Today's blog post honours the Equestrian stages of the Olympics. My mother's been glued to the telly since yesterday morning...
Two years before my thirtieth birthday I had decided that I wanted to see a theatre production in London called War Horse. There had been an article on the national news and a documentary. I was very interested even without the publicity, but seeing the images of massive, life-sized horse puppets on stage really caught my imagination.
I'm not a horsey person. The few times as a child I was taken on a donkey ride, I always felt for the poor beast carrying me. But I do adore to see horses moving on their own. They are something wild and free, if you like the cliche. The ancient poetry I love equates horses with dangerous sexuality. Of course, this makes perfect sense if you feel a wife needs to be broken in the same way you might a horse. But I think it's more than that. Horses are other. They are alien in the same way that, say, a dolphin is. But in an accessible way that almost allows you a glimpse of another kind of life.
So, although not horsey, I do have a great love for the equine form. Puppetry, also, is something I admire. I feel much the same about animation. Creating a world with a set of tools which otherwise would be inanimate and cold. It's magic, and so it makes sense that people would try to catagorise it as something for children. Because the world can be cruel and stupid some times.
Finally, like many people my age going through the UK education system, I've been fed a steady diet of WWI since I was little. The first assembly I remember in secondary school was taken by Mr Wilson, who banged a wooden blackboard rubber on a desk next to the microphone every second for a minute and then said 'That's a little like what it was like being in a bombardment.' Good old Mr Wilson.
By the time I was fourteen I had a WWI poetry book complete with a photo of a dead (American I believe, but I can't remember the uniform off hand) soldier who, lying in the trench, had had any exposed flesh removed by rats. So a nice plump corpse with a completely skeletal head. I read Birdsong (how I hate that book), the Regeneration trilogy (*so* much better) and as much poetry as I possibly could and the result was top marks in those sections in both GCSE and A-Level.
So while many people feel a great distance between their life and the Great Wars of history, I feel closer to them than I do, say, the Beatles.
So then, War Horse is a play about the plight of horses (and a particular horse and his boy) during the First World War. Puppetry is used to bring both nature and the horror of human creation onto the stage. The stage itself is circular and set up so that it can rotate. Surrounding the stage are slashes of white like huge torn strips of paper. The backgrounds (pencil drawings making them look like pages from a sketchbook) are projected onto these. The main horse puppets (there are more than one) are handled by a team of puppeteers. They wear black and, through some kind of psychological magic of the brain, they dissapear into the background. No, that takes away from their work - it is their magic. They mirror the movements of the horse, provide the horse's voice, they become the anima of the horse...its aura...its soul.
The film is a live action piece using real horses (and not such a little CGI) to tell roughly the same story. However, there are some interesting alterations and additions to the narrative which were shocking to someone so wedded to the theatre production. However, familiarity and love are not souly to blame for my distaste. I believe they damage the story.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the film has no blood or torn limbs. There are no Saving Private Ryan flashes of gore. The skeletal face forever associated in my soul with WWI never stares, eyeless, into the audience. Of course, the theatre production never shows blood and gore either. That'd be pretty difficult. But using puppets they were able to provide us with horror by the bucket load. So for example, there is a kindly captain who rides our horsey hero. In the film his presumed death happens in cut away. It's an interesting shot, but because we have no solid evidence for his demise, it feels somewhat lacking emotionally. His death on stage, however, happens in slow motion agony, caught by a puppet shell. Now the puppet shell I wasn't 100% convinced by. But even so, it was better to see the men torn from their horses in the charge. We felt their death.
One of the most upsetting things I have ever seen was the horses pulling artilery on the stage. There was no way this could be done with real horses, or even CGI ones. The horrific, ghost grey skeletal wrecks pulling the gun carriage and dying on stage were so important to the story. You needed to see the real fate of these once fine beasts in order to understand the message of the narrative.
The eventual fate of both boy and horse are also both reduced and "enhanced". So, if I've convinced you to watch the stage version, or you care about watching the film, you must stop reading now.
The mad flight of Joey the horse through the WWI battlefield is a CGI flop. It loses a true sense of physics, and his eventual barbed-wire fate is far too over the top (to excuse the WWI pun). The stage version is relatively slow and confined and so the wrapping of wire around the puppet and the noise...oh the noise. The sheer truth. And a boy blinded by gas...well, that's nothing to do with puppetry. I was angry by how they handled that in the film. It diminished the suffering of soldiers. The reunion of horse and boy is a thing of blood, snot, tears and choking. Anything less destroys the ending.
Speaking of which, the weird extension to the ending didn't make the film any better. I felt they thought it needed that to show that everything would now be well. Other examples of defference to an audience who might want easy answers - the elevation of the father from town drunk to 'gimpy' (oh the horror of that script) war veteran was very annoying. It is an example of film narrative which cannot abide having less than positive people who aren't out and out villains. On the stage, he does the wrong thing, people pay for that and they move on. Such is life.
I think the horrors of war were pushed on the audience with the new (from the stage version - I should admit that I've not yet read the book) section involving the AWOL German children and their execution. This felt like an invented section to allow us to feel hatred for the German soldiers. Of course, we feel, the Brits would never do such a thing. I mean, we even saw them stopping a child from signing up to war, when the Germans let any old (or not so old) child join up. I really liked the inclusion in the stage play of the older German soldier who handles the horses. His section really felt equal to the rest of the narrative. It spoke of universals. In the film, he's a bumbler who is very quickly dragged away, never to be seen again.
Also, what was up with the 'I'm so ill but with absolutely no physical sign of it and might die at any time' girl? And the horse jumping over the tank?? Ugh, I should stop now. But I probably won't.
So, there were problems with the narrative and with the use of live action horses. What should they have done, presuming that they not just film the stage production (which I'd love to see, but which I'm also sure would lose a little something, with the audience not feeling the pounding of the horses on stage)? I believe that animation would have given them options. The story needs the use of abstract imagery in order to properly tell it. You need to be able to see people thrown from horses and dying without necessarily seeing them splintered and bloody. You need to be able to see horses mangled and dying. You need to limit the sheer scope of the front so that you can take in even a fraction of the true horror.
Also, you need the humour which was almost completely removed (I say almost - I really liked the conversation about a hat). Humour is life. No matter how awful a situation, people still find things to laugh at. Even if it's just my grammar.
And there's one more very important point. I know that the soundtrack of the film was praised, but I felt that the work John Tams put into the stage soundtrack was immense. The folk songs (and war songs) bought life to the people and the situation.
The stage production managed all the elements of the story and the truth about war in such a way that it was entirely accessible to everyone. Humour, music, horror, beauty, truth and hope. All the things that make up life perfectly balanced. A child could see it, the Queen did see it, anyone can understand and empathise and grow. The only ways I felt the film tried to make itself universal was to manage the blood and cursing. That feels at best inauthentic and, at worst, manipulative entirely for the ultimate return of box-office gains.
I really will stop now. The film's not necessarily a bad thing. People spoke about the tears they shed feeling forced. I didn't cry, but the times when I felt close were not because of the film, but because of the memories of the theatre production which, two years on, are still fresh and bright and living. And I suspect they always will be.