Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Comments on the Film War Horse from Author Jacqueline Winspear

Conscripting a War Horse from the Film

I had already read War Horse by Michael Morpugo years ago and thought it excellent, as the story seemed to be pitch perfect for the age range it was intended for—children/young adult. Morpugo wrote the book for younger readers to give a sense of what war is all about and chose to do it through the story of a horse who was conscripted. Of those requisitioned for battle duties during the 1914–18 war, almost 500,000 from Britain alone were killed, one for every two men lost in the combined British and Commonwealth armies. It was an edgy book with a grand tale well told—and without being sappy.

Two years ago I went to see the stage production in London, and I was just amazed. Within seconds you forgot the horses were really very sophisticated puppets and you believed them to be real—again, every aspect of the production was pitch perfect. Audience attention never faltered, and the play gave a sense of the cost of the Great War and never slipped into gratuitous emotional string pulling. The lighter moments were not so light as to be flippant and distracting, which happened in the movie. I had great hopes for the film, but I have to say I was so very disappointed.

Much was lost in the film in order to gain the greater audience offered by a PG13 designation—one hardly had a sense that this was a war that cost the lives of some ten million men (historian Niall Ferguson puts combined military and civilian losses at approximately 18 million). There were several potentially very poignant moments that were spoiled by overwrought emotion in dialogue, cinematography, and musical soundtrack. One of the most significant scenes—when the British soldier met a German in no-mans-land to free the horse entangled in barbed wire—was diminished by the addition of humor—after German called for another wire cutter, about half a dozen came flying over the parapet. This slapstick to elicit laughs from the audience was a real waste of a pivotal point in the story.

Horse "Puppets" from the Stage Production

For those unfamiliar with the book and, especially, the stage production, the film will be touching and perhaps heart-wrenching. A few early reviewers thought Steven Spielberg had rushed the film production, to meet the deadline for release to be an Oscar contender. If that's so, it's a shame, though to be fair, Spielberg cannot tell a bad story. Years ago I asked a friend if she'd enjoyed the movie adaptation of The Horse Whisperer, which had just been released; at that point I had yet to see it. She was thoughtful then said, "You know, it was a good movie—but it could have been a great movie." I feel the same way about War Horse—especially as I am both a horse-lover and deeply interested in the social history of the Great War. It was a good movie—but it could have been a really great movie.

This is a photo I took at the Lochnagar Crater during one of my visits to the battlefields of the Western Front. As you know the crater is generally festooned with poppies and wreaths left by visitors. This wreath was dedicated to the horses and animals who gave their lives in the Great War and to the Royal Veterinary Corps who cared for them. That was another thing about the movie—a cameo appearance by members of the corps would have been nice. After all, if my memory serves me well, they were in the book. For those interested to read about a real equine hero of the war, I can recommend Warrior, by General Jack Seely. It has recently been published in a new edition, and tells the story of "The horse the Germans could not kill." It's a pretty amazing story about a brave—and morale-boosting—war horse. And though it means skipping over a war or two, there is always that true American war horse heroine, Reckless, whose courage under fire led to the mare being promoted to staff sergeant after the Korean War. 

Jackie Winspear (Originally Presented in the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire)

(Readers are probably aware that Jackie is the author of the best-selling series of WWI mysteries featuring that V.A.D. nurse turned sleuth, Maisie Dobbs.Learn more about Maisie HERE.


  1. I must say I kind of agree and disagree with her. I think the film is way better than she gives it credit for, and more moving as an "anti-war" film than just about any I've ever seen. At the same time, I do think it could have been better.

    Back when it first came out, I wrote a long review for a website that I was rather proud of, but i can't seem to find it now. Perhaps it was too long ago.

  2. I haven't seen the film yet, but appreciate this take. (And did enjoy the first Masie novel)

    "Spielberg cannot tell a bad story" - have you seen A.I.?

    1. A.I. is excellent. But it's not for everyone.

  3. I too thought the movie was a let-down. The German/British no-mans-land rescue scene seemed just too improbable (never mind the flying wire-cutters!); and the scene that to me really seemed to come out top in the improbability stakes was the sight of the horse galloping down the trench. Whatever happened to fire bays? In short, a youngsters' book, and a youngsters' film.

  4. I admire and respect Jackie Winspear and her novels, but I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed the movie version of War Horse. I confess I didn't read the book and I haven't been able to see the stage play. Another book by Michael Morpurgo is Private Peaceful, a moving and surprising book--and also with the Devonshire background that I love.

  5. I agree with Winspear: compared to the stage production, the film is disappointing. However, if I hadn't seen the play, I likely would feel differently.

  6. Great post, thank you. What do you think of this: