Go to the archives

War Horse

Michael Morpurgo

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 27, 2011
Category: Fiction

Older parents, an only child they take everywhere — as soon as I heard about “War Horse” and saw the video promo, I bought three tickets.

My thought was that this would be a powerful dramatization of the power of friendship and love. For “War Horse” is the story of a rare bond between Albert, an English farm boy, and Joey, a glorious horse. It starts just before World War I, but all too soon, war rages and the horse is sold to the Army and shipped off to Europe. The boy makes a solemn oath: He and his best friend will be reunited.
My second thought was about spectacle. At the center of the play is a brilliant, audience-pleasing trick. The horses are cane-and-fabric constructions placed over two actors, who walk with such grace and accuracy — even the ears move — that audiences in London have completely believed in their reality.
It’s as much for those puppet-horses as for the emotional power of the play that tickets for the New York production are scarce. The New York theater audience knew all about the London production — and the two million people who have seen the play there.  And film buffs knew that Steven Spielberg’s directing the film —it’s his Christmas movie and thus an obvious “Best Picture” nominee.
Want to see why? Please take 60 seconds and watch this:

So the play opened in New York. (Buy tickets here.) And the reviews all pretty much said the same two things. One, you will weep. Two, kids — defined as children under 11 — will have nightmares.
What would give our sophisticated child nightmares?
 As many as 15 minutes of this two hour, forty minute play — a long time for our hands to cover her eyes.
“Every war is alike in the way its early stages replay elements of the preceding war,” Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory. “Everyone fighting a modern war tends to think of it in terms of the last one he knows anything about.”
In World War I, that meant men on horseback.
Yes, soldiers rode horses into battle. Only they were fighting in a new century, with coils of barbed wire stretched across the battlefield and machine guns poised to mow down the enemy by the thousands. The life expectancy of an English First Lieutenant on the front lines in World War I? Twenty minutes. As for the horses, the Brits sent as many as 2 million horses off to war. Maybe 65,000 came back. The rest died in the mud in France and Belgium, or — hideously — on the barbed war.
Our nine-year-old child has known how to hail a cab since she was a year old and she is taking, at her request, a course for kids in computer graphics and game design at Columbia University this summer, but her bed is covered with stuffed animals and she punched me when I insisted the Easter Bunny did not have GPS coordinates for our apartment.
Horses shot? Horses screaming as they get caught on the wire?
The responsible parent in me said: Sell her ticket.
The clever parent in me said: ‘War Horse” began life as a children’s book. Let’s read it together and see if it really does freak her out. If not, she can go to the play.
So I bought the 1982 classic by Michael Morpurgo, who was, from 2003 to 2005, Britain’s third children’s laureate. It’s a short book: 165 pages, with big print. The narrator is the horse.  You think this won’t work, but it does — the story has echoes of Black Beauty, the nineteenth century novel about a beloved horse and its often terrible owners.
If the war scenes were short, “War Horse” seemed like a safe book for us to read to one another. [To buy the paperback of “War Horse” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
We plunged in. We met the drunken father and his oppressed boy. We saw how the purchase of the horse was one more wedge between them. And how the boy creates a small miracle — he trains the horse to pull a plow in record time. Harmony rules.
Then comes the war. The father sells the horse to the Army, the boy makes his emotional pledge to the horse, and suddenly we’re charging toward the enemy lines in France. “We had won, I heard it said, but horses lay dead and dying everywhere,” Morpurgo writes. “More than a quarter of the squadron had been lost in that one action.”
Among the dead: Joey’s rider, a gentle man. He’s replaced by another, less experienced rider. And the next battle’s even worse: “
The ground erupted on either side of me, throwing horses and riders clear into the air. The shells whined and roared overhead, and every explosion seemed like an earthquake to us. But the squadron galloped on inexorably through it all toward the wire at the top of the hill, and I went with them.
I lost my daughter there. (She moved on to Hang Tough, Paul Mather, a kinder, gentler book — here, the narrator is a twelve-year-old who can’t play baseball because he has cancer.) I pressed on, and I’m glad I did; like all great children’s books, “War Horse” is rich in meaning for grown-ups. Don’t forget — on his deathbed, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was reading “Black Beauty.”
The play lies ahead for us. You have no trouble spotting me. I’m an easy cry — expect buckets of tears from me. But don’t expect to see a little girl with her parents hands over her eyes.
Should you go? I’ll write more later. For now, if you love horses and history or if you have a kid 11 or older…read the book.