War Horse: The journey from page to screen

It all started with novelist and children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who always wanted to write a tale set against the Great War.

World War I is perhaps the least talked-about conflict of the 20th century, leaving in its wake a world forever changed and a generation tasked to rebuild from ashes.

For a long time, Morpurgo had looked for an original way to write about the war. But it wasn’t until he met an aged veteran in a bar that he found his way in–inspiration sparked when he heard the man talk with passion not about his fellow soldiers but about the incredibly heroic horses with whom he served.

Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo

With his wife, Morpurgo had founded Farms for City Children, a charity where inner city children live and work on rural farms for a week.

In December 2010, Morpurgo recounted the event that convinced him he could write the book:

One of the kids who came to the farm from Birmingham, a boy called Billy, the teachers warned me that he had a stammer and told me not to ask him direct questions because it would terrify him if he had to be made to speak because he doesn’t speak…I came in the last evening into the yard behind this big Victorian house where they all live, and there he was, Billy, standing in his slippers by the stable door and the lantern above his head, talking. Talking, talking, talking, to the horse. And the horse, Hebe, had her head just over the top of the stable, and she was listening; that’s what I noticed, that the ears were going, and I knew she knew that she had to stay there whilst this went on, because this kid wanted to talk, and the horse wanted to listen—this was a two way thing…I went and got the teachers, and brought them up through the vegetable garden, and we stood there in the shadows, and we listened to Billy talking, and they were completely amazed how this child who couldn’t get a word out—the words were simply flowing. All the fear had gone, and there was something about the intimacy of this relationship, the trust building up between boy and horse, that I found enormously moving, and I thought: Well yes, you could write a story about the First World War through the eyes of a horse, and yes, the horse didn’t understand every word, but she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child.”

Another inspiration for the book, after meeting the veterans and seeing Billy with Hebe the horse, was an old oil painting that Morpurgo’s wife Clare had been left: “It was a very frightening and alarming painting, not the sort you’d want to hang on a wall. It showed horses during the First World War charging into barbed wire fences. It haunted me.” 

The painting was by F. W. Reed and was dated 1917, and showed a British cavalry charge on German lines, with horses entangled in barbed wire. Morpurgo wrote a fictionalised version of this painting in his “Author’s Note” at the start of the book. In his version, the painting shows a red bay with a white cross on his forehead, and the painting bears the legend: “Joey. Painted by Captain James Nicholls, autumn 1914.”

“Here I was listening to this old man who had tears in his eyes talking about a relationship he had with a horse on the Western Front decades ago,” the novelist recalls.

“I learned that these horses were doing so much more than simply carrying soldiers or gun carriages. They deeply mattered to people.”  That initial conversation led Morpurgo into his own personal hunt for research, in which he discovered that a remarkable 1 million horses valiantly went into battle with the British during WWI and only 62,000 animals returned.  He learned how vital horses were on all sides of the war, giving soldiers from every country an invisible but common thread. He explored poignant paintings and read historical accounts of how horses sacrificed, suffered and committed acts of bravery–just like their human companion.

It first became a well-loved family book in 1982, then an innovative stage play that still takes audiences by storm, saw another incarnation in its most visceral medium yet when it was adapted into a film, and on November 7, 2015, by special invitation, award-winning Sherborne Abbey Festival has arranged for National Theatre puppeteers and the magnificent life-size horse ‘Joey’ to make a guest appearance at the performance of War Horse Only Remembered at Sherborne Abbey, with author Michael Morpurgo reading the powerful and deeply moving story of young Albert and his beloved horse Joey, joined by acclaimed musicians John Tams and Barry Coope, who accompany him with the rousing yet haunting songs specially composed by John Tams.

Published in 1982 as a story for young adults, the book was quickly embraced by readers around the world and was a runner-up for the prestigious Whitbread Award.

In 2007, when the novel was adapted into a mesmerizing stage play at London’s National Theatre by Nick Stafford, audiences went mad for it and for its themes of human-animal friendship, the power of endurance and the way hope for the future stays with us when all appears lost.

Director Steven Spielberg (far right) observes Jeremy Irvine (left) rehearse a scene with Joey on the set

Steven Spielberg believes a big part of the appeal of “War Horse” lies in the deep link that remains from those times when horses were so integral to the aims of human societies. “Horses were the primary means of human transportation for centuries. Great armies fought on horses to great achievements. We got around on horseback, horses pulled fire engines and buggies,” he notes. “But with the advent of the motorcar, horses started to be relegated back to the fields or to sports and they no longer had the same relevance to the necessities of society. And yet, today they still feel very special to us.  I think somewhere in our DNA, there will always be respect and admiration for horses.”

The journey begins on the cusp of WWI, as an English farming family buys a fiery hunter colt at auction despite not having the funds to pay for him. Named Joey, the horse seems to be nothing but a loss for struggling Ted and Rosie Narracott,  but their son Albert is determined to tame and train him, making the most of Joey’s enthralling spirit, speed and affection. The two are inseparable, but when war breaks out, they have pulled apart as Joey is sold from under him and heads to the front as the mount of a dashing British cavalry officer.

Says Spielberg: “To me, ‘War Horse’ is a timeless story about the sacrifices of love–about the sacrifices a boy makes in a time of war to find his horse and the sacrifices the horse makes just trying to survive this dark episode in history. Throughout it all, their destinies are entwined.”

“I thought the story was absolutely fascinating, and I was transported. In my mind, it was a very honest story. I saw it as a movie for families–the journey of a boy and a horse who were once so close and whose destinies drive them apart. I hope this story will bring people together through this shared experience; its heart can be felt in every country.”

When Spielberg took on the project, Morpurgo could hardly believe it.  He was thrilled with the direction, which was as unique to the screen as the theatre version was to its form. “There was an incredible meeting of minds with Steven. We’re both storytellers who are fascinated by how stories can expand and grow. Steven told the story in his own way, with more depth and breadth,” says the author.

The filmmakers next turned their attention to adapting the novel. First, they brought in British screenwriter Lee Hall, who wrote the triumphant Billy Elliot, and then, to add more layers, they brought in another Brit, Richard Curtis, whose films include Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill as well as the TV series Blackadder, a comedy set in the trenches of World War I.

Curtis notes that the story has a strong connection to the world right now. “With the financial recession, and the threat of terrorism, that question of how individuals survive in a big dangerous world is something that we are all more aware of right now,” he notes.

But to bring those links out, he had to find answers to two complicated questions: How could Joey be the very centre of the story even though he has no voice; and how could the narrative stay with Joey’s quest for a reunion and not get mired in the muck and chaos of the war? “The war had to be a presence which you always know is there, a threat, but not the central subject,” says Curtis. “The challenge was achieving a balance–not diminishing the horror of the war but not eclipsing what is a very moving story about people bound together by a horse.”

As he discussed the nuances of the screenplay with Spielberg, Curtis also was put in mind of another subtle influence. “I think somewhere in Steven’s mind was the cinematic tradition of the Western. You start out in a lovely homestead where they’re pulling the water and there’s a friendly goose, and then suddenly there’s the foreboding sense that something bad is coming just over the horizon,” he observes.

When the darkness of war arrives in Devon, the resulting chaos cleaves Albert and Joey apart, but Spielberg and Curtis discussed coming up with a narrative device to tie the two friends together even as they each go off on disparate adventures. This became the pennant Albert ties to Joey’s reins the day he leaves his side.

For Spielberg, that simple object became a visual through-line. “I wanted to find a way to tie up all of the film’s stories with one thing that becomes a kind of unifying force and that is the father’s war pennant,” he says. “Joey takes with him this memento of their relationship and it goes from story to story until the very end. It was very important to me that there be that kind of visual talisman. The campaign pennant connects Joey not only to all these other stories but it also connects the boy to his father and home.”

Adds Curtis: “Steven is very skilled at weaving visual markers through a far-ranging story, and the pennant is very important because Albert’s father brought it back from his time at war–and now it becomes the one constant all the way through the film until it finally is returned back to where it came from. Our hope was that it would be a little, beautiful, shining thread through all that they go through.”

No matter what tweaks of plot they made, the writers always kept Joey at the heart of things.  “He represents all of our innocence thrown into an unbelievable cataclysm,” sums up Hall. “In his perspective, all the complexities are stripped back to the simple, and it becomes a very human story.”

Read the screenplay

A Horse’s Odyssey Home

How do you unfold a world-wandering tale of love, war, fortitude and hope when your main character is an innocent village colt in search of kindness, friendship and a way home?

Newcomer Jeremy Irvine in the film War Horse

That challenge instantly compelled Steven Spielberg when he encountered Michael Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse.” The book presented an inspiring legend, but it was cut from a different cloth than most. All manner of stories have emerged from war–stories of romance, heroism, moral dilemmas, of divided families transcending hardship. But here was a story of wartime as it had never been experienced: through the journey of an animal propelled into battle with no malice or side to take, fueled only by the burning desire to live and return to the ones he loves.

To do the story justice would be a creative and technical feat, one that hooked into Spielberg’s penchant for chronicling the human condition. It was one that, for all its scope, would have little to do with special effects and everything to do with a more hand-crafted cinematic style, working humanely and intelligently with remarkable animals and engaging human performances, and guiding a devoted crew to overlay a triumph of the spirit atop an unforgettably rugged landscape of conflict. “War Horse” is about classical movie storytelling, weaving a chain of individual stories into an intricate canvas portraying the power of hope in the toughest of times.

The novel had been told with the simple power of allegory. The play, which Spielberg first saw in London at the urging of his long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy (who has produced four decades worth of Spielberg’s seminal films), was emotionally transporting with its whimsical use of towering yet bare-boned horse puppets. But Spielberg immediately understood he would have to find his own visual path to bring the story fully alive on the screen. He took off at a galloping pace.

“The puppets were magnificent on stage, but I knew that if we were going to tell the story, it had to be with real horses,” Spielberg says. “I loved the book also, but it is told from Joey’s point of view and you even hear Joey’s thoughts. I knew that was not an avenue that would work for the film, though it allowed me to understand the importance of telling the story from different viewpoints.”

Following a different track, Spielberg envisioned the film emerging from the tradition of the odyssey–the mythic journey that propels a youthful hero into the dangerous world only to return with hard-won wisdom and a fresh view of life. Only this time, the traveller would have the perspective of a different species silently, yet soulfully, witnessing humanity at its most troubled yet inspirational.

Structurally, the film became a study in shifting moods that lead into one another–the rough-hewn, the almost storybook village of Joey’s youth gives way to the shock and adrenaline rush of a brave new mechanized battlefield, which gives way to an idyllic French farm full of pastoral pleasures, which unravels into the pandemonium of the trenches and the desolate mists of No Man’s Land, all of which only reinforces the driving memory of the village where Joey’s journey began, and to which he strives to return.

Courage is what keeps Joey and Albert going through four danger-filled years apart, and it is courage that becomes a theme woven through the entire texture and fabric of the film. “I think ‘War Horse’ has a lot to say about courage–and about doing things not just for yourself but for the sake of those you love. That theme comes through in many different ways,” Spielberg notes.

He continues: “Albert and Joey have a tenacious belief in one another. It all begins when they attempt together to plough this impossibly stony, infertile field in Devon, before the war. That creates such a synergy and empathic collaboration between horse and boy that when they are separated by the war, I think the audience senses that at some point there is going to be a date with destiny. And when that date occurs, you see that out, of the chaos, something wonderful happens.”

Indeed, everywhere that Joey winds up in his journey, he finds people and animals giving everything they’ve got to the possibility of survival. From the start the idea of moving seamlessly from one compelling story to the next, all through Joey’s experiences, was intriguing to Spielberg. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked before in this kind of episodic format, with miniature stories all coming together into a larger tale,” he observes.  “Characters come and go as Joey passes through all these lives, and we get to see how each of the characters imprint themselves on Joey–and how Joey affected them.”

Whether those characters are British, French or German, Spielberg was interested in the basic humanity at the root of their actions. “War Horse” never concerns itself with identifying an enemy as people from every side find solace and connection with Joey. “The film doesn’t take sides as to who is right or who is wrong,” says Spielberg. “It’s really about how the characters relate to this horse.  Horses have no politics; their main concern is for the care of their charges.  And that is a very important thing that gives the story its humanity amidst the war.”

Another source of fascination for Spielberg in the story are the mysteries of the powerful human bond with nature. He himself lives with horses and has seen firsthand how close they can get to their human companions. Now, he wanted to expose the hearts of horses as they had not been seen on screen before–in all their pure, primal feeling and nobility.

“I have lived with horses for 15 years, and I’ve gotten to know how expressive they are,” the director says. “But movies don’t often spend time on what horses are feeling. In the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies, for example, my job was to focus on Indiana Jones, not his trusted steed. But in the course of making ‘War Horse,’ I was amazed at how the horses were able to emote so tremendously. In the play, the puppets were really able to bring the emotion of the horses to the audience because they were puppets, but I wanted to do that with real horses in the motion picture.”

A long-time history buff, Spielberg was well aware that the tests faced by both horses and soldiers in WWI were some of the most harrowing in history. Known as “the war to end all wars” because no one could imagine going through it again, it marked a seismic shift from the chivalry and honour of warfare past to the dehumanization and mass casualties of modern weaponry. But Spielberg determined from the beginning that he would use a truthful restraint that would keep the film anchored in history without ever becoming graphic. “What was on my mind was to make a very honest story,” the director comments.  “But I was careful to pull back in ways I would not have on ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or on our miniseries ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific.’ I wanted the journey of Albert and his horse to be an authentic, shared experience for families.”

Creating that shared experience would also become a reunion for Spielberg with a community of collaborators who have helped to make his wide-ranging productions so culturally influential.  “All my stalwart family members, across so many years and covering so many movies, came together to make ‘War Horse’ with me,” he says.  “It was a great part of this experience.”

For cast and crew, it was the perfect marriage of artist to the story. Sums up co-screenwriter Lee Hall:  “This is a story where the main character has no words, and Steven has the amazing gift of being able to tell the grandest story through the simplest means and make you care.  Throughout all his work there are characters who are larger than life, who are different from us, but who we pour our hearts and identification into.”

There was also a strong sense of history–and its forward trajectory–that permeated the production.  “There was a real sense of respect for the fact that people lived through these events,” says Richard Curtis. “There was so much integrity to the design and I think Steven wanted to be as honest and emotionally true as possible, not romanticizing it, but trying to create an authentic experience, yet always with the possibility for Joey and Albert to make it back home.”

Known as the Great War, WWI was fought between July 1914 and November 1918 as the delicate balance of power between European empires fell apart.

The Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Italy, Japan, Greece) fought the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, The Ottoman Empire).  The U.S. entered the war in 1917 on the Allies’ side.

It was the first war in history to be fought on three continents.

It was the first war to use automatic artillery, mustard gas and mechanized tanks.

9.7 million soldiers and 6.7 million civilians were killed worldwide in four years of war.

More than 200,000 men perished in the trenches of the Western Front.

The war introduced unprecedented use of animals in warfare, including millions of horses and hundreds of thousands of dogs.

It was the last war to feature major cavalry charges, but with the arrival of automatic artillery and trench warfare, the use of cavalry became rare, and horses were used more as “beasts of burden” in rough terrain.

WWI was later called “the war to end all wars” because it seemed impossible that such a devastating event would ever be repeated.

When the war was declared in Britain in August of 1914, most of the populace believed it would last a few weeks or months at most and all the men would be home by Christmas.

Most soldiers who fought in the war were between ages 17 and 40, although many lied about their ages to join up.

The Western Front of the war was a line of trenches that crossed Europe, from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, passing through much of France, where infamous battles were fought at Ypres, Verdun and the Somme.

After an armistice was signed in 1918, troops began to withdraw from the Western Front.  Surviving soldiers and horses, like Albert and Joey, headed back to their villages and to a world changed forever, carrying the hope for lasting peace.

“I believe that every soldier who ever had anything to do with a horse or mule has come to love them for what they are and the grand work they have done and are doing in and out of death zones.”–Captain Sidney Galtrey, “The Horse and The War,” 1918

Throughout human history, animals have accompanied soldiers into battle, their natural, wild instincts recruited to serve human aims. The first mounted cavalries appeared in 1000 BC in Assyria, the great conqueror Hannibal travelled with a phalanx of armoured elephants and the Roman Empire trained “war pigs” whose ferocity was a legend. But it was during WWI that literally millions of animals became an integral part of military operations–living, dying and surviving right next to the young soldiers, many of whom had left behind beloved pets and farm animals, on the battlefields.

Dogs and birds carried messages, camels and mules hauled equipment and even house cats were used to reduce the rat population in trenches. Still, the animal species that sacrificed the most in the Great War was the horse – with somewhere between 4 and 8 million perishing on all sides.  Horses of all types served in the war, from large draft horses to the show hunters like Joey, favoured by the cavalry, but as the war drew on, any horse available was commandeered.  Conditions were extremely difficult for them. Just like the men around them, they faced automatic artillery, poison gas, freezing winters, rampant disease, lack of food and sheer exhaustion and shock from being driven so hard. At times during WWI, as many as 1,000 horses a day arrived from Britain to replace those who had been lost.  (American horses also served in the war, with 182,000 headed overseas and 60,000 perishing.)

Yet for the soldiers, the horses that kept going day after day became a great source of solace and inspiration. Those who rode or worked with horses bonded deeply with their charges, moved by the animals’ stoic work ethic and willingness to attempt the most unimaginable feats without complaint.

The horse would never again be called upon at such a level in wartime. Horses did continue to be a part of military campaigns in WWII, used as a means of transport in rough terrain and, occasionally, as cavalry. Finally recognizing their contributions, Britain instituted the Dickin Medal in 1943 to be presented to those military animals displaying “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty.”

Today, few military organizations utilize horses in battle (save for Sudan’s Janjaweed), though cities the world over maintain the war horse’s ancestors: mounted police forces. While the individual horses that gave so much of themselves in WWI will never be known, appreciation has grown of horses’ wartime sacrifices as more people learn about them. In 2004, the Animals in War memorial opened in London’s Hyde Park, including the bronze sculpture of a lone, noble horse staring off into the distance.