Making War Horse is a very conventional documentary about a very unconventional play. Written, filmed, and directed by David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky, the documentary tells the story of the multiple award-winning National Theatre production from its inception to its critically acclaimed premiere. War Horse is an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s young adult novel dealing with the military’s use of horses in WWI. And although it was the winner of the 2011 Tony Award for best play, it is considered by many less significant as a dramatic piece than as a theatrical spectacle. Indeed, in an interview on CUNY’s Theater Talk, Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre’s artistic director, confessed some surprise that the play had received the award. It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy to have won; it was simply that he seemed to agree that it was the play’s spectacular staging that made it exceptional.
It is that exceptional staging that is the central concern of Making War Horse. The decision to use life size puppets to get not only the horses but other animals as well on stage was no doubt the crucial element in the show’s success. Co-director of the production, Tom Morris, had seen the work of a South African puppet company, Handspring Puppet Company, and was looking for a vehicle in which he could utilize their puppets. Morpurgo’s novel was suggested by his mother. It turns out mothers always know best. If the spectacular use of puppetry is the best part of the production, the film of the puppeteers working to capture the horses’ movements, three puppeteers to each horse, is the best part of the documentary. Just as the audiences in the theater can manage to ignore the visible puppeteers as they create the illusion of galloping horses on the stage, so too can the viewer of the documentary. Even on film the effect is breathtaking.
All well and good, but how do you adapt a story where the main character is a horse and everything comes from that horse’s point of view to the stage? Morpurgo, himself, confesses to his own skepticism when he found out about the project. Hytner says: “There was no question ever of the horse speaking. So, that was a challenge…the necessity of finding a story which put the horse at its center but which denied the horse a speaking voice.” It was left to writer Nick Stafford to turn the horse’s first-person account into a third-person narrative. Morpurgo explains that he used the horse’s point of view because an animal would experience the horrors of war without taking sides. Stafford also had to find a way to make this idea that war is not really good for anyone clear as well.
While the actual documentary runs a little under 50 minutes, the DVD does include over 70 minutes of bonus material. There is a lengthy interview with Morpurgo that covers among other things his thoughts about war, his writing methods, his feelings about adaptations, and his limited role in the production. A short feature on the process of getting the play on the stage includes extensions of interviews with co-directors Morris and Marianne Elliott and writer Stafford. Some of the material is a repetition of what had been included in the actual documentary. There is also a short feature on the Handspring Puppet Company which includes some interesting material on how the puppets were made, how they are maintained, and how they are operated.
A section called “Video Diaries” consists of some candid film taken by Tom Olié, one of the puppeteers. It begins with the first day of rehearsal when the cast and crew gather to introduce themselves and ends with the final curtain call before the production moves from the National to the New London. Together with a short behind the scenes feature which silently roams around backstage they give some interesting insight into what is happening on the other side of the curtain. Finally there is a video of the puppeteers visiting an actual military horse troop to get a realistic sense of the animal’s movement, a War Horse trailer and an image gallery.
A film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg is due in theaters in December. The trailer is available on YouTube The cast includes David Thewlis, Jeremy Irvine, Bernard Cumberbatch and Emily Watson—no puppets.