It has been an epic journey, lifelong and life-changing. I think it began when I was about five and would often gaze up at the photo of my uncle Pieter in his RAF uniform.
Pieter had been killed on a bombing mission in 1941, dead at 21. As I grew up, I witnessed often the pain in my mother’s face as she grieved for her brother. I knew early on then that war doesn’t just kill people, it shatters lives and the grieving never dies.
I read Wilfred Owen at school and learnt more of the pity and futility of war. The seed for War Horse was sown that long ago.
Thirty-five years ago, my wife Clare and I moved to Iddesleigh, a remote village in Devon. It was the first place we’d truly settled in. We had moved there to set up an educational charity, Farms for City Children. We got to know the villagers, among whom I soon discovered there were three octagenarians – Wilf Ellis, Captain Budgett and Albert Weeks – the first two had gone off to be soldiers in the First World War.
In the village pub one day I got talking to Wilf Ellis over a pint. He began to tell me of his experiences as a lad of 17 in the trenches, of being gassed, of his confrontation with a German soldier who could have killed him but didn’t.
He took me into his cottage and showed me his trenching tool and photos of himself and his pals in uniform. He talked freely, movingly. I didn’t probe, I simply listened.
Shortly after this I discovered a painting in our attic, by one FW Reed, in gouache, dated 1917. It was of British cavalry charging up a snowy hillside into a German position. Some of the horses were entangled in the wire, the men too.
Wilf Ellis’s story and the agony of those dying men and horses in the picture haunted me. I rang up the Imperial War Museum and asked how many horses had gone to the First World War – about a million they said. And how many came back, I asked. 65,000. I think I knew then that I wanted, needed, to tell the story of one of these war horses.
But I had to find out more. I knew that Captain Budgett, our neighbour down the lane, had served in that war in the Yeomanry with horses. I went to see him. He spoke about the conditions men and horses had to endure, how they died the same way – on the wire, machine-gunned, blown up, drowned in the mud, of the exhaustion and disease they suffered, and of the deep bond of trust and loyalty between a soldier and his horse. He spoke of his horse as his best friend. He’d whisper to him his deepest fears and hopes, as he fed him and cared for him. And this was not a sentimental man.
I may have been committed by now to writing this story, but it was soon clear that there was only one way I felt I could write it – from the horse’s-eye view. I wanted to write a horse’s version of the universal suffering of this war.
My horse would be a Devon farm horse, sold off to the British Army. He would join the cavalry, go to France, be captured by German soldiers, live on a French farm. I knew it would be a big ask of my readers, young and older, to suspend disbelief if a horse told the story in the first person. I wasn’t sure I could do it convincingly.
It was a city child who came to the farm from a school in Birmingham who convinced me I could. Billy had hardly spoken at school for the two years he had been there, I was told. He didn’t speak the whole week down on the farm, but I noticed he had an easy way with animals. I was coming up to the stable on the children’s last night, to read a story to them as I always did.
It was a November night, dark, and as I came into the yard I noticed Billy standing there, in his slippers, stroking our horse, Hebe. And he was talking. The words simply flowed from him, all about his day on the farm, about how much he loved being there and didn’t want to go home. And Hebe stood and listened. I was sure she understood how important it was for him, just to be there and listen. There was trust between them, a mutual need for affection. I decided then and there that I could write my story as a horse, in the first person.
It did not come easily, but it came, and was published in 1982 to “mixed” reviews, castigated as mawkish and sentimental by some. It was on the shortlist for the Whitbread Prize, but it did not win. The limousine that had swept us to the Whitbread Brewery offices in the City wasn’t there when I came out empty-handed. My Cinderella moment.
And for 25 years the book just about hung in there on my list of books in print, selling never more than 2,000 copies a year. But the publishers, bless their hearts, kept it in print. It appeared briefly in the US and failed to sell. Translated into French, it did better.
Twenty years ago, a wonderful film producer and great friend, Simon Channing Williams, made a film of another book of mine, When the Whales Came, and afterwards we wanted to work together again and decided to make a film of War Horse. We worked on several drafts for over six long years, but no one was interested. We had to accept that the project was going nowhere, and in the end were forced to give up.
War Horse would languish on my backlist unnoticed – I had to accept that, too. Then six years ago began a series of miraculous happenings.
Rosemary Morris, a doctor living in East Anglia, happened to read the book. Her son, it turned out, was Tom Morris, a director at the Royal National Theatre. She knew Tom was on the lookout for a story with an animal hero because he wanted to produce a play at the National with Handspring Puppets, with whom he had worked at the Battersea Arts Centre and whose work he hugely admired. His mother told him to read War Horse. Tom did as his mother suggested – I’m rather pleased he did.
For two years, with Marianne Elliot working alongside him, and Nicholas Hytner backing the whole idea through its workshopping stages, Tom beavered away to make the play happen. It launched to rapturous reviews, moved to the New London Theatre in the West End, opened on Broadway, and has now played to nearly two million people in London and New York, where it won six Tony awards and is now about to go global, opening soon in Toronto and Melbourne, and will next year tour nationwide in the US.
But go back a couple of years to the New London Theatre. Into the theatre, looking for a good night out with her daughter, comes Kathy Kennedy, Steven Spielberg’s producer on such films as ET the Extra-Terrestrial and Schindler’s List. She is bowled over by the show, rings Mr Spielberg and tells him War Horse is worth a read for his next film, that he should come over and see the play, too.
Within a year he’s making the film, all on location in England, written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, with music by John Williams. I visited the set with Clare – we both had roles as extras – spot us if you can!
A few days ago, I sat in a vast cinema in Leicester Square and saw the film (in cinemas on Friday 13 January) for the first time, and as happens every time I see the play, I was at once deeply engaged, in turns moved by the tale of loyalty between Albert and his horse Joey, by the serene beauty of the land- scape of Devon, and horrified by the hellish vision of the trenches, of the suffering of soldiers and horses alike.
The film has the pace it should have: first the walk, as Joey and Albert grow up together in the countryside, and come to trust each other; then the trot and canter off to war; and finally into a gallop, a gallop through the carnage and terror as the war engulfs them.
There are sublime moments, wonderfully funny moments, but Spielberg never shrinks for a moment from the horror. We live with Joey and Albert, willing them to survive, to find one another again. At the end I felt I’d been taken to hell and back, and that is how it should be.
Spielberg, like the National Theatre, kept faith with the book. We are left with hope, hope for peace. And perhaps this peace is something we need now as much as we ever did before, with young men and women still being killed in the prime of their lives in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. Young people who are somebody’s dearly loved son or daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister, father or mother. Perhaps this film is as much for those they have left behind as for them.
Spielberg has made a life-affirming film about a love between a horse and a boy, and he has made a great anthem to peace. I think that would please those old soldiers I first spoke to in the pub. I hope so.
War Horse is in UK cinemas now
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published on 3 January