"War Horse" Writer Michael Morpurgo On Stage and Film

Following a surprise cameo in War Horse at Lincoln Center Theater, novelist Michael Morpurgo talks about the stage and film versions of his young adult novel.

Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo

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It took him 30 years to do it, but Michael Morpurgo finally got his bid in for Joey, the World War I workhorse with the thoroughbred heart that he created.

At a recent Wednesday matinee of War Horse, the author of the original 1982 story popped up on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater amid the actors playing English rustics at a horse auction and lobbed off a couple of unsuccessful early bids before the horse was snapped up by a drunken Devon farmer and led off to the nearby plow fields and, eventually, to the battlefields of the First World War.

CBS cameras were there to catch this fleeting cameo, and the resulting piece and interview aired Jan. 15 on "CBS Sunday Morning." Morpurgo did a similar one-time-only cameo in the London production and landed a bit part in the movie version.

The Lincoln Center Theater walk-on would have gone completely unnoticed by the theatregoers in attendance, had a special flyer not been inserted in the Playbill announcing that Michael Morpurgo, at this performance, was being played by himself. Padding the part a bit, the auctioneer in charge addressed him by name. Morpurgo materialized for the curtain call as well, dead-center in a vast cluster of Devon denizens taking a bow. "It was lovely to be a part of that, y'know," he said afterward. "I live in a tiny place in the middle of Devon where it all started, and now it's in a theatre like this being acted out, and Spielberg's done the movie."

If he took to the stage with a certain in-born panache, that's because his birth father was Tony Van Bridge, a British-born Canadian actor — although Morpurgo never knew that until he was 19. He and his family were watching a CBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" — the early scene in the graveyard with Young Pip when a grizzled escaped-convict jumps out at him from a gravestone — and his mother suddenly shrieked at him, "My God, Michael! That's your father!"

Morpurgo followed up on this late-arriving bit of news and became friends with Van Bridge, who twice trod the boards of the Beaumont (as Ulysses in 1968's Tiger at the Gates and as Jacob Lehmann in 1969's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer). "I love full circles," he said, after trotting the same boards.

David Kross and Leonhard Carow in "War Horse."
photo by David Appleby – © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved

By Morpurgo's timepiece, "War Horse" is 15 years late reaching the screen. He started a screenplay that long ago for producer Simon Channing Williams, who made "The Constant Gardener" and the Mike Leigh movies in England. "We tried for six years to get 'War Horse' made and failed," he said. "It wasn't the time for it. What happened is both the play and the film have come out at the right time. People are very conscious now of war coming back into their living rooms."

He also got in some script licks himself with Lee Hall for producer Revel Guest. They worked on the script for three years without pay, crafting it the way they thought it should be — "then, out of the blue, Kathleen Kennedy walks into the show in London, fell in love with it, rang up Spielberg. He read the book, came over a week later, saw it, raved about it, saw it two more times — came to Revel, Lee and me and said, 'What do you think? Can we do this together?' And that's just what we did. It has been a wonderful collaboration with DreamWorks."

Morpurgo would be ungrateful, or insane, to admit to a marked preference for the play or the film. "Obviously, they have very, very different takes on the story, but I come away from both feeling that I've had an extraordinary experience. They took the best of my book and turned it into whichever medium they were working in.

"The play is not my book. This is Tom Morris' take on my book, but he has kept its spirit and its integrity and made this iconic play, bringing to it all of these huge talents and the music and the lighting and the designs — just phenomenal stuff.

Steven Spielberg on set
© 2011 - DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

"When it came to the film, Spielberg did the same thing. He came at it with love and with passion, and he went to the people at the National Theatre and said, 'I love your play, and I want to take pieces of what you've done, because it's so good, and include it in my film — can I do that?' And they said, 'Yeah.' So they get credit, and maybe they get a pound or two as well. He took the best from the book and brought his own extraordinary energy to it. I think he has made a family classic. What he has managed to do is make a film for the family that is difficult. He accepted the challenge. He didn't pull back from showing us this war was ghastly, truly ghastly. He didn't need to show us the blood and guts. We feel the grief, we feel the pain. "There are some moments in that film which, to my mind, will go down in cinema history. It's almost the finest death I've ever seen — when the officer riding in the charge knows he's going to die." This would be the idealistic Captain Nicholls, who inherits and shares Albert's love of Joey. He is played on screen by Tom Hiddleston and on stage by Stephen Plunkett, who similarly is allowed a spectacularly moving exit from Act One. "Tom told me Spielberg said to him, 'What I want you to do, Tom: You're 28 years old, you're a confident British cavalry officer — but, in that moment when you know your death is coming, I want you to be 12½ again.' Tom said I knew exactly what to do. When you see the man's face and you see the machine gun — not firing, just waiting — and then you see the riderless horse. I think, 'What he has done is make a theatre film. It's John Ford/Steven Spielberg.'"

Seth Numrich in the Broadway production
photo by Paul Kolnik

Up to a point (Act Two), the play remains faithful to the book, omitting only one major catastrophe: the pounding rain that ruins the crops and forces Joey to be sold to the military. The film and the book become harder to spot in the second act. "If you go back to the book, you'll find Spielberg has kept very much to the book in the second part of the story," noted Morpurgo. "I went to the set when they were in England. He had the script on one side of his little monitors and the book on the other side, and he was constantly making sure that the thread through was from the book because he knew, in fact, that was his sort of template. Which I was flattered and pleased by." Backing off from it, Morpurgo feels lightning has struck twice for him in his later (68) years. "The whole thing is very life-affirming for me," he confessed. "I wrote a book which didn't do very well at all. It barely just kept in print — and then it got lucky. The book met extraordinary people. Tom Morris at the National discovered it by accident because he wanted to use these puppeteers. That was a wonderful stroke, followed by all the genius that the National Theatre brought to the project. And then Kathleen Kennedy walks in off the street. Nothing's plotted and planned.

"I suppose at the end of it, I rejoice in it — and that's why I'm here. It's a wonderful thing to be working, in a little way, with what these people are putting together every night. I'm conscious they're working their socks off — and I'm sitting there in England, and someone sends me a check every month, but these guys do the work."

With claps of thunder from both mediums, Morpurgo made a point while he was in town to seek out his quiet little postscript to War Horse that was playing at 59E59 Theatre through Jan. 1, Farm Boy, a two-hander adapted and directed by Daniel Buckroyd for Richard Pryal and John Walters.

"It did well in England, and it's interesting to go see something after these huge spectacles," Morpurgo noted. "It's small, contained, much more like ordinary theatre — a sequel about what happens to Joey and Albert back on the family farm."

It's another of those moments of great and lasting change. Having been rendered lethally obsolete on the battlefield by the tank and the other munitions of war, Joey is now displaced on the farm by the tractor. Ain't that a kick in the head?

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