Tuesday, January 31, 2012

War Horse

One of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture is the Stephen Spielberg film, War Horse.  While War Horse might be considered a “dark horse” nomination, after seeing the movie a few weeks ago I can understand its being elevated to Best Picture status.  Some people have called War Horse a tearjerker.  I call it a “heart-tugger.”   This story of a beautiful thoroughbred which was sold into the British Cavalry during World War I and the English boy who loved him is a story with which audiences empathize and engage. 

The movie works on many different levels.  The most obvious is the depiction of love and loyalty between a boy and his horse.  Secondly, it is a powerful message about peace.  War Horse also demonstrates how technological developments, which occurred quickly during the four years of war, changed the role of the cavalry, and more broadly, how wars are fought. 

War Horse is based on the children’s novel, War Horse, by  Michael Morpurgo, Children’s Laureate of Britain from 2003 to 2005.  Morpurgo is well-known in this country for The Wreck of the Zanzibar and Why the Whales Came.  His well-received memoir Singing for Mrs. Pettigrew was published in the United States in 2009.  War Horse was written for middle-grade audiences.  The explicitly violent scenes in the movie, such as the execution two deserters, some of the war scenes, and some of the cruelty to the horses, are only suggested in the book.  Consequently, the recommended audience for the movie is somewhat older than for the book.  Parents should consider the maturity and individual sensibilities of the child before allowing them to see War Horse.

War Horse has evolved through several different incarnations.  The book first was adapted into a stage play using life size puppets for the horses and with most of the war scenes projected through a gauze curtain, in combination with a cast of live actors.  It was staged in London then on the New York Broadway stage.  I have not seen the stage play, but from a description by a friend who saw the play in New York I speculate that the movie largely was based on the stage script.  A major difference is that the book is told from the perspective of the horse, much in the style of Black Beauty.  Telling the story from the third person opens up the possibilities considerably.   However, the movie is true to its source material in tone and message.  Don’t miss War Horse, the novel, or War Horse, the movie--Wilma Snyder. 

(War Horse by Michael Morpurgo; Scholastic, 2007; First published in Great Britain in 1982)

(Singing for Mrs. Pettigrew by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Peter Bailey; Candlewick, 2009)  

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