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Following the story of ‘Joey’ the horse and his young trainer, Albert, during the First World War, the War Horse series has gained huge popularity among the British public.  Beginning with Michael Morpurgo’s acclaimed children’s novel in 1982, War Horse has since become a renowned theatre production (2007 – present) and a box office hit (Spielberg’s 2011 film adaption).  The War Horse himself has become an icon of British popular culture, with the theatre’s star puppet Joey even saluting the Queen from the roof of the National Theatre during her Diamond Jubilee river pageant last summer.[1]  This was all too tempting for the documentary-makers, of course… cue Channel 4’s ‘War Horse: the Real Story’.[2]

When I first began watching ‘The Real Story’ (a historical documentary uncovering the British cavalry’s role in winning WWI) I was, admittedly, rather cynical.  The documentary’s use of ‘voice of God’ narration, old actuality footage/photograph montages, and various ‘talking head’ interviews made its construction rather typical of TV history.  However, I got sucked in: ‘The Real Story’, albeit generic in terms of format, had a somewhat refreshing twist.

Unlike the stereotypical historical documentaries that are deemed guilty for rehashing old stories and prioritising familiar topics over current research (among other things), ‘The Real Story’ aimed to boost the war horses’ history as a priority for new scholarly research.  From the outset of the documentary, acclaimed military historian Richard van Emden emphasises how horse power was ‘critical’ to the army during the war, but has so far received little academic attention.  This is not a line fed to him by the producers, either; in his own publication Tommy’s Ark, Emden stresses the disappointing lack of study into animals and warfare, too.[3]

My own investigations (as, I stress, a non-expert in military history) strongly confirm this: hardly any results for ‘horses in war’/‘cavalry WW1’ etc. were returned from the usually trusty journal databases and library catalogues.  Even the odd article I did find dedicated to the cause wasted little time in sharing similar sentiments to Emden: despite horses being ‘as indispensable to the war effort as machine guns, dreadnoughts, railways and heavy artillery…our fascination with technology [means] we never give them a second thought’.[4]  In this case, historians (without meaning to generalize) appear a little guilty for focusing largely on the ‘popular’ aspects of the war’s history – a criticism usually reserved for TV documentaries by academic scholars themselves, ironically.

Of course, there are criticisms that can be made of the documentaryFirstly, by using fictional aspects (e.g. using today’s landscapes to show what the battlefield may have looked like in the past, or using generic footage of marching soldiers to represent a specific event) the documentary is charged of fibbing to its audience.  The word ‘documentary’ itself implies it rests on truthfulness and factuality, and any use of creativity from the director to fill in the blanks, as it were, is usually considered a betrayal of trust – no matter what the documentary.

But is this such a wrongdoing?  If, for example, we’re reading an academic text about a battle, most of us would imagine the scene in our heads, using places/things in our memory to represent it.  We know it’s probably not exactly what it looked like, but visualising it (in our own imaginations or on a TV screen) makes it a little bit more ‘alive’.  Whilst watching documentaries, like ‘The Real Story’, can’t we just – to paraphrase Hayden White – let the horse be a horse, not the horse?

Similarly, it’s not always such a wrongdoing to include dramatic elements in a documentary.  Like the novel and film, ‘The Real Story’ focuses on the developing emotional relationship between soldier (in this case General Seeley) and horse (the talismanic Warrior) during the interwar years, and presents it in a highly emotive fashion.  Unsurprisingly, this presentation leaves the door open for the typical criticisms of historical documentaries/dramas: distorted, unrealistic, exaggerated, and – above all – rather unscholarly.  The gruesome, horror-loaded accounts of animal slaughter and mutilation, plus the pre ad-break cliff hangers, certainly don’t help the documentary’s case.

Yet the use of dramatics isn’t always so bad.  In this case, I argue it’s actually appropriate: surely it would be more distorting, and more misrepresentative, to present the (highly emotional) man-horse relationship in an unemotional, undramatic way?  My point is, although we could do without all the melodramatic suspense, sometimes the nature of the history at hand requires a different, ‘unscholarly’ (by which I mean ‘unbook-like’) spin.[5]

What I’m trying to say is that historical documentaries should be given a bit of a break.  In its attempt to capture interest in a relatively untold part of history, ‘The Real Story’ teaches us how research into the most famous events can still ‘miss’ parts of the past[6], and that it’s ok to take inspiration from culture crazes or what’s trending (#whathappenedtojoey).  Of course, there are other breaking-the-mould documentaries out there, but ‘The Real Story’s effort to stimulate historical thought stands out: instead of encouraging audiences to investigate a subject confidently covered by professionals, it asks professionals to investigate a subject loved by the nation.[7]

Claudia Rogers recently started her MA in Historical Research, having won the University of Sheffield’s Sir Ian Kershaw Prize last year for her dissertation on ‘The Devil in Gregory of Tours: Spirit Intercession and the Human Body’. You can find Claudia on twitter @claudiajrogers and read more of her work at her own blog The History Nest.

Image: Production of Nick Stafford’s War Horse, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, Australia (March 2013) [Wikicommons]


[1] Broadway.com staff, ‘War Horse star puppet takes to the roof’, Broadway.com, http://london.broadway.com/buzz/162229/war-horse-star-puppet-takes-to-the-roof-of-londons-national-theatre-to-salute-the-queens-diamond-jubilee/ (accessed 08/03/13).

[2] ‘War Horse: The Real Story’ [documentary], Channel 4, first broadcast 8pm, Sun 4 March 2012.

[3] R. Emden, Tommy’s Ark, (London, 2011).

[4] J. Singleton, ‘Britain’s military use of horses 1914-18’, Past and Present no.139 (1993), p. 178.

[5] Following Rosenstone, I strongly advocate that emotions are as much a part of the historical truth as facts, narratives and symbols (and are certainly not ‘unhistorical’).

[6] I.e. WWI and the understudied role of animals, and the related emotional aspects.

[7] By doing so, ‘The Real Story’ shows how documentaries can be vehicles for exploring new areas of historythey’re not always guilty for condensing, restricting and ‘simplifying’ existing research.

Tags : First World Warhistorical documentarieshistory and filmTV historyWar HorseWorld War I
Claudia Rogers

The author Claudia Rogers

@claudiajrogers www.thehistorynest.wordpress.com Dissertation title: 'The Devil in Gregory of Tours: Spirit Intercession and the Human Body'. Sir Ian Kershaw Dissertation Prize.

2 Comments

  1. As a TV director, it’s refreshing to me to find an academic endorsing a television programme, however tentatively. Mostly there is a kind of defensive assumption that everything ‘documentary’- makers do is for meretricious reasons, despite the irony that historians are currently stampeding towards tv in search of ‘public impact’. Actually we try hard to tell up-to-date challenging stories. The limitations we face are perhaps greater than academics imagine: we cannot assume more than a passing acquaintance with the period; a 1-hr film rarely has more than 7,000 words in it; a film is linear – viewers can’t easily ‘reread’ stuff, and if they do, the emotional [yes,emotional!] logic gets lost. Then there are the broadcasters who have legitimate concerns: what’s the point of spending £150,000 on a film if the viewers are going to switch over during an ad break? That’s why we have cliff-hangers [as I say, emotional logic!] – to make sure the viewers come back. That said, no-one can deny that there are some dreadful films out there, but they are horrible examples of a popular genre, rather than popular examples of a horrible genre: not all films are the same…

  2. Hi David,
    The limitations of TV film/documentary mediums and the concerns facing broadcasters you refer to here are aspects that can be overlooked by, or unknown to, academics; unfortunately this does often lead to somewhat unfair criticism of TV as a medium for historical enterprise. The TV film does need to be entertaining and thought-provoking so as not to lose its audience halfway through; it also needs to remain on budget, and fit into the allotted time, as you say. These are tricky factors to negotiate, and can result in production of not-so-good TV history. However, I completely agree with your statement that ‘they are horrible examples of a popular genre, rather than popular examples of a horrible genre’ – what a great way of putting it. This is what I hoped the above piece on the War Horse documentary would highlight: TV is an important medium for exploring history (and a vital one in a digitally-oriented age), and shouldn’t be dismissed as meretricious or otherwise. ‘The Real Story’ reflects what a great medium TV film is for disseminating new up and coming areas of research to the wider public – and, indeed, to the academic field itself! I am a firm believer that collaborative efforts between TV productions and historians can produce (and has already produced) exciting and ground breaking work, whilst being ‘watchable’ and entertaining, too.
    Thank you so much for reading!

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