Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Adventure classics -- Animals don't judge

War Horse

by Michael Morpurgo


I took the picture of the 23rd Infantry Regiment my father served in during the 1930’s to the framers. Not just, I’ll admit, because the panoramic shot included the skinny teenager who would become my dad. But because the presence of horses in the photograph fascinated me. This was a major country’s military in the twentieth century, and its officers were on horseback. Horses and mules pulled its artillery and supply wagons.

“My father was in the Army,” I said to the young man at the frame shop, who was staring at the picture in amazement. “Yes,” he said. “But what country?”

So far have we come in an age when wars are fought on television, by machines and computers as much as by flesh and blood soldiers, from the era Michael Morpurgo portrayed in his 1982 book, War Horse, a story of World War I from the viewpoint of a horse.

And although there are many well-written war stories, they’re mostly written from the viewpoint of human beings, we notoriously political animals. How to write a war story that conveys the cost of war without a political agenda? Try writing, as Morpurgo did, from the viewpoint of a nonpolitical animal.

“Animals are a good way into a story,” Morpurgo states in an interview. “Animals don’t judge.”

The book’s sentiments were probably over the heads of the children it was aimed at thirty years ago, in those few anomalously peaceful years between the war in Vietnam and that in the Balkans. Perhaps it was awaiting a new era of war as well as the sophisticated puppetry that propelled the stage and screen adaptations, to come into its own again.

It’s the story of young Joey, a member, like his nineteenth century predecessor Black
Beauty, of that equine middle class between farm horse and aristocratic thoroughbred. Like all good soldiers, Joey obeys orders. He’s a British cavalry horse. Except when he’s captured and becomes a German artillery horse. Or is quartered as a French farm horse.

Will he survive artillery fire, starvation, overwork, even a near-drowning? Not to mention the possibility of a slaughter house at war’s end? Will he be reunited with his best human friend, the boy Albert he grew up with? For every change in his fortunes, he’s an unbiased observer, reporting impartially both on the good and bad in every human being he encounters.

And sometimes, he inspires their best.

The most powerful scene in both written and dramatic forms of his story is that of his rescue from a barbed wire entanglement. I’ve seen a horse with only a hoof caught in barbed wire, and it’s one of the most terrifying experiences they can encounter. So terrifying and dangerous that even seasoned equine actor Finder in the movie version of War Horse had to be partially portrayed through puppetry. At this moment of supreme terror and peril, will soldiers from each side muster their common humanity for the sake of an innocent?

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics completes a February of animal adventures with Margery Kinnan Rawlings’ story of the bond between lonely boy and orphaned fawn, The Yearling.)

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