Is a story better in a play or on the silver screen? Which format tells history better? Which is more memorable?
People have been arguing that question since films were invented and history first probed in cinema. Does the power of the live theater, with actors just a few feet away, carry you away as completely as the power of film and its ability to bring you extraordinary close-ups and sweeping panoramic landscapes, all set to stirring music? Does your imagination soar farther listening to someone describe something on stage or watching it in a movie?
Which makes you shout for joy louder or weep longer? Which better evokes the story of the past?
The latest stage-to-screen story to sweep America is Steven Spielberg’s epic World War I drama War Horse, based on the prize-winning play now at Lincoln Center in New York and the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo. It is the story of a British teenager whose horse, Joey, is sold to the English army for use in World War I.
The horse goes off to war and so does the boy, trying to get his beloved horse back. Along the way, the boy encounters incredible danger, loses comrades and is gassed. Joey has an even more harrowing journey, being used by the British Army and French civilians and then, when captured, by the German Army and two German deserters. He loves some of his owners, hates others, befriends both sides and other horses and, in the end, defies the powers of heaven and earth in an attempt, at full gallop, to get back to the teenaged soldier who loves him.
The movie is riding high at the box office and the play will soon reach its one-year anniversary at Lincoln Center.
Which is better?
(horse puppet in stage production)
There are many advantages of the film over the play. The camera shows you the story, with its slow build up, character development and action-filled plot. The audience can sit back and watches the story unfold. On stage, the actors have to do all they can to stir your imagination to that same level. In this film, especially, the horse who plays Joey is the star of the film. If there ever was an Oscar that a horse could win, Joey should get it. He is endearing and endlessly lovable. You can’t stage a play with a horse.
The film also has the advantage of the sweeping camera that can show the countryside, whether a beautiful sunlight meadow, a dark, foreboding nocturnal forest, or the hellish moonscape of the Somme. The camera’s real strength, used often in War Horse, is the close up that wrenches all of the emotion out of actors and the moment. In a theater, you see the faces of actors contort only if you are sitting close enough to the stage. If you are in the rear orchestra or mezzanine you lose that. The camera never loses that power. Film also gives you suns rising and setting and the shadows of the countryside that a play rarely can.
But the theater has advantages that the movie does not. This is especially true in War Horse. In the play at Lincoln Center, the directors do a magnificent job of not just telling the story, but getting the audience very deeply involved in the lives of the play’s protagonists. The actors carry the play, along with the horse. In the movie, the young protagonist, Albert (played well by the young and gifted Jeremy Irvine), takes a back seat to the horse. So does everybody else, including Albert’s dad Ted (Peter Mullan) and mom Rosie (Emily Watson). You care very much about Joey, his teenage owner, and the others in the story on stage. The theater also has the ability, despite its lack of space, to pull you into any scene on stage, and do so well.
The one advantage War Horse the movie has over the stage version is its ability to showcase the brutal history of World War I. Spielberg does a wondrous job of portraying an ugly and bloody war, a war of butchery on both sides. The movie does not cast the Germans or the British as the villains; all the soldiers are seen as gallant young men just doing their job and trying to get home in one piece. The battle scenes and the gloomy scenes of trench warfare are riveting in the film. Spielberg casts as gloomy a view of World War I as he did with the HBO miniseries The Pacific and his classic World War II film, Saving Private Ryan. History buffs will love Spielberg’s movie for what they learn about World War I, from both British and German viewpoints.
Spielberg also does a fantastic job, as always, of creating a lovable star in Joey, just as he did with E.T. He pulls you into a love story and then branches out to tell the complete tale. In War Horse, he does that majestically and you cheer for the horse to survive the war just as ardently as you cheer for the boy, and the other soldiers, to make it, too.
On the other hand, and it’s a very large other hand indeed, the stage play at Lincoln Center has spectacular stage effects, with charging soldiers, tanks, barbed wire, trenches and warfare on a movie screen behind the stage set. The real stars of the play, though, are the life-size model horses, constructed by the Handspring Puppet Company. Its workers have created a half dozen or so large horses of cloth and plywood. The horses move about with men inside them and handlers pushing and pulling them in intricate patterns. It is done so well that after five minutes, the audience truly believes that the horses are real. At the performance I attended, the actors received long and loud applause, but when the artificial horses came out, they got a standing ovation.
So, the winner, stage or screen? It’s a tie. Both versions offer outstanding stories, superb acting and a triumphant tale of a horse and a boy who never gave up on each other, no matter what. Film and play are wonderfully entertaining history lessons about a dreadful war and the destruction of life. About one million horses were taken from the English countryside and put into World War I. Less than one hundred thousand survived. It was an unparalleled carnage. The story of those horses was never told as well as it is in War Horse.
The movie and play will bring tears to your eyes and stir your blood. They are soft love stories and hard war stories at the same time. The cannon will roar, but the tears will flow, too.
Bruce Chadwick writes for History News Network and lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
War Horse. Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irvine. Length: 146 minutes. Rating: PG-13