(This is a break from all the travel stuff. Spoilers for both the movie and the play versions of War Horse.)
War Horse, directed by Stephen Spielberg, came out last winter, and it took me seven months to re-watch the movie and finally give my well-informed evaluation.
The movie is based on the play of the same name by Nick Stafford, which is in turn based on a book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. Last summer I had the privilege of seeing War Horse the play in London, and it was a fascinating experience.
After seeing the movie, I found myself wondering which one was better. And after re-watching the movie I find myself thinking: The play is better. Way better. And here’s why:
War Horse starts with the birth of Joey the horse, and the main focus, in the fields of Devon, England in the 1910’s. The first issue I have with the movie: for some reason, the film doesn’t capture the scope of Devon. Now, you might be thinking, does the play capture it better? Well, yes. The production I saw in London had amazing set pieces, and the puppetry was masterful, and the music was amazing, and all of this combined in the beginning of the play to make you feel like you were in the fields of Devon, playing with sight and sound perfectly so that you could lose yourself in the world. The movie…not so much. For all that the camera focuses on Joey and his mother, there is a lot of sense of wonder lost. There are no panning shots of the fields of Devon, which are beautiful in their own way. The music is…not as good. We aren’t given time to savor anything before people come in.
Then comes Albert, a boy who loves his horse perhaps more than is strictly necessary. It’s a hard role to play, and Jeremy Irvine does it well in the movie. Still, the character in both the play and the film suffers from being a little too sentimental at times. Then again, War Horse is a sentimental story, a war story, but also a story about the love between a boy and his horse, so this is to be expected. You go in for the sentiment.
The beginning of the movie is a bit too long, when Albert has to teach Joey to plough the fields or risk losing him (and risk his family loosing their farm). I don’t remember how long the ploughing took in the play, but the play uses music as a sort of thread to carry the scenes through, making them flow, whereas the movie doesn’t use montage or music, but rather straight narrative. And after awhile it gets tedious to watch Joey learn to be a good horse. The play offered some moments of humor in these scenes when they paused to rest: more time was spent showing how Joey wouldn’t eat if Albert looked at him, or or how the two get comfortable with each other. The movie skips the humor.
The soldiers and World War I don’t even show up until nearly an hour into the movie, at which point a young soldier, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), takes Joey away, very nicely, and hopes to return. The movie does a great job with Nicholls, as does the play, and here is one of the few places where they are equal. In both we see that Nicholls is a caring man, that Joey is in good hands. In both Nicholls has a sketchbook, with which he takes the time to sketch Joey for Albert. The movie has a beautiful scene where the soldiers, prepared for their first charge, mount the horses in a field of wheat and begin their advance. And in both play and film, when (spoiler) Nicholls dies while riding Joey, we feel heartbroken, not only because of the loss of a good man, but because Joey is in German custody, and we begin to feel that everything is downhill from here.
And it is. The film starts taking many liberties with the play from the point of Nicholls’ death, and this is where I start to like the play more. In the play, the horses are taken care of by a German soldier named Friedrich, who doesn’t want to fight because he has a family back home, and is afraid. He considers running away. We learn a lot about him, and that while with him, Joey is in good hands, and for a bit of Joey’s story, Friedrich becomes the main focus. Friedrich shows us the opposite side of war: whereas the soldiers with Nicholls were innocent, looking forward to glory in the midst of fear, Friedrich knows what horrors await him and he would nearly rather kill himself than be killed fighting.
With Friedrich comes Karl, a German officer who becomes one of the antagonists of the play. He is quick to anger, quick to shoot, and slow to think, and when he is around Joey’s life is in danger, perhaps more so than when Joey was in battle. At any sign of weakness Karl will strike down a horse. When he was on stage, I was scared for the horses, because Karl is a volatile, unpredictable character.
The movie instead chooses to focus on two German brothers, who run away and end up getting shot for their troubles. Then, the horses Joey and Topthorn end up in the hands of a young French girl, Emilie, and her grandfather. Emilie is also in the play, though with her mother, as someone Friedrich comes across when he is with the horses. In the play, when Karl discovers the horses, Friedrich, and Emilie, there is a confrontation in which Emilie could very well have been shot. And Friedrich.
In the movie Emilie takes care of the horses, and learns to ride Joey, only for the Germans to show up and take Joey and Topthorn from her. At which point the horses have a lot of pulling guns to do. It is at this point we meet the movie’s Friedrich, but he is only a side character, someone who cares for the horses but has little else to give. And he disappears rather quickly.
In the movie, we are returned to Albert, who has joined the army. Here the play again proves to be better than the movie, because Albert’s story is more interspersed in the play, whereas in the movie Albert disappears for long periods of time and is nearly forgotten. But Albert returns, and after a bunch of trench scenes, so does Joey.
The trenches, in the movie and the play, are visually stunning, and the best scene from both is when Joey is trapped in the middle of no man’s land, and together an English soldier and a German soldier free him, and decide who gets the horse. The English end up getting Joey, in the end. But this scene evokes another side of the war: that though both sides are enemies, they could just as easily be friends (it’s a sentiment that occurs in the book “All Quiet On the Western Front”, also about WWI, which everyone should read). A beautiful moment.
And then Joey is returned to Albert after nearly being shot because of his injuries. (There is a lot of horse shooting that goes on. Horses and guns don’t mix.)
And this is also where the worst problem occurs.
The play ends with Albert and Joey reuniting, Albert still not home from war (though in a scene in the play text, he can come home with Joey, though in the version I saw, this is left out and assumed rather than shown).
The movie has the same scene, but doesn’t end there. Instead, for some reason, Joey is sent to be auctioned off even though everyone knows that Joey belongs to Albert. Emilie’s grandfather shows up at the auction, bidding for Joey because Emilie has died, and he’s upset, but then Joey goes back to Albert anyway. It makes the movie extend far past its welcome, because the reuniting the first time between Joey and Albert felt final enough, after everything else the story puts us through. We don’t need a second reunion scene to hit us over the head. Albert and Joey go through so much that by this point they hardly need to go through anything else. (Give them a break, Spielberg!)
Both the play and the movie take us through the stories of many characters as they are affected by Joey the horse, and both come full circle at the end, with Joey and Albert, both having grown from their experiences. The movie seems to feel that by giving each character short, but somewhat heartbreaking stories, we’ll feel for them more, and that by having Joey come back only to be nearly taken away again, we’ll be all the happier when they reunite. But with this goal the movie loses sight of emotions rather than gains them, and seems to forget about Albert, who is as much a main character as Joey is. The play does a better job, weaving Albert and Joey’s stories together, giving us more time to spend with the characters Joey meets along the way, and giving those characters more depth where it can.
And the puppetry of the play is beautiful. The play’s imagery, though on a stage, is well done enough to rival the film.
Obviously, the movie is cheaper to watch, and if you want a taste of War Horse I’d recommend it. It is good, in some parts, and if you haven’t seen the play, a lot of what I’ve criticized probably won’t be too much of a bother. But if you want a more emotional, deeper story, with some breathtaking visuals, see the stage production. You won’t regret it.