SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see the stage or film version of War Horse, you may choose not to read this. While I don’t believe I’m giving away anything that would spoil the story for you, if you hate knowing absolutely anything about a story before you experience it, click elsewhere.
I had the opportunity to see the Broadway play version of War Horse the night before I saw Stephen Spielberg’s movie version of the novel by Michael Morpurgo. The book was written in an effort to explore war through the eyes of the horses that were forced to take part. It’s a period piece set during World War I, the first war to use machine guns and tanks, and it’s a very emotional story that I, surprisingly, found more effective on stage than on film.
This is a very stylized play that uses puppets for horses with three puppeteers standing alongside each horse at all times, manipulating their movements. So, you’d think the realism of film would affect me more deeply, right? How can puppets compare to flesh and blood horses? Yet, the creations of The Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa are so amazing that audiences have found it remarkably easy to forget they’re watching puppets.
The stage version of War Horse also includes an unusual screen background on which various images are projected during the play – unusual because it’s wide but narrow from top to bottom and also asymmetrical, as if it’s a slice of paper ripped out of a sketch pad. The projected images aren’t your average archival scenes from the period either. They’re often images that look exactly like they were drawn in that sketch pad, or they’re projections of large blood drops that splatter one by one onto the screen until it turns almost solid red.
So, while I can’t say exactly why a play with puppets moved me more than a film with real horses, I’ll venture a theory. I think perhaps since we’ve been inundated with so many films depicting war, it’s easy to become desensitized to some degree out of emotional protection. Seeing the blood drop by drop on the screen behind the actors made the truth of war more real for me than any hyper-authentic film scene, and the stylized nature of the play heightened the story beyond “mere” realism. This is a paradox, but it worked.
Background mood music is also used during the play – a technique used in film but not generally on stage. I was surprised to discover that this was very effective and could take the place of dialogue in some short sections.
As for the puppets, the movement achieved is truly spectacular. The emotions created through nothing more than this movement were so effective that the two horse puppets each received a curtain call … after the puppeteer teams for each horse ran on stage without their puppets to receive slightly softer cheers.
There are other inspired elements in the stage production. A large part of the stage floor becomes a movable circle that turns slowly to create the illusion of horses covering ground as they gallop. Let’s just say I’ve never seen anything like this production on a stage, and I flinched just as much when something painful happened to a horse puppet as I did while watching the real horses in the film. From the audible responses of the audience members around me, I wasn’t the only one who reacted this way. (The play was adapted by Nick Stafford from the book, directed by Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten, and originated at the National Theatre of Great Britain.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting down the film. It’s well made, and I appreciate the fact that few name actors are used, allowing the horses to be the “stars” in a way. And there is one section of the film that surpasses the play for me from an emotional perspective. This is the scene where the horse runs alone through the war zone. I won’t say anything more in an effort not to spoil it for those who haven’t yet seen it, but the horror of what appears to be a real horse trotting through a battleground is stunning, especially when contrasted with the beauty of the animal itself. There is simply no way to create anything like that in a live theater, not even with a stage that turns.
I applaud writer Morpurgo for finally paying tribute to the animals sacrificed in war. The story is heart-wrenching and beautiful, whichever version you see. Apparently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) signed off on the film version of War Horse, and the most harrowing scenes were computer-generated. Still, if you find it excruciating to watch animals depicted in painful situations, you’re better off skipping this one – both on stage and on screen – despite the story’s predictably heartwarming ending.