Friday, July 20, 2012

War Horse: Horsing Around on Stage and Screen

I admit I never saw Steven Spielberg’s film version of War Horse. I feel I’ve seen it, though, because of the countless times I watched that beautiful horse gallop across the screen in the widely circulated trailer. I originally figured this would be the film to beat in last year’s Oscar race, because the epic combination of Spielberg, war, and horses (not to mention Janusz Kaminski cinematography and a John Williams score) seemed like a shoe-in. In fact, War Horse did win some critical plaudits, as well as a best picture nomination in the expanded ten-film field. But many accused it of sentimentality, and -– most importantly –- audiences didn’t seem all that interested.

I bring this up now because I’ve just seen the play that inspired Spielberg. Both play and film evolved from a thirty-year-old British children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, who told the story of World War I from the point of view of a country horse who’s conscripted into the British cavalry to bear soldiers into battle. It’s a novel that plunges an innocent, spirited animal into a series of man-made horrors and allows him to emerge triumphant, returning to the care of the farm lad who loves him. The National Theatre of Britain discovered the book, and surprised the author by taking it on as a stage project. Obviously a theatre company can’t do what the Spielberg film did: find a well-trained horse to act as the star of the show. Instead the National Theatre did something I consider far more imaginative: they joined forces with an astonishing group from South Africa, Handspring Puppet Company, which devised larger-than-life horse puppets. On stage, each of the play’s several equine characters is manipulated by three actors in such a way that the metal and fabric “horses” capture the essence of horsey behavior (the toss of the head, the flick of the tail, the proud gait), while also conveying each horse’s unique personality.

This is hardly a kiddie show. The play is serious –- even, at times, tragic –- and when the central horse, Joey, is tangled in barbed wire in no man’s land it’s essential that the audience believe fully in his plight. This we do, because long before this climactic scene we’ve come to accept Joey as a flesh-and-blood creature, one capable of feeling torment and pain. War Horse reminded me of the long history of puppetry the world over. I’ve seen puppet characters on the Japanese bunraku stage (manipulated by handlers who wear black and fade into the background as the illusion takes hold) display an astonishing range of human emotions. Many of Japan’s classical tragedies – involving love suicides and other desperate acts – were originally written for the puppet stage. More recently, when Disney’s The Lion King was adapted for Broadway, the brilliant Julie Taymor introduced huge puppets (of elephants, giraffes, and such) as a way to establish for the audience the animal kingdom first introduced in the animated film.

Of course it’s in the nature of movies to conceal their magic, rather than playing out magic tricks in full view of the audience as stage performers do. Whatever is happening on screen –- like that horse caught in barbed wire -- it’s intended to look real. There’s less need for the movie audience to suspend disbelief, as playgoers do when asked to accept a metal-and-human gizmo as a horse. Just maybe, Spielberg’s film didn’t catch fire because its visuals were too intensely realistic to support a fable-like story. Maybe this horse tale required the kind of step back from reality that only human imagination can supply.

Here's a glimpse of War Horse on stage:


  1. I'm not all that interested in the movie - but the stage show sounds amazing. It's funny that at the same time cinema is battling to perfect a digital character that works fully onscreen - theater has continued to develop their own form of digital character - with state of the art puppetry bringing incredible characters to life. Thanks for the look behind the curtain Ms. Gray.

  2. The stage was my first love, Mr. Craig. The difference between plays and movies continues to fascinate me.