boer War. He’s so brave, Albert’s mom attests, he isn’t even proud of his service. Not only that, but he won medals over there. He’s a war hero! This of course has an effect on Albert, who sees his own chance to prove himself in combat. (In the play, it’s obvious that Albert enlists only to search for his horse on the front, and his quixotic mission makes him a kind of absurdist Private Benjamin who’s out of touch with real conditions around him. But in the film, he’s a respectable soldier, and barely mentions his equine friend once he’s in uniform.)

Along with this difference comes the fact that the German deserter in the film is now a young man, his motivation the preservation of his underage brother. He hasn’t seen combat and been crushed by it as the character in the play had; he’s just an adolescent, and much easier to make allowances for. And without the parallel between the German and British ‘cowards’, we learn nothing about society from his act – we just get another instance of mean behavior by the German army when they catch him.

Most egregious of all, the screenplay completely blunts the edges of Albert’s own wartime experience. On the stage, dramatist Nick Stafford seems well aware that Albert’s belief he can locate Joey among millions of deployed British forces is ludicrous — though the TV miniseries Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (2000) wasn’t embarrassed to send Anne Shirley on the same trek to save her husband Gilbert Blythe.
Stafford lets Joey’s naïve optimism be what gives him strength. And that foolish hope provides an important character arc: by play’s end, WWI has defeated Albert. He no longer believes in any protective wartime bubble around horses or nature or children (the kind of nudges from a parallel reality that are interspersed through The Thin Red Line, and which pop up briefly in Apocalypse Now). This horse whisperer has seen too many dead horses. Albert is so demoralized by the climax, he leaves his gas mask off until it is almost too late, and is blinded. The nurses in the hospital decide they’d better watch over “that one” – he might be suicidal.

(War Horse movie still: British cavalry charge)

Yet the celluloid Albert exhibits no such despair. On the contrary, just before he is wounded in the gas attack (which Spielberg shows could not have been guarded against), he’s a very pro-active war hero, neutralizing German guns with a grenade and then bravely rushing into the enemy foxhole. Frankly, this is exactly the kind of embedded-with-the-troops, adrenalin-pumping action sequence we’ve seen so many times before – and which glorifies militarism for succeeding generations.

This Albert is never discouraged at all. And Spielberg doesn’t seem to want the audience to be, either. To make sure we fully appreciate the “miracle” at the end, Spielberg has it unfold in a Christmassy snowfall, and positions 100 soldiers or so in an awe-struck trance to watch as it happens. Soon, the soldiers are pitching in to help Albert out, this band of brothers.

When the ‘Great War’ finally ends, the men are piously told: “let us remember our brothers fallen in the field”. That speech is no substitute for the annihilation kept out of camera range to court the MPAA Ratings Board — the play has more frequent carnage, even if it is largely puppet death. But the speech, with its classical pro-war tropes, also works differently from the folksy ode at the end of the stage show. There, war-weary protagonists return home to a chorus singing that we should be “remembered for what we have done.” Precisely because the play avoids the battlefield heroics the movie assigns both Albert and Joey, the theater version seems to be saying that the noteworthy thing the boy and his horse have done is to survive. They, like the German captain who deserts, like the French farm-girl who clings to the horses despite her terror, are on the side of choked dandelions which stretch tentatively towards the sun out of scorched black earth. Or, as the recently-departed rebel intellectual Gore Vidal once said of John Lennon, they “represent life.” The conflict that underlies War Horse on-stage is not between nations, but between the forces of life and the forces of death.

L.A. Weekly critic Steven Leigh Morris alleged that the puppet War Horse is “theater that’s aching to be a movie”, though I think the movie that did emerge illustrates that the theatrical producers knew all along stage illusion would beat out Hollywood ‘realism’. The reviewer based his opinion not only on the play’s elaborate visual design but on the unabashed use of musical underscoring, begrudging the fact that all of these aspects won numerous awards. But I particularly liked the strident musical chords that blared when Joey strained to drag the enormous cannon up the muddy hillside, it made us feel what Joey felt – and in fact helped put the German soldiers in the same boat with him. (And if commanding sound or visual design cheapens the theatrical experience, then the American avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson has apparently wasted his entire career.)

Moreover, as an animal activist, I take heart when I see that works which engender empathy for non-human creatures are transcending the ghetto of ‘family entertainment’, There’s absolutely nothing fantastic about perceiving the complexity of animal cognition, nor childish about trying to protect animals. Yet stories about genuine animal concerns (i.e. not those in which they try to master kung-fu or tap-dancing) almost never attain cross-over audiences. The documentary March of the Penguins was one such rare break-through. Now, the international success of the War Horse stage show seems an even more encouraging sign, combining, as it does, animal rights with human rights –issues which are intertwined in the real world, as well. Spielberg did not get that memo either, apparently, and instead fashioned a straight-up family film that features many of the worst traits of the category. But fortunately he does not seem to have pre-empted the theatrical business of this phenomenon. So audiences in countries which are still very much at war (i.e. the U.S., Britain) still have the opportunity to receive the show’s much-needed and potent anti-war message.

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  1. [...] had expected Lincoln  to glorify militarism more, especially considering Spielberg’s recent foray into  the First World War. I think he’s consciously trying not to do that: the movie’s [...]

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