Sometimes the medium is the message. When I watched a Singapore screening of the play War Horse which had been performed in London at the National Theatre, I was underwhelmed by the plot and script but full of admiration for the puppetry that brought horses (and a hilarious goose) to life on the stage. Hats off to Handspring Puppet Company for an awesome performance and the engineering and practice that went into it.
War Horse story versions
Although its plot and characters are completely different, the obvious predecessor to War Horse is Anna Sewell’s classic children’s novel Black Beauty, published in 1877.
Like Black Beauty, the 1982 book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo tells the story from the perspective of the titular horse.
War Horse was informed by the author’s encounters with three village men in Devon who remembered the Great War, but was not based on a particular story of a particular boy and horse.
The stage play, adapted from the book in 2007, conveys the story through the lighting, through sketches projected onto a strip of “paper” above the stage, through the dialogue of the human characters, and through the movement of the large-as-life horse puppets.
The 2011 Spielberg movie War Horse, which uses real horses, follows the play in that it does not feature narration in the voice of the equine main character.
Thoughts on War Horse the stage play (no spoilers)
The set was minimalist and props were few. People held poles to represent fences. A plow dragging a pair of cape-like cloths along behind it seemed to turn up soil. A handful of actors carried a huge frame convincingly representing a tank. The lighting was warm and yellow and bright for farm, village, and happy scenes, and dark and blue and white for war scenes.
There was a singer whose voice supplied an exotic and emotional overtone, but the words of his song didn’t always seem to match the plot. One song spoke of meeting a girl, but the play is about the bond between a horse and his boy, which is strong, certainly, but not at all romantic.
There are two puppets that represent Joey the horse: one when the horse is a colt and one when the horse is fully grown (which an actor can actually sit on). However, the same adult actor plays the boy Albert as a boy or young teen and as a sixteen-year-old pretending to be nineteen. The actor behaves boyishly to represent the character, but I would have felt the character’s age and the passage of time more accurately if he had been played by someone younger, at least when the horse was a colt.
Joey the bay horse spends a lot of time with a black horse named Topthorn. I was never exactly sure what his name was just from hearing it pronounced.
The screening I attended was rated “PG-13”. I think they published a rating because War Horse is a children’s book about a boy and his horse and they had to ensure that the content of the dramatization did not come as a rude shock to parents. War is scary, and soldiers curse. Well, most soldiers do, but the only one in the play who curses says “effing” all over the place. I think he would have seemed cruder if he hadn’t cursed at all; using such an obviously sanitized curse made him seem tame.
Summary of War Horse the stage play (SPOILERS)
Joey the horse forms a bond with Albert, a farm boy. Joey is useless for a farming family, but was bought by Albert’s drunk father, who was trying to prove a point to his brother. Albert’s cousin tries to win the horse in another bet, but Albert wins by gently convincing Joey to pull a plow. Albert resents his father’s repeated drunken mistakes, but his practical and loving mother defends him: after all, he had kept the family farm going while his brother was off at war. Eager to turn a profit on the horse, however, Albert’s father sells Joey to army recruiters to be an officer’s horse without considering Albert’s feelings.
The overconfident officer who takes charge of Joey promises to take good care of him, but is killed in battle. It turns out that British rifles and swords aren’t much good against the enemy’s machine guns.
The officer’s sketchbook, which includes drawings of Albert and Joey, is posted to Albert, who doesn’t care about the bicycle his parents gave him for Christmas or the deaths of men from his village. Upon receiving the dead officer’s sketchbook, Albert runs away to join the war to find his horse. Before Albert and Joey can be reunited, however, we hear a lot of German and French, without subtitles, and a lot of anti-war sentiment.
In another attack, Joey and his horse friend Topthorn breach enemy lines, where they are captured by Germans with Albert’s cousin, who is needlessly killed with his own knife, a family heirloom. Subsequently, Joey’s German rider, an officer who misses his wife and daughter, decides that war pretty much stinks, and he doesn’t want the horses or himself killed by it. He befriends a French girl in the course of trying to get some water for Joey and Topthorn, and fakes his death by switching uniforms with the corpse of a member of the German medical staff. Luckily, Albert taught Joey to plow, so Joey has no problem pulling ambulance wagons. Following his example, Topthorn pulls too.
Unfortunately, Joey and Topthorn are subsequently made to replace a pair of skeletal horses pulling heavy guns. Still later, after Topthorn’s sudden death (apparently from exhaustion), the kind German officer is killed by a tank attack. Spooked and riderless, Joey bolts but soon finds himself tangled in barbed wire in the no-man’s land between the lines of trenches. One German and one Brit approach Joey under truce flags and flip a coin to decide who gets to claim him. After the Brit wins the coin toss, the two men shake hands agreeably and the Brit takes Joey to a vet.
Meanwhile, Albert has learned French and made a friend. He has been able to sustain his foolish hopes of being reunited with Joey until he sees a dying horse being mourned by the little French girl and puts it out of its misery. [Wikipedia’s summary of the play says Albert sees his cousin’s dagger in the dying horse, so he believes the dying horse is Joey. I just thought it was any old horse, and Albert broke down because he was tired of war and was sad to have to kill a tired, injured horse with his own hands.]
After a tear gas attack that temporarily blinds him, Albert winds up a stone’s throw away from where Joey, whose injury is deemed to be too serious to treat, is about to be shot. For some reason, Albert makes the whistling sound he had taught Joey, who of course responds, and the two are reunited. They both recuperate and return home. The end.
Thoughts on the plot and characters of War Horse the stage play
Rushed? Top-heavy? Forced? Yeah.
The first half of the play, in which we meet the family that bought Joey the colt, seemed better paced (and more emotionally meaningful) than the second half, in which Joey goes to war. The ending came much more suddenly than I was expecting, and seemed too coincidental and too tidy.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
The officer who first takes charge of Joey promises to take care of him, which seems reasonable, and is a theme echoed by several characters, but I think the officer also promises that he and the horse will definitely return soon, which is not reasonable at all. I really hate it when adults in kids’ stories make promises to kids when they have no idea whether they will be able to keep them or not, or when they think there’s a good chance they won’t. Nobody controls the future; nobody should pretend he can. Optimistic and false promises just make failure harder to bear and ruin credibility.
Like people, fiction shouldn’t make promises it can’t keep. When Albert’s father tried to make Joey wear a collar, Joey kicked him. After Albert made such a big deal to Joey that he should never kick anyone again, I expected some kind of callback. I thought that Joey would be praised for his gentle nature, or perhaps have to learn to kick people as part of his warhorse training, against his gentle nature, or maybe be mistreated and lose his gentle nature in the war. None of those things happened. As far as I remember, kicking wasn’t really spoken of again in any meaningful way.
Together forever or die trying!
Although joining a war to reclaim a pet horse may be exactly the kind of thing a besotted sixteen-year-old boy might do and is necessary for the plot, the character’s moping and poor decisions made him hard to like or relate to. He’s basically a stubborn idiot who doesn’t change or grow noticeably during the course of the story, which he magically survives.
Too much of that German guy.
As best I can recall, the plot of Black Beauty is very sequential. The horse has a series of owners, and he tells us about them. War Horse is more complicated because it follows two characters, Joey and Albert, who start out together, get separated, and reconnect. If War Horse is their story, then it would be best to avoid spending too much time focused on Joey’s other people. The German character’s arc felt like too long of a detour.
- The scene where Albert first names and feeds Joey is really sweet.
- The family dynamics in the village were well thought-out. The lecture Albert gets from his mother about his father felt relevant and real, as did the rivalry between Albert and his cousin, and Albert’s father and Albert’s uncle.
- The plowing sequence was tense and had a meaningful payoff not only when the bet was won but also when Joey is harnessed to a cart in the war, and thus exempted, if only temporarily, from risking his life as a cavalry mount.
- There was a goose on the farm that tried two or three times, unsuccessfully, to get into the door of Albert’s house. Hilarious.
- In one scene, a soldier who does not know French shares a few badly pronounced quasi-French phrases with the new recruits. Monolingual English speakers are so embarrassing!
- The skeletal horses pulling the guns were horrifying. I was expecting the puppet of Joey to start to look a little like them during the war part of the play.
- The scene in which Albert kills an anonymous, pitiful dying horse is heartbreaking.
The scene where an English-speaking German proposes a coin toss in no-man’s land is maybe the best scene of all.
- It encapsulates and expresses the anti-war message clearly but not obnoxiously: enemies who share some common values can (sometimes) find some common ground and negotiate.
- It is an emotional win tinged with sadness, because Joey is injured but is being valued and rescued by not one but two groups of awed soldiers.
- It’s multi-lingual: the German speaks a bit of English and teaches the Brit a few words in German.
- It’s humorous: before they agree to flip a coin, both soldiers try to claim the horse by offering to treat his injuries back at their own camps, which they point back to, self-interestedly, in opposite directions.
Best reason to see War Horse the stage play?
Forget 90% of what I said about the play. The strengths and failings of the script are all irrelevant. As I said at the outset, the puppets are the heart and soul of the show. The show is worth seeing if only because of them. There’s nothing like it!