Monday, November 17, 2014

War Horse: Book, Show, Movie

The book.
War Horse is a literary, film and theatrical experience that no one should miss. War Horse began as a children’s novel by award-winning author Michael Morpurgo. It was first published in Great Britain in 1982, set before and during the First World War. This powerful story recounts the experiences of Joey, a horse purchased by the Army for service in World War I France and the attempts of young Albert, his previous owner, to bring him safely home. Caught in enemy crossfire, Joey ends up serving on both sides during the war before landing in No Man’s Land, while Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home. This remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship formed the basis of an award winning play seen by over 5 million people worldwide since its opening at the National Theatre in 2007.  During its successful run on Broadway, it received five Tony Awards, plus a special Tony Award for Handspring Puppet Company. It is also an acclaimed Spielberg film (2011). Filmed in Devon, UK, the film is beautifully done, with rich, saturated colours.

The movie.
But this is more than just the story of a horse during a war. The tale highlights the suffering of the First World War where a million horses died on the British side. In his research, Morpurgo extrapolated an overall figure of 10 million horse deaths on all sides. Of the million horses that were sent abroad from the U.K., only 62,000 returned, the rest dying in the war or slaughtered in France for meat. The loyalty, beauty, courage and ultimate deaths of these amazing creatures during the carnage of World War 1 has been captured in all three forms, although I must say that, for me, seeing War Horse on stage was the ultimate experience.

War Horse stage show features ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing and galloping horses to life on stage with incredible nuances particular to each animal. Amazing as it seems, the ability of the puppeteers to blend with their animal puppets and become one with them, and the ability of an audience to suspend their disbelief in a theatrical performance make War Horse an emotional and moving experience. From the magnificence of horses Joey and Topthorn, to the cantankerous goose (who almost stole every scene in which it appeared), to the horrific carnage of the battlefield economically but effectively created with lighting and sound, this is an experience that has one crying at the deaths of the horses killed on the field, tense with expectation of Joey’s survival, and deeply saddened that the war to end all wars did not, in fact, end them.

The show.

A real ‘war horse’ was Warrior, the warhorse of General Jack Seely that served with him on the Western Front throughout the war, from 1914 to 1918. Warrior and Seely are depicted in a painting by Alfred Munnings in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Seely wrote a biography of his horse, My Horse Warrior, published in 1934. Warrior was honoured on 2 September 2014 with the Dickin Medal (awarded to animals showing courage and devotion to duty) in a posthumous honorary award to commemorate the contributions of all animals during the First World War. The medal, the 66th awarded, was presented to Seely’s grandson, Brough Scott, a horse racing broadcaster. Known as 'the horse the Germans couldn't kill,' Warrior survived the war, dying in 1941 at the age of 33. An obituary was printed in The Times, and Warrior features in a statue of Seely at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight.

Alfred Munnings' painting

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