“The material makes for vintage Spielberg. Imagine ET with a horse but with Eliot’s friends dying in the trenches”
eran had worked with war horses as part of his duties with the Devon Yeomanry during the Great War. “Then I also met Captain Budgett who had been in the cavalry,” recalls Morpurgo. “He remembered feeding his horse and stroking his horse and talking to his horse, partly to comfort the horse and partly to comfort himself.”
Morpurgo’s subsequent research uncovered the horrible fate of millions of animals: eight million died on the British side alone. He determined to write a book from the horse’s point of view but was unsure how to go about it “I knew if I wanted to tell a story using the voice of a horse I was asking the reader to make a massive leap.” Black Beauty had been a hugely important book for his wife, Claire, growing up. But Michael was a Robert Louis Stevenson kid and was wary of the notion of talking horses.
“I knew Black Beauty was out there of course,” says Morpurgo. “And I knew using the horse as narrator would draw comparisons. In fact the reviews of the book were initially very mixed for that reason. I was waiting for ‘poor man’s Black Beauty’ and I got it. But in the end I couldn’t think of any other way to tell this story.” A young visitor to Farms for City Children, a charity founded by Michael and Claire Morpurgo, served to finally cement the idea.
“He was a little boy who was very troubled,” says Morpurgo “He had not spoken in school for two years. And he was standing by this horse one night, just letting the words flow and telling the horse all about his day. I don’t know where that comes from. It’s something to do with trust. It’s something to do with love. It’s something to do with threat and mockery and judgement being taken away. It’s just something about horses.”
Spielberg’s film understandably ditches Joey’s narration and opts for passive pony suffering in the style of Au Hasard Balthazar. Morpurgo is delighted by the changes even if it isn’t precisely his Joey.
“It’s true. Joey wasn’t quite the way I pictured him. Devon stock has to be hardy so Joey would have been a little hairier, a little less smart looking in my mind. The horse in the film is very beautiful. I’m thrilled for him. And Albert in the film looks like a young Gregory Peck. We don’t have many of those in Devon either. But all told I think we’re pleased with this Spielberg film. We won’t need him to do any reshoots.”