Importance of Horses And Relationship With Handlers During Early Days Wartime Portrayed In Diverse Media

“War is Hell.”

For all on all sides, the country, the armed military men and women, their families, everyone who sacrifices in so many ways, including first and foremost: giving of life.

But, one most important service to war in earlier days, and perhaps still today in distant certain locales, is too easily, and too often forgotten.

That is the horses who served, also all giving all, too frequently their life.

The “War Horse” deserves his just recognition, and finally those millions that have served are getting long overdue distinction.

Famous people have top selling books written about them, Broadway plays are produced that attract crowds around the country, and award winning movies repeat their story again.

Horses have now rated the same prestigious acknowledgment.

“War Horse” is one of them.

Although many of those who have read the book, been to the play and attended the movie, all with the same title, “War Horse” don’t realize it’s a true story.

Actually, as with most realities in history, each media portrayal and form of relating and retelling facts varies considerably from the way it really happened. Yet, each variation climaxes with the most important point: a wartime solder’s undeniable deepest heartfelt love for his horse: the “War Horse.”

The Real Horse

The Real War Horse (1)
The Real War Horse and his life-saving Sergeant George Thompson.

The real life “War Horse” is an incredible story of decorated hero Sergeant George Thompson’s defiantly disobeying orders and refusal to put down his faithful mount when he became sick, instead building a secret stable and nursing it back to health, so both survived World War I.

According to his dairy, Thompson’s relationship with the horse did not begin well. Cantankerous at first when acquired as a work animal from local contractors, the horse, oddly never called by name in his writings, would kick, bite and attempt to bolt away every time Thompson tried to take him for a drink.

“With patience, he became my faithful charge facing hellish conditions with me in the First World War. I was transferred to France in 1915, to transport ammunition and provisions to the frontline. Wearing a harness all the time, my horse suffered from skin diseases, but there really wasn’t anything I could do about it,” Thompson reflected.

“I remember when we were at Fricourt, and an officer came up one morning and ordered about 15 horses to go down the line to be shot, and one of those was the horse I brought from England,” Thompson said.

“But, instead of sending him away, I sent another one in his place and built a stable for mine, away from all the other horses, and looked after him myself. A month later, the horse was back on duty,” related Thompson, recalling the horrors of riding over dead bodies, and enduring heavy shell fire, always wishing the “rotten war was over.”

But, there were happy times too, as Thompson, who received the Military Medal for saving the lives of his fellow soldiers under heavy fire, recalled racing his horse on the beach in Ault, France.

The Book

The Book
The Book

The real “War Horse” became a bestselling children’s novel when the much-changed story was written by Michael Morpurgo, and first published in Great Britain by Kaye and Ward in 1982.

The 182-page storybook, said to be written in language appropriate for young teenagers, is narrated by the horse, Joey, named this time, who tells the reader of his experience at the farm where he is raised by Albert, his experience in France during the war and of the friendships he makes along the way.

“War Horse” in the book opens as Joey as a colt is taken away from his mother and sold to a farm where he is trained by the kind-hearted young Albert. But, Albert’s drunken father sells Joey to the British army to earn money to keep his farm and family alive

In the army, Joey is sent to the front lines and eventually captured by the Germans, who put him to work as a cart-puller, hauling injured soldiers to medic tents for treatment.

As the front line moves, and casualties decrease, Joey is left with a French farmer and his granddaughter, Emilie, who cares deeply for the horse, while finding strength and a reason to live.

But, then tasked with pulling a gun, Joey is put into great danger, injured and alone, until being taken to a British veterinary tent. There he is reunited with Albert, who has enlisted in the military as a veterinarian.

Albert nurses Joey back to health. The war ends, and Joey is put up for auction, but Emilie’s grandpapa shows up and wins the auction for Joey.

Author Morpurgo began to think of telling the story of the universal suffering of the Great War through a horse’s viewpoint, after founding Farms For City Children, where inner city children live and work on rural farms for a week.

One of the kids who came to the farm was a boy who could not talk clearly, but one day they found him talking, talking, and talking, to a horse.

Morpurgo recalled, “As I listened to this boy telling the horse everything he’d done on the farm that day, I suddenly had the idea that of course the horse didn’t understand every word, but that she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child.”

Another inspiration for the book was an oil painting by F. W. Reed in 1917, showing a British cavalry charge on German lines, with horses entangled in barbed wire. Morpurgo wrote a fictionalized version of this painting in his “Author’s Note” at the start of the book, with a painting entitled “Joey,” by Captain James Nicholls in1914.

One book reviewer critiqued: “Joey sees some awful things, death and hurt, but what shines through this book is love and friendships. I know this book is read in school, and I think the chance to look at war and consider the effects of it is important.”

The Play

The book was adapted for stage by Nick Stafford, and the play’s West End and Broadway productions are directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, featuring life-size horse puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, with “horse choreography” by Toby Sedgwick

The Broadway Play
The Broadway Play

Following much the same story line as the book, except actors recite the lines rewritten from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, the play opened in London in October 2008

The production met with critical acclaim for its powerful use of life-size horse puppets and was seen by Queen Elizabeth II and husband Prince Phillip, marking their first private theatre visit in four years.

It played to 97 percent capacity in 2010, subsequently breaking the record for the highest weekly gross for a play, and was dubbed “the theatrical event of the decade, when in 2011, the play “War Horse” welcomed its millionth audience member.

As a co-production of the National Theatre and Lincoln Center, “War Horse” opened on Broadway in April 2011. The production was only scheduled to have a limited run, but soon became open-ended after strong critical reception and ticket sales.

“War Horse,” the play, received five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and closed in January 2013, after 718 performances and 33 previews.

Following tours in Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, a national tour of “War Horse” in the United States began in Boise, Idaho, in June 2012, with scheduled stops for an additional 29 cities.

Among literally hundreds of reviews in the past almost two years, that of The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout praised the puppetry, but gave mixed reactions to the play.

Yet, theatre review aggregator “Curtain Critic” gave the production a score of 88 out of 100 based on the opinions of 21 critics.

“War Horse” the play has received more than 25 major awards.

The national tour of “War Horse” began a one week engagement in Kansas City on April 1, at the Municipal Auditorium Music Hall, and ran through April 6, with nearly 2,000 in the audience at several performances for the 2-hours-and-40 minutes play, with a 15-minute intermission.

In a Kansas City Theatre Review, Mike Smith, while giving it a five out of five stars, said “‘War Horse’ has very broad appeal to theatergoers of any age, but the production contains themes of military action and is therefore recommended for ages 10 plus.

“It was an incredible evening when ‘War Horse’ rode triumphantly into Kansas City. ‘War Horse’ is a show that you will remember forever, not only for its great cast and outstanding set design, but for the amazing work of the puppet company.

“What they have created is nothing short of miraculous. Life size horses gallop and play on the stage, guided not only by the puppeteers inside the creation, but the one guiding the head as well, capturing the very essence of movement and grace.

“With the ‘handlers’ dressed as others in the cast, they blend in so nicely that one can easily begin to believe the horses are real,” Smith acknowledged.

The play began runs in Omaha, Nebraska, April 8, and is scheduled for production runs to start April 22, Salt Lake City, Utah; April 29, Albuquerque, New Mexico; and May 6, Austin, Texas.

The Film

The drama film “War Horse” directed by Steven Spielberg was released in 2011, again following story line in the book, yet with actors saying their lines. This time, it was filmed naturalistically, with real horses and computer-generated imagery to support battle scenes.

The Movie (1)
The Film

Produced by DreamWorks Pictures and released through Disney‘s Touchstone Pictures label, “War Horse” became a box office success and was met with positive reviews.

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, two Golden Globe Awards and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTAs).

Pre-production period only allowed for three months to train the horses before shooting commenced, according to the main horse trainer Bobby Lovgren,who received assistance from trainers Dylan Jones, Bill Lawrence and Zelie Bullen.

During filming, 14 different horses were used as the main horse character Joey, eight of them portraying him as an adult animal, four as a colt and two as foals.

Four horses played the other main equine character, Topthorn. Up to 280 horses were used in a single scene.

A farrier was on set to replace horseshoes sucked off in the mud during filming, and the horses playing the main horse characters had a specialist equine make-up team, with their coats dyed and markings added to ensure continuity.

Equine artist Ali Bannister was responsible for the “hair and make-up” of the horses, as well as drawing the sketches of horses that are featured in the film.

Extra filming involving a bay foal took place in California in March 2011.

Working with horses on this scale was a new experience for Spielberg, who commented: “The horses were an extraordinary experience for me, because several members of my family ride. I was really amazed at how expressive horses are and how much they can show what they’re feeling.”

Representatives of the American Humane Association were on the set at all times to ensure the health and safety of all animals involved, and the association awarded the film an “outstanding” rating for the care that was taken of all the animals during the production.

An animatronic was used for some parts of the scenes where Joey is trapped in barbed wire; the wire was rubber prop wire.

Film editor Michael Kahn said, “We have some shots in ‘War Horse’ that are just fantastic. We shot it in Devon, and you know it’s gorgeous down there, and the horses are beautiful and the farms are beautiful, beautiful scenery and every shot is gorgeous, and eventually you get to the war part of it, and it’s really, really something.

“Those English actors are awfully good, and so were the horses. The horses were beautifully trained. For an editor, there were a lot of match frame problems with the horses, but the shooting was so good that I got everything I needed.”

More Bits

“Saturday Night Live” spoofed “War Horse” on an episode aired December 17, 2011, featuring a British couple attending a regional production of “War Horse.” Instead of a life-size horse puppet, the role of Joey is played by host Jimmy Fallon, who cavorts around the stage, slapping his legs in an imitation of hoof beats, neighing, and eventually robot dancing.

A radio adaptation of the book “War Horse” was broadcast on BBC Radio 2, in November 2008, and was rebroadcast in November, 2011, as part of a special Remembrance sequence.

War Horse” is one of five children’s books that deal with war that was featured in a special exhibition titled Once Upon a Wartime – Classic War Stories for Children in London detailing the historical background to the story.

On its first publication in 1982, the book was only translated into a ‘handful’ of languages. As a side effect of the interest in the film adaptation, publishers of the book were “inundated” with requests for translation rights for the book to coincide with the film.

An exhibition entitled “War Horse: Fact & Fiction” opened in October 2011 at the National Army Museum exploring the novel alongside real-life stories of horses involved in war and the men who depended on them, and also drawing on the play and film adaptations of the novel.

There’s an exhibit in the United Kingdom, where Durham County archivist Liz Bregazzi said: “The exhibition is based on the diary of Sergeant Thompson, who, together with hundreds of others, volunteered for the transport section of the 7th Battalion the Durham Light Infantry.

“We thought that with the release of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse it would be an ideal opportunity to mount this exhibition.”

She added: “There were so many horses out there. Amazingly, this man went through the entire war with the horse he started off with. We don’t know the name of the horse, because he never says it, which is unusual.”

This writer and spouse attended the final matinee performance of the weeklong Kansas City run of the Broadway play “War Horse,” as guests of auctioneer Col. Dave Webb, and his wife Wendy, of Stilwell, along with other family and friends, all with an interest and strong appreciation for horses, and their seemingly unending importance to development of this country today.