The story of the War Horse and its press conference

By Maryann O’Connor

Guess where we were on Monday morning? That’s right; well we did already tell you in the title… Whether you are looking forward to seeing War Horse or already think it’s overblown sentimental claptrap you should read on and discover the reasons why legendary director Steven Spielberg was so desperate to adapt this story to film. There are some words from other people as well, you know, the actors and writers.

You may wonder how War Horse made it from book to film: well that is a tricky story. The book was written by Michael Morpurgo in 1982 and told of the extraordinary bond between man and horse. What made the story special was its perspective: that of Joey (the wonder War Horse himself). However, it was that special perspective which made the story quite difficult to translate to the stage: a feat achieved by shifting the perspective and replacing the magic by using intricate horse puppets /talented puppeteers. Consequently the stage production was a big hit. Producer Kathleen Kennedy went to see it and was so impressed that she immediately contacted Steven Spielberg. According to Kennedy, Spielberg was struck by the “simplicity of the story”.

With the motion picture production of War Horse, Morpurgo, principle screenplay writer Richard Curtis and Steven Spielberg have combined their collective talents to try and re-create the magic for the big screen. Michael Morpurgo summed up the attraction of War Horse succinctly: “The Germans…changed the title to Comrades, which is significant. It’s not really a story about war; it’s a story about friendship and reconciliation.” It is true that there is minimal footage of war in this film, roughly 12-15 minutes and very little blood. Spielberg wanted it to be a film that the whole family could watch but didn’t dictate what should or shouldn’t be included in the screenplay. The horrors of war and loss were portrayed more through what you didn’t see rather than what you did.

As for Spielberg’s inspiration: he cited his love of history and personal equine experience as his connection to this film. Spielberg said that his daughter, who has been riding horses competitively for over 10 years, told him “you have to make War Horse; you have to make it for me”. He seems well aware of the potential and responsibility of films like War Horse to bring history to life for young people. As Emily Watson (who plays Albert’s mother Rosie) reflected, “Harry Patch was the last surviving British fighter of WWI, he died last year and it is now leaving living memory and I think this film is very timely because it shines a light again on that terrible conflict that was so meaningless”. When researching the topic, the thing which really struck Spielberg was the vast number of casualties amongst the horses on all sides: as many animals died as humans. Spielberg said “This was the death knell for the horse, this was the end of the horse as an implement of warfare: the machine, the tank, the airplane, chemical warfare, had all kind of converged on the first world war, almost like an experimental war, that was the war to end all wars, at least that’s what they thought.”

According to Spielberg, Jeremy Irvine tested 5 times for the role of Albert before he was cast but got “better and better” each time. He also turned out to be a natural with the horses. He said “You learn very quickly you can’t fake that, those relationships that hopefully you see on screen have to be real. There’s no way around that. The 14 horses who play Joey, I had to have those real relationships or you’re going to get on camera and those horses are not going to be interested. You’ve got to be able to do a scene where you’re talking to the horse and make it so it’s interested and concentrating on you. That does take time.” Similarly, most of the cast had had very little experience with horses and were all sent on an intensive course. Tom Hiddleston, who plays Captain Nicholls, said they were “disabused of all their bad habits and drilled for 5 weeks like soldiers”. Joey the horse was principally played by two horses, Abraham and Finder. Richard Curtis told of the days he spent, “horse days”, in which he would think about how the horse would react to each situation: “In a way I set up expectations that the horses would be very emotional in the film and those were all fulfilled.”

The film was shot in a number of places, including the well-used film location of Castle Coombe. Perhaps reacting to critics picking on the spectacular skies in the film as an example of intensive effects work, both Spielberg and Kennedy paid tribute to the special sunsets and light in Castle Coombe and nearby locations in Devon. Spielberg said “people always say how much they love the ‘digital skies’. The skies you see in the movie are the skies that we experienced; the sunsets you see in the movie are the sunsets we experienced”.

Richard Curtis was very reticent to take much credit for researching the subject matter and said he was very much dependent on Michael Morpurgo’s work and his book. Curtis, famously, once wrote a situation comedy with Ben Elton about WW1, Blackadder Goes Forth, but said “Ben did all the work then on the history” and it was his job to focus on enriching the characters. Amusingly, Morpurgo replied that the last scene from Blackadder is”one of the great scenes…utterly extraordinary..which gave the entire country an intake of breath about the reality of what had happened to the great characters he (Richard) and Ben created”.

Spielberg listed all the people, his family of collaborators, who have the most impact on his work; of those the most notable was John Williams. This year they will mark 40 years of working together. Spielberg remarked that Williams’ scores “bypass the brain and go right to the heart”. Kathy Kennedy has been working with him since 1978, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski since Schindler’s List and Michael Kahn since Close Encounters. Even production designer Rick Carter had accompanied him for 15 films. So if you want a career like Spielberg you have to start building up a loyal and talented band of colleagues.

Michael Morpurgo had this to say in conclusion: “People are more in contact now with the consequences of war than they have been for a very long time. And that’s what amazes me sometimes when politicians seem to forget their history, they don’t look, and read, and learn about what has happened before. But you can see how we become puffed up and how the cockerel in nations rises so, so quickly if we’re not careful. Any story which gets young people thinking…Why did that happen to those people, was it necessary? Anything that gets us thinking like that is really important. ”

2 responses to “The story of the War Horse and its press conference

  1. Thanks for the background. I read Morpugo’s book and enjoyed it, but have not seen the movie yet.

  2. I have respect for Michael Morpurgo as a writer, so I feel better disposed towards this film than when I last posted, but not very much more so:

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