Another of Michael Morpurgo's Great War stories is now a film. But don't expect the Spielberg treatment this time.
Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 7 October 2012
Is there an author as prolific as Michael Morpurgo? One hundred and twenty-plus books is some going. Even given the length of time he’s been at it — he had his first book published in 1974 — that’s still more than three a year. “Look, they’re thin ones and little ones,” Morpurgo says, dismissing the subject with characteristic modesty. “I just love telling stories.”
In the manner of his hero Robert Louis Stevenson, he writes in bed, propped up on cushions. Never having got to grips with computers, he uses a longhand scrawl in exercise books, which is typed up by his wife, Clare, “the only person alive who can read my writing. I think I get lucky. I meet extraordinary people out of the blue. People tell me stories. Things happen to me.”
Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate, and public speaking is part of the gig. A former teacher, he is evangelical about history, personalising it, making it accessible. “As a kid, what fascinated me wasn’t the dates, it was the story of the individuals, whether it was Joan of Arc or Henry V or Gordon of Khartoum. And the evidence of this, surely, is Anne Frank. If you want to teach children about the Holocaust, read Anne Frank’s diary.”
If you can throw an animal into the mix, even better. That was what made such a success of War Horse — two words that will for ever be attached in parentheses to Morpurgo’s name, turning him from respected author into unlikely Hollywood darling. That story was a canter through his pet subject, the first world war, but it is the 2003 novel Private Peaceful, set against the same backdrop, that Morpurgo often rates as his best work. Having followed a similar path from page to stage, it too has now reached the screen.
Directed by Pat O’Connor, the film version stars George MacKay and Jack O’Connell as brothers Tommo and Charlie Peaceful, lads in love with the same girl (Alexandra Roach). Their story, which runs from rural Devon to the western front, is recounted by an imprisoned soldier, court-martialled for cowardice and awaiting the dawn firing squad.
The literary device was conceived at the In Flanders Fields Museum, in Ypres, where Morpurgo came across a terse letter from the army, informing a woman that her son had been executed. “What was extraordinary was the envelope. It was the rip that made me think of that mother, standing on the doorstep, opening it — the worst moment that any mother could dream of.” Three hundred and six British and Commonwealth soldiers were similarly shot, two for falling asleep at their posts, he says — shell-shocked, given cursory trials, sacrificed pour encourager les autres. The book was deemed influential in their posthumous pardoning in 2006.
Moved by hearing Morpurgo read an extract on Radio 4’s Today programme, the playwright Simon Reade asked if he could adapt the story — creating a searing one-man show that has played continually and has just finished a short run in the West End. Reade also wrote the screenplay.
It’s an intimate, very British affair, filmed on a fraction of War Horse’s $70m budget. Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between the two projects — one a Spielberg epic, unashamed to indulge the sentimentality; the other small and gritty, unfettered by the literary conceit of War Horse, which was told, originally, from the perspective of the horse itself.
Both Reade and Morpurgo served as producers on this film. One can’t ignore the author’s proclamations about wishing “to be as involved as possible” on this one, or the production notes trumpeting “the story, not the sets”. Over the years, he had been involved in other adaptations, productions that had given him the “feeling of being shut out”. Yet that Spielberg wanted to film War Horse he calls “extraordinary”, and it opened the door for Private Peaceful the movie, which was being developed before War Horse went into production — limping along, struggling to raise finance from studio backers.
“At the time we were told, ‘Americans aren’t interested in first world war stories’, and ‘Nobody’s heard of Michael Morpurgo’,” Reade recalls. Then along came Spielberg. Famously, War Horse, published in 1982, had lain forgotten until the National Theatre’s inventive stage adaptation in 2007. It was this that Spielberg saw and figured he could transmute into box-office gold. Such was his clout, he got his film made — Morpurgo clicks his fingers — “like that”.
“Private Peaceful was still trudging through the mud, and the horse galloped past,” he laughs. “But I love this way of film-making, the organic way this whole thing came together — the exact opposite of Hollywood.” He will be hands-on with the next one, too, The Mozart Question, for which he is currently penning the screenplay.
Through his books, Morpurgo has addressed all manner of issues — the Highland clearances (The Last Wolf), the Arab-Israeli conflict (The Kites Are Flying!), Afghan refugees (Shadow) — but he keeps returning to the great war. Just out is his illustrated book A Medal for Leroy, based on the life of Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British army, who died at the Somme in 1918. He is not alone in his fascination. In addition to all the revisionist histories clogging up Waterstones, it has been hard to turn on the telly without seeing lions abused by donkeys — Birdsong, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End and so on. Morpurgo rolls his eyes: “They even share the same actors. Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s clearly the bloke you have to have.”
Is it a case of keeping the memory alive now that dear old Harry Patch has faded away? A cash-in on the approaching centenary? No. “This war is a metaphor for all wars,” Morpurgo says. “About the horror of war, the destruction of it, the pity of it, as Wilfred Owen said. It’s got more resonance for us in the past 20 years, sadly, because we’ve been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the coffins start coming home, it reminds people that young men do go out and die because older men tell them they have to... The grief goes on.”
It is no small irony that Morpurgo intended to go into the army. He was an officer cadet at Sandhurst until he dropped his own bombshell — announcing, at the tender age of 19, that he was leaving to get married (to Clare Lane, daughter of the founder of Penguin Books). For a war baby, born in 1943, honouring your parents’ generation was simply what you did, he says. He had lost a beloved uncle, bomber crew in the RAF. At public school, he had been labelled “‘nice but dim’ — the army suited me, because I did have this aspiration to prove myself, largely because of the people I’d looked up to when I was little”.
Morpurgo has been caught up in a little revisionist history of his own. In the wake of the War Horse renaissance, fans had been flocking to the village hall in his Devon home, Iddesleigh, looking for the “small dusty painting” of Joey the horse, the one faithfully described in the book’s opening.
Though the story was based in fact, the portrait, he had to concede, was pure invention. He has since commissioned a painting to hang in pride of place, if only to spare the lady next door. “She was fed up with people knocking, saying, ‘We want to see this picture,’ and her having to lie, saying, ‘It’s been taken down to be cleaned.’”
It is not the only place of pilgrimage. There was, it turns out, a real Private Peaceful — with two Ls, but they misspelt it — who died at “Wipers”. This humble Tommy’s grave at the Bedford House Cemetery is now covered in flowers and letters from visiting children. “What’s marvellous about it is that this man has become a sort of Unknown Soldier — one of the million of ours who died.”
Private Peaceful is on general release from Friday