Interview Transcript

Michael Morpurgo Transcript

Q: Can you explain why you chose the First World War as the setting for ‘War Horse’, and why you decided to write this story from Joey’s perspective?

A: I didn’t choose it. I think what happens when you’re thinking about a story, it chooses you. Somehow the subject chooses you and with me it’s always an accident and if it’s a good book, it’s a happy accident. This was because I just happened to meet three men who had been alive at the time of the First World War and two of them had actually been to the First World War; one in the infantry and one of them in the cavalry. And the other was an old man who had been in the village of Iddesleigh where I lived and had witnessed a horse sale at the beginning of the First World War and had witnessed the soldiers coming back at the end of the First World War. And I did realise, even then, that I was in a very privileged position. I’d had these three lights, if you like, shone on that particular period in a very extraordinary way. And I was touched by what they said.

One of them, in particular, told me of his experience in the trenches. He’d gone there when he was seventeen or eighteen and he’d been gassed and invalided out. And he took me to his house and showed me things he’d brought back; his trenching tool, photographs of his friends. And the more he spoke, the more his eyes filled with tears and his wife said he never really spoke about it to her. But I think I was… I wasn’t a friend even, I was a just someone in the village and he felt it was all right, like talking to someone on a train, do you know what I mean? Just spill it out and he spilled it out.

And then, a day or so later, I went to see another neighbour who had been a captain in the Yeomanry, in the Cavalry and he talked to me about how he’d been there with horses. And I talked to Albert Weeks, who was this old bloke who’d lived up in the village, and I began to piece together how it was for young men at that particular time and the community, and how the community responded to it. And there’s no better way to discover historical truth than either to be there yourself - which I couldn’t - or next best is to talk to someone who had, and luckily for me I talked to them that time because, of course, one by one they died and the living witnesses have gone.

Now we have books, we’ve always had those. We have poems, we have films but I did have this access to the lives of these three men and what touched me hugely was the lack of bitterness they had about the enemy, that all of them had seemed to come to terms with the fact that war was this appalling, dreadful thing which we mustn’t do. Then I thought, well, how do you tell the story of that war not just from a British side or a German side or a French side but tell it somehow, I suppose, from God’s side; look down on it somehow. And I knew that the horse idea, the idea of the horse telling it might work providing I could get the voice right and then what enabled me to do that was to witness a child who had come down to stay – we run an organisation, my wife, Claire, and myself called Farms for City Children – and the kids come from the big cities to come live and work on the farm, and while they’re there I used to go up and read them a story in the evenings. I went up one November evening and there was this little kid who I knew had had huge, huge problems with self confidence and a very nervous child and also had a stutter, and at school he hadn’t spoken for two years; he had been there two years. Several times fostered child and, anyway, in deep sorts of trouble really and the teachers knew it and had told me all about it.

Anyway, I came in to read to them one evening and there was this kid stood there in the dark of the stable yard talking to this horse nineteen to the dozen so his voice was flowing. And I just had this strange moment where I thought, ‘Well, hang on, I know why the child can talk, course I do, because that horse isn’t judging him, that horse he trusts not to betray him in some way or to mock him so he could flow. But why is the horse standing there? And then I realised, well, the horse knows he’s needed. And that was the moment where I thought, ‘Well, hang on, horses are sentient creatures. They have moods like we do, they know fear like we do.’ Yes, there’s a leap you have to make, you have to suspend disbelief, but maybe if I told it right, I could get away with telling it through the horse’s eyes. So, that’s what I did.


Ali Bannister

Q: Could you explain the story behind the painting of Joey hanging in the National Army Museum?

A: I was on set one day and somebody said ‘Do you know that the author of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo, is here’ and I was really excited because I love the book and there was one question in particular that I really wanted to ask him. In the beginning, in the author’s note, he describes an old painting that hangs on the wall but because it’s in the author’s note rather than the body of the text of the book, I didn’t know if it was fiction or not and when I started to work on the markings of the horse for the film, trying to find an image of that painting was where I started. Couldn’t find anything. So I desperately wanted to ask him about it but I thought, ‘If six hundred crew members ask him just one question, he’d be there forever’, so I bottled out of approaching him. And I was saying to the same people a few days later, ‘I wish I’d asked Michael, wished I’d approached him to ask him about the picture and they said, ‘Oh, why don’t you? He’s only over there,’ so after that I couldn’t back down.

And I never got the chance to ask him about the painting because when I introduced myself and said that I was doing the sketches to go into the film, he and his wife jumped in and said ‘Oh, we need an artist!’ He said, ‘I don’t know if you know but there’s a painting that starts the book,’ and I was thinking ‘Yes!’ He said, ‘I’m a fiction writer, it never existed but since the success of the book and the play, people have been going to the village to see the painting, and of course, it’s not there’. He said would I be interested in producing the painting. So I was thrilled! All I wanted to do was see a picture of it. To have a chance to produce it was a huge honour, massive privilege. And so when the film finished I was able to start work on that.