Sunday, August 3, 2014

"War Horse" - Finding the Words for World War I

Courtesy Dreamworks

“They fight a war and they don't know what for. Isn't that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different color uniform and speaks a different language?” 
― Michael Morpurgo, War Horse

The 100th anniversary of World War I will make news this week, primarily in Europe, as families recall their personal connection to the war, and journalists recount the war's impact on soldiers, families, and animals.

The loss of life - as well as a way of living - is cause for some to mourn, to honor and, even today, speak out against all that is lost, futile and senseless about going into battle.

The thing is - creative people who served and survived the Great War had been doing that for some time, from poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to composers Maurice Ravel and Ralph Vaughan Williams, as well as authors J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia)

Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken of remembering all that was lost during the Great War, learning of the society's sacrifices during his days at Harrow, reading Siegfried Sassoon's poem, Aftermath, (written in 1919) at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day in 2008 (when the last three surviving World War I veterans attended). A portion of it is included here:

Have you forgotten yet? ...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same -- and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet? ...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.
Benedict would elaborate in a later interview about the changes brought about to culture and society in the aftermath of World War I:
"I think our fascination with this period is a rich and complex one. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it's an era on the edge of change and it's such a forcibly painful birth into a new modern era and that the war marked it. That's, I think, is one of our fascinations, the other one being that it is an era that only survives through accounts. We don't have a living link to that era anymore."

When it comes to War Horse, author Michael Morpurgo found inspiration from the stories told by three villagers who had lived during that time (his "living link to that era"), and adding that to his observation of a child's bond with a horse - the duo brought together because of a charity Morpurgo and his wife founded, Farms for City Children, which "offers urban children from all over the country a unique opportunity to live and work together...on a real farm in the heart of the countryside." To date, there are three working farms, hosting over 3000 children each year. The tale of Joey, the War Horse protagonist and narrator,  began in part with a child at one such place in Devon, Parsonage Farm, (as recounted during a BBC radio program in December 2010, approximately 6 months after filming began for the movie adaptation, and a year before its release:
"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... 
...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, let the horse tell the story, and let the story of the war come through the soldiers—British soldiers first of all, then German soldiers, then a French family with whom the horse spends winters, and that maybe you’ll then get a universal idea of the suffering of the First World War."

(Earlier this spring, Parsonage Farm opened a museum, War Horse Valley Country Farm Park, to honor the book and its author, as well as display artifacts from World War I and exhibits depicting life for villagers during the time.)

The book, published in 1982, would first be adapted into a stage play (premiering at the National Theater in the Olivier Theater in 2007, later winning awards for both London and Broadway productions - and still produced by The National Theater with performances in the U.S., London, Holland, Ireland, Germany and South Africa.

While Morpurgo attempted to write a screenplay prior to the stage play adaptation, it seems he had toiled on it for quite a bit before shelving the idea. The stage play's success brought producer/director Stephen Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy to call upon him to purchase the book rights. Morpurgo later commented: “I won’t kid you. It was more money than I’ve ever been paid for anything I’ve ever written. But that wasn’t the temptation. The temptation was the chance for an iconic film about the First World War, perhaps as great as All Quiet On The Western Front with its overpowering sense of waste.”

Michael Morpurgo told the tale of his book's success on stage and screen here:

The story told from Joey's perspective changed considerably for stage and screen, which is how other World War I author's became part of the picture. Tom Hiddleston, who reiterated the costume designer's statement that the men were "gentlemen first and soldiers second" also mentioned to British GQ: "What he (Stephen Spielberg) was amazing about was that Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Kennedy and I had all read Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs Of A Fox-Hunting Man, which gave us ideas for these gentleman officers," Hiddleston explains. "We read some of the quotes out to [Spielberg] and he said it was the most breathtakingly useful stuff. Sometimes we would pepper the scenes we were shooting with that dialogue, which he loved."

Both Cumberbatch and Hiddleston talked about their roles as those gentlemen of the Edwardian era, woefully unprepared for what was ahead (although recovering their humor a bit to discuss what it was like to work for Spielberg):

I'm encouraged that a contemporary book written for children, inspired by children and soldiers, would become so successful that it would be the basis for a moving and imaginative play, followed by an incredible family film that also happens to incorporate text from the thinly-veiled biography-as-novel published in 1928 by World War I veteran and poet Siegfried Sassoon. War Horse is, most definitely, a children's story, but, to me, that's the key part of making history come alive for children. Steven Spielberg is a storyteller who does a remarkable job of moving audiences with tales of tragedy, tenderness and tenacity as it relates to war. Poets like Owen and Sassoon still move readers to tears, while music composed by Ravel still resonates and recalls the mood of a point in time no one wants to repeat - and yet no one, particularly in Europe, can forget.

Creative works in all their forms can have the power to educate and engage us, if done well. As we read about the violence ongoing in other parts of the world, it is vital we be prepared for what may come, by understanding what happened before. We need the storytellers as the soldiers fade from memory and technology propels us forward.

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