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My War Horse & Spielberg's War Horse!

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Last night I went to an advance screening of Steven Spielberg's new film, The War Horse. My companion was noted journalist Caroline Graham (Vanity Fair, the New Yorker), who happens to come from Devon, the region in England featured in the movie where much of it was filmed. To briefly recap the story, it depicts how a young Devon farm boy in pre-World War I England raises a splendid horse named Joey, only to see it sold to the military for service in France.

The young man enlists and searches for his horse amidst the horror of trench warfare (and it is truly gut-wrenchingly violent.) There is an interlude where the horse it rescued by a French farmer and his daughter, and another incident where the horse is freed from barbed wire by a British and German soldier working hand-in-hand and clipper-to-clipper. It all ends well, and the many horses used in the filming are magnificent and exciting to watch.

Caroline was not a fan of some details of the film, saying that it makes Devon look like a playground for fools:

First of all, there are very few people in Iddesleigh, which is the village depicted, not the hordes which we see in the picture. The family's farmhouse, of which there were many built around 1600, was fake. People were not so daft.

She went on to tell me that the author of the young people's book upon which the film is based, Michael Morpungo and his wife, Clare Lane, daughter of Sir Allen Lane (founder of Penguin Books) have a farm in Iddesleigh that they admirably use to have poor kids from the city come to learn about the countryside. Their charity is called 'Farms for City Children,' of which there are three (of these farms) in England and Wales. (She compared them to Paul and Joanne Newman and their generosity to city kids.) Michael received the OBE from the Queen and was the Children's Poet Laureate of England.

Caroline went on to relate that Morpungo learned the true story of the horse via the Duke of York Pub chatter in the village:

They always spoke about a portrait of the famous Joey horse that went off to World War I. It's a true story but the painting he wrote about was fictitious. Last week Morpungo donated a real painting of the War Horse, made by an artist during the filming, to the Village Hall. As for the war scenes, they are not suitable for children, to put it mildly.

She concluded her comments by exclaiming that the charm which Morpungo gives to all his tales, literally hundreds of children's books, be it about animals or humans, was rather lacking. "Remember, this was a story told by a horse. In many ways it looks like an opera with colorful sets, minus the singers."

Note: I have just read another Morpungo young adult book, Elephant in the Garden, which would make a fabulous film... about a woman zookeeper in World War II Dresden, Germany, who -- on the day that the Allies bombed the city into rubble -- takes a young elephant and a school full of orphans on a thousand-mile journey to safety in Switzerland.

In the Spielberg film, the young man's father is a veteran of the Boer War of Africa. Many years ago I wrote an original screenplay called The War Horses for Joe Levine's Embassy Pictures. Back in the '60s, Joe Levine was a big deal in the movie business, making lots of pictures and grandiose plans which ultimately sank him. My story, telling how the Boer War of Africa was won on a ranch in the American West, was based on a document which I discovered in the University of Denver's library.

A 28-page handwritten diary by a cowboy, it detailed such a fanciful yet true event that it provided the basis for my script. Joe snapped it up, then sold it to Paramount with a dream cast attached, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and John Wayne. As I said, true story. The screenplay opens in a military hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1898, when the British Army was engaged in a bitter war against the Afrikkaner Boers. The British cavalry had just suffered a grievous defeat against the Boers.

The British commander, Lord Kitchener, was touring the hospital wards of wounded soldiers when a British captain of cavalry (Burton) asks permission to speak to him:

Sir, the Boers are beating us because they are mounted on their tough little African ponies, and our large blooded horses are no match for them in this heat and environment. Our only hope would be to remount our cavalry on American cowboy ponies, which are much like the Boer horses.

Kitchner paused for a moment, then said, "You leave tonight for the American West, buy and break 10,000 ponies, then get them back here as soon as possible." Our British hero and his contingent go to the Boston Ranch in Wyoming, which was British owned (really), hired 23 bronc-busters (one of whom wrote my diary), to break the thousands of horses purchased, then in six weeks they were sent by train to New Orleans and shipped to Africa.

I created a role of the ranch owner's daughter for Elizabeth, and John Wayne plays the ranch foreman who loves her. She and the English cavalryman have a mad affair and she follows him back to Africa, followed by Wayne. The ranch foreman, appalled by what is planned for 'his' horses, joins the Boer cause... and in a climactic battle, the British defeat the Boers, the captain is shot and dies in the arms of the rancher, who then takes the girl back to America. That was my War Horses. Unfortunately (for me), Joe Levine had a dispute with Paramount and the film never got made. Pity.

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