What the stage production, even on film, has over the movie version is the theatricality -- the puppets, the projections, the minimal set, the lighting, the company of actors, and the music. All come together to do what theater does best, and it ends -- for anyone with a heart -- in a great weeping, not from crass manipulation but from genuine wringing of deep emotions. As the author of the book, Michael Morpurgo, says in an interview in the interval, "War Horse" is about about the longing for peace.
In Devon in August 1912, a farmer buys a Thoroughbred colt although, if he were going to buy any horse with the mortgage money, it should have been a plow horse. He hands the horse to his son, Albert, to care for and train, and Albert does that while falling in love with the chestnut horse he names Joey. Along the way, Albert is forced to teach Joey had to tolerate a collar and to plow. The young man tells the horse, "You have to do this to survive."
When the Great War begins, Joey is sold to the cavalry and ends up with Germans after the Somme. But as Morpurgo reminds the audience, horses don't take sides -- they just do the bidding. Morpurgo told the story from the horse's point of view, which works on the page. On the stage, the story is told from many, many voices, some in English, some French, some German. All the actors are so fine. The horse's feelings are communicated by the swish of a tail or the list of an ear.
The stage production began, indeed, with the horse, that is, with the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Those puppeteers were the ones who figured out how to get a horse on stage and how to articulate the horse. Sometimes, Joey seems so real and demands focus on his every move; sometimes, you see the puppeteers who handle Joey, the heart and hind and head. Their work is amazing and admirable.
So, too, is that of the set designer Rae Smith, who conceived of a header for projection over the set, on which dates and scenes appear and below which gunfire shoots. The songman is Ben Murray -- he'll bend your heart and ear.
Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott directed the National Theatre's production with vivid understanding of story and theater. Everything about the production on film is a celebration of the longing for peace and the work of artists toward that end.