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. This was all too tempting for the documentary-makers, of course… cue Channel 4’s ‘War Horse: the Real Story’.
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.
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’. 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 documentary. Firstly, 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.
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, 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.
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]
 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).
 ‘War Horse: The Real Story’ [documentary], Channel 4, first broadcast 8pm, Sun 4 March 2012.
 R. Emden, Tommy’s Ark, (London, 2011).
 J. Singleton, ‘Britain’s military use of horses 1914-18’, Past and Present no.139 (1993), p. 178.
 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’).
 I.e. WWI and the understudied role of animals, and the related emotional aspects.
 By doing so, ‘The Real Story’ shows how documentaries can be vehicles for exploring new areas of history – they’re not always guilty for condensing, restricting and ‘simplifying’ existing research.