“War Horse” revisited

You might want to take a look at  the May 9 posting in this blog to get a feel for my first response to War Horse, the live National Theatre production still playing at Lincoln Center. — Not bad for a show originally expected to close back last June.   When I saw it for the second time on Wednesday night, not something I normally would do, I was equally surprised, stunned and overwhelmed.  Naturally, I cried some more, and got pissed off at those few around me who didn’t.   I understand it will tour to 20 American cities beginning in Los Angeles this summer.  If it gets anywhere near me, I’ll go again.  I have no hesitation in saying everybody should experience this play, and I don’t say it lightly.  (Although I realize that’s arbitrary enough for plenty of people to walk out saying “It’s not that good.”  Ah well, each to his own.  When the lights are out, I’m a sentimental slob!)

More about the play in a minute.  Time to get sidetracked.  We saw the Spielberg film version of War Horse a few weeks back.  It’s a beautiful film, and yes, I cried in that too.  There’s an interesting symbiosis between the film and the play on which it was partially based.  They’re even showing plugs to go see the play outside some New York movie theatres showing the film.   Both were derived from a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo in which the horse narrates the story, just like in Black Beauty.  Not so with either of its derivatives, although both retain its intense anti-war sentiments and target young civilian audience.

The film is beautifully photographed in the grand style of the great Hollywood epics, relatively bloodless and heroic.  Not that there isn’t ample realistic blood and pain and mutilations to spread around.  But it’s a kind of anti-war soft porn, and lacks the grit that marked the opening sequence of Spielberg’s  Saving Private Ryan.  That’s very appropriate for a family film, and for what it sets out to do, it is marvelous.

Ironically though, film by its very nature can deal with far more realism than theatre, despite the fact that in the latter we’re watching real people in front of us and not light beams.   And frankly, when it comes to man’s propensity for cruelty to animals, as it was the film included more realism than I cared to watch.   When I see a close-up of a horse’s head, bleeding and wrapped in barbed wire, eyes bulging in terror, screaming in pain, I find it repulsive and thoroughly depressing.  I know, I know it’s just a very realistic puppet filmed with a lot of CGI, and not a real horse.  I don’t care.  I don’t want to see it.   Not that I should be protected from it.  I shouldn’t.   I shouldn’t be shown a pretty war, nor be led to believe war is a logical place for men to prove themselves  and suffer a little bit before improbable happy endings.

It’s a conundrum!  Of course, war is tasteless, and doesn’t want to be seen.  It is mankind at its worst:  cruel, senseless.  One of the things the film might have done had it chosen to be more honest and less “family friendly,” was to place its story in a wider context, even if only with the final credits.  It may not have been the appropriate choice when you’re trying to tell an intimate little “what if” story with a happy ending.  But one of the things film can  do visually is place its story in a wider visual context.  That “no-man’s-land” we saw in the film and the trenches that flanked it on both sides were not in one contained battlefield.  In actuality they were almost 500 miles long, running from Switzerland to the North Sea.   Documentaries can tell the larger story, and fiction can focus on the little stories as metaphors for the big one, and tell the lies we need to hear for our survival.  No one has yet even figured out just why the “Great War” started.  But the reality is it killed twenty million soldiers alone, and perhaps less well-known, it killed eight million horses.  Of the one million horses like Joey and Topthorn, who were shipped from England to the continent to haul artillery and charge into machine guns and tanks and barbed wire, only 62,000 were ever returned.  And that is ultimately why the book and the play and the movie came to be written.   Those figures were researched and revealed in the Playbill for the play.  Out of respect for those animals, and for the human toll, Mr. Speilberg might well have included them in his final credits.  The war was not the horses’ affair.  It was ours.

And now briefly, back to the play.  Fair warning:  If you haven’t yet seen the play but have plans to do so, you might want to wait on the movie.  Rent it later, if you want to compare notes.  But it will not give you the enormity of surprise delight, or depth that the artists of the play have devised to tell this story.  It is an altogether different experience.  It does not attempt realism, to which we cannot respond with reason, nor react to objectively.  Chaos may be disguised by order, but it is nonetheless chaos.  Instead, the reality of war is distanced from its audience, in much the same way that Brecht did 75 years ago with Mother Courage, so that we can get a good look at it, and learn from it.  But in the case of War Horse the play,  the sheer artistry also safely heightens the emotional attachment, and with so many tools to bring to the experience:  ingenious puppetry, videographics, pen and ink drawing, projections, music, tightly focused choreography, scene design and lighting, and sentimental story-telling among them.  There is so much to learn here, about ourselves, about the nature of man, our place in the universe, and our relationship to beast, and to God.  There are so many convenient lies, prejudices and misconceptions to be shed.  But there is also much that we must feel, laughs to be had, fears to be experienced, tears to be shed.  Echoes of an old hymn remain with us long after leaving the theater:

Thus we would pass from the earth and its toiling,
Only remembered for what we have done.

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