It’s never easy creating a movie from an enormously popular children’s novel. It’s just as difficult translating a critically acclaimed stage production for the big screen. Steven Spielberg thus had a double whammy to overcome when it came to his latest cinematic project, War Horse.
Twenty years ago, Michael Morpurgo’s novel was first published for the children’s market. Its tale of a young Devonshire lad and his ploughing horse, both of whom find themselves on the Western Front during WWI, was told through the viewpoint of the unfortunate horse and proved to be an instant success. The author collaborated with filmmakers at the time with a view to adapting it for the big screen, but to no avail.
Five years ago, Morpurgo’s novel was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. It seemed a risky proposition, given that the horses would be represented on stage as life-size puppets, each manoeuvred by three puppeteers. It turned out to be a dramatic triumph, taking both the West End and Broadway by storm. Among those to be dazzled by the stage production (apart from yours truly) were Hollywood producer Kathleen Kennedy and her favourite director, Steven Spielberg, the latter of whom confessed to have been in tears as the curtains came down.
It’s against this backdrop that War Horse comes to the big screen. Written by Richard Curtis (the producers obviously admired Blackadder Goes Forth), the screen story borrows from both the children’s book and the stage play. It begins on a small Devonshire farm where Peter Mullan, Emily Watson and their son, Jeremy Irvine, are trying to eke out a living and stay one step ahead of their landlord, David Thewlis. The situation isn’t helped by Mullan shelling out all of their rent money on a horse that is clearly unsuitable to the task of ploughing through stony soil. Before long, local events have been overtaken by the outbreak of WWI and the horse in question has been commandeered by the army for use on the battlefields of France. Soon, the lad himself signs up for active service and the movie adopts a twin track narrative as we follow both steed and young owner as their fates become inextricably bound amongst the blood and barbed wire of Flanders.
War Horse is a good movie but, given the emotive storyline and the man behind the camera, it really should have been a great movie. Yes, it looks fine (cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes a major nod towards John Ford via Victor Fleming) and the actors (including the great Niels Arestrup and our men Liam Cunningham, Pat Laffan and Gary Lydon) acquit themselves admirably, but it doesn’t quite have the emotional power of its source material. Meanwhile, the narrative arc is unlikely to command the attention of its target audience (check out the cert), particularly given the film’s lengthy running time. That said, the movie offers some memorable sequences, not least the battle scenes which are as visceral and kinetic as anything Spielberg delivered in the opening of Saving Private Ryan.