"War Horse" Gallops Onto the Big Screen

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
28 Dec 2011

Jeremy Irvine in
Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse."
Photo by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP

As War Horse continues its popular London and Broadway runs (with Toronto and national touring productions at the starting gate), a new Steven Spielberg film version of Michael Morpurgo's World War I youth novel hits movie theatres. Playbill talks to its creative team.


When word got out that Richard Curtis was at work writing the screen adaptation of Nick Stafford's play, War Horse, quite a few of Curtis' friends who had seen the play approached him and, with genteel but genuine concern, asked him the same question: "Well, how are you going to do the horses?"

The magic of the stage production is so pronounced that people forget there are other options for other mediums. Tom Morris of London's National Theatre and his co-director, Marianne Elliott, had Stafford create — and tailor — a play that showcased a group they were keen to work with, Cape Town's 30-year-old Handspring Puppet Company, which created life-size and lifelike cane-and-plywood horse puppets. For a likely source subject, Morris' own mother — as opposed to a theatrical agent — suggested Michael Morpurgo's 1982 boy-and-his-horse yarn, "War Horse." The boy is a Devon country teen named Albert, and the horse is a spirited steed his father bought at auction named Joey. They are separated by World War I.

It's an unreasonably unwieldy epic for stage containment — but miraculously do-able: A team of puppeteers mimics the horse movements with such amazing accuracy that they disappear from view, and one is left mesmerized by the dramatized hoops that the horses are put through — the "Lassie Come Home"-level of plotting.

Seth Numrich in the Broadway production
photo by Paul Kolnik

In the massive cast of 37 that populates Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont stage on Broadway, the 12 "horse handlers" are the first to take a bow and get a thunderous reception regularly. A Special Tony was awarded the puppet company, seconded by more traditional competitive wins that completed their picture — scenic design, lighting design and sound design — plus the cherries on top of the sundae: Best Direction and Best Play.

"The answer is with horses," scripter Curtis, replied in response to his friends' question in the first paragraph. "We are going to use horses — real horses!"

Director Steven Spielberg had his work cut out for him, equaling or improving such an intrinsic and acclaimed stage property. "The greatest challenge for me was realizing why I even wanted to make it in the first place," he admitted.

"So many people came out of the play talking about the brilliant puppetry of the horses. I came out of the play affected not because they were puppets playing horses and great puppeteers creating a reality, but I came out of the play admiring a very strong story that had been told to me — a very strong narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. I was very, very struck emotionally by the storytelling of those who adapted Michael Morpurgo's book into a play. I didn't think I needed puppets."


1 | 2 | 3 Next