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Book Review: War Horse: The Making of the Motion Picture by Steven Spielberg

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Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young adult novel War Horse, certainly moderately successful at the time, has sky-rocketed in acclaim in recent years both in its own right and, perhaps even more importantly, as an inspiration for artistic adaptation. First there was the theatrical tour de force adapted for Great Britain’s National Theatre by Nick Stafford, which in its Broadway incarnation was the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play and is still running at Lincoln Center. And now, opening on Christmas Day, comes the much ballyhooed film adaptation by director Stephen Spielberg.

Perhaps because of the National Theatre production’s innovative solution to the problem of putting horses on the stage through the use of giant puppets, it generated a fascinating documentary called Making War Horse. The film, available on DVD, besides dealing with the story itself, stresses the creation of the puppets in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and the training of the puppeteers necessary to create the illusion of lifelike horses. Not to be outdone, the film too has generated not a documentary as of yet but an elegant “pictorial moviebook,” War Horse: The Making of the Motion Picture. No puppets it’s true, but in their place more than 140 brilliant photos from the film.

Divided into three sections, Making of the Motion Picture takes you on a visual journey first through the film’s story, then its production, and finally gives a short nod to the history of horses in warfare. “Joey’s Journey” outlines the basic plot of the movie with stills from the film, records comments from the filmmakers, and even an excerpt or two from the script. There are individual photos of the large cast and brilliant shots of the British countryside. But the really exciting visuals are those capturing the interaction of men and the horses first on the farm and then at war.

The second section takes you behind the scenes. While it does provide some interesting insights like the 10 different horses playing the role of Joey and the shot of the makeup artist working on one of the equine actors, the whole section runs little more than a dozen pages, much of it taken up with commentary. “The History of War Horses” uses illustrations from history to highlight the role of horses from ancient Egypt through World War 1, with the emphasis on the latter. As history it is little more than a sketch, and at best will whet the interested reader’s appetite for something more substantial. Still, this is after all a book about the making of a movie, and one can’t expect a historical dissertation.

There are forewords by Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, who seems to have been the originator of the project, screenwriter Richard Curtis, and author Morpurgo. Curtis has an interesting tidbit about how his film Four Weddings and a Funeral beat out Spielberg’s Schindler’s List for a French foreign film award, the kind of anecdote you can dine out on. Morpurgo talks about the writing of the novel and somewhat fetchingly confesses his preference for cows over horses at the time he was writing. One imagines recent developments may well have changed his mind.

If the film manages to garner the same kind of critical acclaim as the play, War Horse: The Making of the Motion Picture is a book that may well share that popularity. Although it is quite well done in its own right, it seems to me that its success is clearly tied directly to the success of the film.

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