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'War Horse': Stage vs. Screen

Kurt here. I am not, by any stretch, an authority on theater, and it's only recently that I've been able to collect a good number of playbills. But I can say, without hesitation, that the Broadway production of War Horse is the best thing I've ever witnessed on stage. I saw the show last Sunday, three days before I caught Spielberg's big-screen translation. In technical terms, the play is flawless, so staggeringly well-executed that, at intermission, my partner and I just gave each other wide-eyed, open-mouthed looks. The story, as expected, is one of very typical structure, with a found-and-lost-and-found-again relationship between and adolescent boy (Albert) and an almost preternatural stallion (Joey). But the stagecraft, while clearly taking some inspiration from Julie Taymor's The Lion King (and, perhaps, the Daniel Radcliffe incarnation of Equus), feels wildly extraordinary, at once awesome and minimalistic in its design.

I've decided that what makes the play so potent, beyond its meticulously made yet intentionally haggard horse puppets, and its ripped-from-the-pages-of-history projection screen of a backdrop, is its fierce, unannounced insistence on getting in your space, nearly assaulting you when it's time for stagehands to hurriedly crisscross the performance space with barbed wire, line the aisles with pennant strings to prep for a recruitment scene, or pilot a massive, makeshift tank across an implied, strobe-lit battlefield (another highlight is an ultra-stylized, oversized bullet that's carried from the crowd and spun like a drillbit before striking a key character on stage).

And how does Spielberg's version measure up to all this? I did my best to not allow my first War Horse experience to make me biased against my second, and it's true that the two works are very different beasts. I was, however, keeping score as I basked in the orange glow of Spielberg's impossible skies, for this equine weeper's path to the screen yields a lot of pluses and minuses. Let's take a look (spoiler alert!) at how Spielberg bettered the material, and how he fell short of the merits of its past life.

Peter Mullan and David Thewlis

PLUS: Albert's Father

In the play, Albert's father, Ted Narracott is an irredeemable, profoundly hateable character (seriously, like please-shoot-him-right-now hateable). A drunk and alleged military deserter, he makes a pile of horrid choices—including impulsively selling Joey—and never considers for a moment how they will impact his son...

Fathers, Tradition, Human Animal Bonding after the jump

In the film, Ted (Peter Mullan) essentially does the same things, but he's drawn as a more pitiable character, one who's regrettably bound by circumstance and at least thinks about how his ill-advised actions will affect his family.

MINUS: Tradition

While Spielberg had every intent of making a decidedly old-fashioned epic, which plenty of people believe is the great appeal of War Horse, his classic approach does tend to feel dusty, and it underscores a story that many will view as stale (don't even get me started on the ridiculous, dragged-out Gone With the Wind sky that closes the film). The play, however, actively bucks tradition and feels novel enough to largely overcome whatever tiredness plagues the text.

PLUS: A Big, Wide World

Naturally, Spielberg set this story loose in his polished view of the wild, drawing viewers in with some of the most majestic vistas imaginable and pairing the swooping, circular swirl of his cameras with the sweeping surge of John Williams score. The world feels open and enormous in the War Horse film, whereas in the stage play, no matter how well your imagination is captured, the action is inevitably confined.

PLUS: International Cast

The actors in the production I saw (who included Seth Numrich, Boris McGiver, Stephen Plunkett, Alyssa Breshnahan and T. Ryder Smith) were all quite gifted, and may well be renowned in the world of stage players, but the ace cast of hugely appealing European pros that Spielberg assembled for his movie is pretty tough to beat. Among the English, Irish, German and French thespians populating War Horse are Mullan, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Kross, Niels Arestrup and Eddie Marsan. Not a bad bunch.

MINUS: The Albert-Joey Bond

In the play, Seth Numrich's Albert was madly enthusiastic about his beloved horse, singing his praises and reveling in his companionship while the production offered a solid, if commonplace, progression of the relationship. In the film, the bond between Albert and Joey just sort of progresses as it must, with a foolish expectation of audience investment, and a subsequently weak emotional climax (it says something that, as a proud crier, I was more moved by a boy on a stage with some men draped in leather and metal). The problem partly stems from the casting of minimally emotive Jeremy Irvine, an unknown whom Spielberg chose more for his face than for his talent. It's quite clear that sentiment is the goal here, so why not cast someone who can really bring the pathos?

PLUS: Creature Wonder

Speaking of faces, much has been made around the web lately of the very specific and signature way that Spielberg chooses to film them, and War Horse is no exception. In fact, this new film may just boast more deliberate shots of characters ogling a creature in googly-eyed wonder than any of the maestro's earlier work. The camera settles on many an actor staring intently at the T-Rex horse, an angle you just can't get on the stage.

MINUS: Transitions

For whatever reason, Spielberg employs more than a couple hokey and jarring transitions, whose forcefulness feels weirdly sophomoric. One that leaps to mind is a very unwieldy dissolve that sees Emily Watson's knitting becomes the plowed rows of a farm field. Ick. Later, dodging the apparently trying task of illustrating Albert's military enlistment, the film simply and suddenly cuts to a headshot of Albert in the trenches, jerkingly introducing you to the new direction of the plot. Smooth and fluid beyond the exclusion of harsh splicing, the play eased into such things.

PLUS: Behind-the-Scenes Character Building

Since it wouldn't play well on the stage, Broadway's War Horse doesn't contain a lot of the chit chat that provides the story's characters with greater dimension. For example, the play doesn't give you the battle plans of Hiddleston and Cumberbatch's officers, which prove dramatically valuable considering the paths their characters take. And the play doesn't give you as much insight into the history and feelings of Albert's mom, an important player and feisty moral center.

PLUS: Action Sequences

War Horse the film is home to the most spectacular action sequences of the year. A scene in which the British emerge from a wheat field to attack the Germans is achingly beautiful, and the segment that sees Joey breathlessly gallop through battlefields before getting devastatingly tangled in barbed wire is one of the great wonders of 2011 cinema (honestly, how did they shoot that?). The play enthralls, but never on that kind of, you know, Janusz Kaminksi level.

EQUAL: Horse Casualties

Both the film and the play serve to highlight the victims of war that no one often thinks about: horses. According the play, eight million horses died in World War I, during which the story is set. Spielberg and the play's creators are keen to riddle scenes with bodies if the fallen—not just men, but horses too. The text works, and not just in a save-the-whales kind of way, in establishing an awareness of what was essentially a holocaust. What's more, the horses are positioned as holy symbols, representative of, among other things, crushed hopes and common ground.

Final Scores? Play=4. Film=6.

It's strange, I actually prefer the play, but Spielberg seems to have the artistic edge. One thing is certain, no matter which version of War Horse you attend, you are going to get what you pay for.

Has anyone else seen both versions? Which do you prefer?


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Reader Comments (10)

The stage show hasn't played in Australia so I can't compare, but I didn't like the film. I find it interesting though that you say Spielberg does a great job of expanding the property, but I found it almost the opposite. Spielberg was seemingly so intent on recreating the look of old films that, I felt, during many sequences (basically any on the farm) felt entirely like they were filmed on a stage. Like Spielberg was trying to make it look like matte painting backdrops and overly artificial sets. A look like that can indeed work, but I don't think the film was doing itself any favours by trying to be so grand in other scenes and so blatantly insular in others. Pick one and work with it.

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I was so moved and in awe of the stage production, I find myself unable (or maybe unwilling) to see the film. I don't want the play's magic to be diluted in any way.

December 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterProspero

The final shot of a pot of glue is breathtaking.

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteryoyo

I didn't much like the film at all and have heard mixed things about the play. But from the sound of it, you were making the Spielberg Face O' Wonderment while watching the play so perhaps I should figure out a way to get in.

The odd thing given the hoopla is i actually didn't care for the production values of the film that much. Too polished for me. I felt like it was watching a fairytale, like nothing was real so the attempts to bring in the horrors of war even as the camera constantly looks away from blood was very off putting for me.

December 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I saw the play this summer with my three nieces (age 8, 10, 12), and I am seeing the movie this weekend with the same nieces. I am finding it best to see this material through the eyes of children, and in that sense, each are quite enjoyable to me.

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

Glenn -- I of course understand what you're saying about the whole matte-painting thing, and like I said, I could barely stomach those burning-glow-of-God skies that closed the film. But the movie opens sweeping you across a whole mess of landscapes, and Spielberg is insistent upon making the sky look enormous, however over exaggerated. The play was so intimate; the film made me feel like I had lots a room to run--like a wild horse!

Na t-- the polish is essentially what won me over. I actually think this might me Spielberg's most ridiculous film. It's so overwrought. But that wheat-field scene, and that horse-running-through-the-battlefield sequence, just totally knocked me out. I add both to my pile of priceless treasures gleaned from movies I don't love, like Michelle Williams's performance as Marilyn Monroe.

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O

I saw the play & was moved by the simplicity of it - and the emotional attachment. The film was toooo BIG.....too grand. all the sweeping cinematography / orange skies, etc. and the interminable John Williams music that would not stop. It was just too much / too predictable / too long. the battle scenes - augh - I hate to say this - but haven't we seen enough of the speilberg battle scenes. in my book - the movie was awful.

December 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjimmy

Both the play and the film are hampered by the text, and they both dealt with it differently: The film embraced the old-fashioned quality of it, while the play found a way around it, by making a visual spectacle that forces your jaw and heart to open. While the play lacks the scope which adds significantly to the film, it somehow makes you feel for a puppet made of wire and leather. That's the most recommendable thing about the play. It's fascinating. The film is not as effective, I found, partially because of it's resolutely old-fashioned crafting. While I would have to agree with Kurt that the sequence of Joey running through no-man's-land and getting tangled in the barbed wire is the single most breathtaking piece of filmmaking I've seen this year, everything around it just kind of sits there, expecting an implicit audience investment that must be earned. Spielberg is capable of much better than the whole of this, but I can't deny that there are parts that are very strong. That ridiculous ending, however, isn't one of them. When it was over, I leaned over to my mother and said, "I think that was the Best Picture of 1948," and she agreed.

December 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

denny: Not quite right. The Academy rarely goes for PURE CHEESE, which War Horse sounds like by most accounts. My guess is, this year, it's down to Hugo or The Artist for the win. It took them long enough to have to give the prize to a movie about movies.

December 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I'm so happy I saw the play before the movie. The play was outstanding in its entirity and story line was much better than the movie. I was hoping the movie would be a nice souvenir to the play but was so disgusted in the way the movie changed some scenes that had no emotional effect as much the play. Emily's character in the play was more heartbreaking and the German soldier story was gripping. The Plays musical score had more impact. I can't believe you scored the movie higher than the play!

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJD
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