From director Steven Spielberg comes an emotional epic on a classic scale. It is the story of a miraculous horse in wartime—a stirring journey that explores a bond of friendship, loyalty and courage. Within the tale of a boy and the feisty colt he never stops believing in, there are sweeping battles, desperate escapes and an evocative odyssey through a world at war. But no matter where they go or what they experience both boy and horse keep forging ahead, driven by devotion and the hope of returning home.
Adapted from one of the great modern stories of friendship and war, the film is drawn from the novel that sparked a rousing stage hit, garnering five Tony Awards®, including Best Play. Now, Spielberg unfolds this heartwarming tale for all ages with a return to the territory where big screen cinema and intimate storytelling meet.
Says Spielberg: “To me, ‘War Horse’ is a timeless story about the sacrifices of love—about the sacrifices a boy makes in a time of war to find his horse and the sacrifices the horse makes just trying to survive this dark episode in history. Throughout it all, their destinies are entwined.”
The journey begins on the cusp of WWI, as an English farming family buys a fiery hunter colt at auction despite not having the funds to pay for him. Named Joey, the horse seems to be nothing but a loss for struggling Ted and Rosie Narracott (Peter Mullan and two-time Oscar® nominee Emily Watson), but their son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) is determined to tame and train him, making the most of Joey’s enthralling spirit, speed and affection. The two are inseparable, but when war breaks out, they are pulled apart as Joey is sold from under him and heads to the front as the mount of a dashing British cavalry officer.
Thus starts Joey’s labyrinthine trek through joy and sorrow, hardship and wonder, as this simple horse becomes a remarkable hero, touching lives on all sides of the war with his innocence, purity of motive, and unconditional devotion to his human friends. He pulls battlefield ambulances, whisks away German soldiers on the run, fires the imagination of a French girl and hauls colossal cannons up mountains. As the film builds to its powerful climax, and Albert heads into the trenches on his own perilous mission, Joey finds himself ensnared in the haunting No Man’s Land between British and German territory. But even when it seems there can be no return, he sets in motion a momentary chance for peace and holds fast to a dream of reunion and renewal.
To do justice to the story’s broad scope, Spielberg assembled a distinctive mix for the cast, delighting in bringing several newcomers to the fore, including Jeremy Irvine as Albert, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Kross, Patrick Kennedy, Toby Kebbell, Celine Buckens and Robert Emms, along with a host of award-winning veterans including Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup and David Thewlis.
DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present an Amblin Entertainment/Kennedy/Marshall Company production of a Steven Spielberg film, “War Horse.” Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, the screenplay is by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. The film is produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, and the executive producers are Frank Marshall and Revel Guest. Spielberg’s close-knit artistic crew, most of whom he has worked with through several decades, includes editor Michael Kahn, director of photography Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams, production designer Rick Carter and costume designer Joanna Johnston.
Joining them on “War Horse” was an extraordinary team of horse trainers and riders, all overseen by American Humane Association representative Barbara Carr, as they forged safe, respectful but unprecedented drama and action with equine actors as expressive as their human counterparts. Says Carr: “Everything was done in the safest, kindest ways for the animals. You could see in Steven that he truly cared deeply about the animals, and that was reflected in the entire production.”
A HORSE’S ODYSSEY HOME
How do you unfold a world-wandering tale of love, war, fortitude and hope when your main character is an innocent village colt in search of kindness, friendship and a way home?
That challenge instantly compelled Steven Spielberg when he encountered Michael Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse.” The book presented an inspiring legend, but it was cut from a different cloth than most. All manner of stories have emerged from war—stories of romance, of heroism, of moral dilemmas, of divided families transcending hardship. But here was a story of wartime as it had never been experienced: through the journey of an animal propelled into battle with no malice or side to take, fueled only by the burning desire to live and return to the ones he loves.
To do the story justice would be a creative and technical feat, one that hooked into Spielberg’s penchant for chronicling the human condition. It was one that, for all its scope, would have little to do with special effects and everything to do with a more hand-crafted cinematic style, working humanely and intelligently with remarkable animals and engaging human performances, and guiding a devoted crew to overlay a triumph of the spirit atop an unforgettably rugged landscape of conflict. “War Horse” is about classical movie storytelling, weaving a chain of individual stories into an intricate canvas portraying the power of hope in the toughest of times.
The novel had been told with the simple power of allegory. The play, which Spielberg first saw in London at the urging of his long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy (who has produced four decades worth of Spielberg’s seminal films), was emotionally transporting with its whimsical use of towering yet bare-boned horse puppets. But Spielberg immediately understood he would have to find his own visual path to bring the story fully alive on the screen. He took off at a galloping pace.
“The puppets were magnificent on stage, but I knew that if we were going to tell the story, it had to be with real horses,” Spielberg says. “I loved the book also, but it is told from Joey’s point of view and you even hear Joey’s thoughts. I knew that was not an avenue that would work for the film, though it allowed me to understand the importance of telling the story from different viewpoints.”
Following a different track, Spielberg envisioned the film emerging from the tradition of the odyssey—the mythic journey that propels a youthful hero into the dangerous world only to return with hard-won wisdom and a fresh view of life. Only this time, the traveler would have the perspective of a different species silently, yet soulfully, witnessing humanity at its most troubled yet inspirational.
Structurally, the film became a study in shifting moods that lead into one another—the rough-hewn, almost storybook village of Joey’s youth gives way to the shock and adrenaline rush of a brave new mechanized battlefield, which gives way to an idyllic French farm full of pastoral pleasures, which unravels into the pandemonium of the trenches and the desolate mists of No Man’s Land, all of which only reinforces the driving memory of the village where Joey’s journey began, and to which he strives to return.
Courage is what keeps Joey and Albert going through four danger-filled years apart, and it is courage that becomes a theme woven through the entire texture and fabric of the film. “I think ‘War Horse’ has a lot to say about courage—and about doing things not just for yourself but for the sake of those you love. That theme comes through in many different ways,” Spielberg notes.
He continues: “Albert and Joey have a tenacious belief in one another. It all begins when they attempt together to plow this impossibly stony, infertile field in Devon, before the war. That creates such a synergy and empathic collaboration between horse and boy that when they are separated by the war, I think the audience senses that at some point there is going to be a date with destiny. And when that date occurs, you see that out, of the chaos, something wonderful happens.”
Indeed, everywhere that Joey winds up in his journey, he finds people and animals giving everything they’ve got to the possibility of survival. From the start the idea of moving seamlessly from one compelling story to the next, all through Joey’s experiences, was intriguing to Spielberg. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked before in this kind of episodic format, with miniature stories all coming together into a larger tale,” he observes. “Characters come and go as Joey passes through all these lives, and we get to see how each of the characters imprint themselves on Joey—and how Joey affected them.”
Whether those characters are British, French or German, Spielberg was interested in the basic humanity at the root of their actions. “War Horse” never concerns itself with identifying an enemy as people from every side find solace and connection with Joey. “The film doesn’t take sides as to who is right or who is wrong,” says Spielberg. “It’s really about how the characters relate to this horse. Horses have no politics; their main concern is for the care of their charges. And that is a very important thing that gives the story its humanity amidst the war.”
Another source of fascination for Spielberg in the story are the mysteries of the powerful human bond with nature. He himself lives with horses and has seen firsthand how close they can get to their human companions. Now, he wanted to expose the hearts of horses as they had not been seen on screen before—in all their pure, primal feeling and nobility.
“I have lived with horses for 15 years, and I’ve gotten to know how expressive they are,” the director says. “But movies don’t often spend time on what horses are feeling. In the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies, for example, my job was to focus on Indiana Jones, not his trusted steed. But in the course of making ‘War Horse,’ I was amazed at how the horses were able to emote so tremendously. In the play the puppets were really able to bring the emotion of the horses to the audience because they were puppets, but I wanted to do that with real horses in the motion picture.”
A long-time history buff, Spielberg was well aware that the tests faced by both horses and soldiers in WWI were some of the most harrowing in history. Known as “the war to end all wars” because no one could imagine going through it again, it marked a seismic shift from the chivalry and honor of warfare past to the dehumanization and mass casualties of modern weaponry. But Spielberg determined from the beginning that he would use a truthful restraint that would keep the film anchored in history without ever becoming graphic. “What was on my mind was to make a very honest story,” the director comments. “But I was careful to pull back in ways I would not have on ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or on our miniseries ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific.’ I wanted the journey of Albert and his horse to be an authentic, shared experience for families.”
Creating that shared experience would also become a reunion for Spielberg with a community of collaborators who have helped to make his wide-ranging productions so culturally influential. “All my stalwart family members, across so many years and covering so many movies, came together to make ‘War Horse’ with me,” he says. “It was a great part of this experience.”
For cast and crew it was the perfect marriage of artist to story. Sums up co-screenwriter Lee Hall: “This is a story where the main character has no words, and Steven has the amazing gift of being able to tell the grandest story through the simplest means and make you care. Throughout all his work there are characters who are larger than life, who are different from us, but who we pour our hearts and identification into.”
There was also a strong sense of history—and its forward trajectory—that permeated the production. “There was a real sense of respect for the fact that people lived through these events,” says Richard Curtis. “There was so much integrity to the design and I think Steven wanted to be as honest and emotionally true as possible, not romanticizing it, but trying to create an authentic experience, yet always with the possibility for Joey and Albert to make it back home.”
Adds five-time Oscar®-winning composer John Williams, whose music has been inseparable from Spielberg’s movies since 1974: “My reaction to ‘War Horse’ was how could anyone other than Steven direct, stage, photograph and edit a story like this with such precision and power?”
FROM PAGE TO STAGE TO SCREEN
From modest beginnings “War Horse” has become a part of contemporary culture, a story from a century past that speaks to that which matters to the world right now. It first became a well-loved family book, then an innovative stage play that took audiences by storm and now it sees another incarnation in its most visceral medium yet.
It all started with novelist and children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who always wanted to write a tale set against the Great War. World War I is perhaps the least talked-about conflict of the 20th century, leaving in its wake a world forever changed and a generation tasked to rebuild from ashes. For a long time Morpurgo had looked for an original way to write about the war. But it wasn’t until he met an aged veteran in a bar that he found his way in—inspiration sparked when he heard the man talk with passion not about his fellow soldiers but about the incredibly heroic horses with whom he served.
Like most people, Morpurgo had never given much thought to horses in wartime, but this old soldier opened his eyes to a vast, unexplored world: the bonds between humans and animals that even battle could not tear asunder, and that kept so many going when they might have given up. “Here I was listening to this old man who had tears in his eyes talking about a relationship he had with a horse on the Western Front decades ago,” the novelist recalls. “I learned that these horses were doing so much more than simply carrying soldiers or gun carriages. They deeply mattered to people.”
That initial conversation led Morpurgo into his own personal hunt for research, in which he discovered that a remarkable 1 million horses valiantly went into battle with the British during WWI and only 62,000 animals returned. He learned how vital horses were on all sides of the war, giving soldiers from every country an invisible but common thread. He explored poignant paintings and read historical accounts of how horses sacrificed, suffered and committed acts of bravery—just like their human companions. Through it all, he felt this was a story that needed to be told.
Published in 1982 as a story for young adults, the book was quickly embraced by readers around the world and was a runner-up for the prestigious Whitbread Award. In 2007, when the novel was adapted into a mesmerizing stage play at London’s National Theatre, audiences went mad for it and for its themes of human-animal friendship, the power of endurance and the way hope for the future stays with us when all appears lost.
The play also spoke to producer Kathleen Kennedy, who upon seeing it, fell in love with Joey and his unwavering determination to find his way home. “I couldn’t get the story and the emotions it evoked out of my head,” she recalls.
She instantly thought of Spielberg. She knew he had all the creative resources to find the way to bring this astonishing story to moviegoers in a universal and contemporary way. “Steven wasn't interested in making a war movie,” explains Kennedy. “Rather, what he loved about ‘War Horse’ was the relationship between the boy and this horse and their journey. Everybody can identify with Joey’s primal emotions and, as a result, cannot help but care deeply for what happens to him, and by following Joey’s experience, Steven could show the goodness to be found in people fighting on either side in the war.”
Even before production started, Kennedy anticipated that the power of Spielberg’s approach would be his ability to key into the ordinary relationships that allow people to do extraordinary things.
When Spielberg took on the project, Morpurgo could hardly believe it. He was thrilled with the direction, which was as unique to the screen as the theater version was to its form. “There was an incredible meeting of minds with Steven. We're both storytellers who are fascinated by how stories can expand and grow. Steven told the story in his own way, with more depth and breadth,” says the author.
London-based executive producer Revel Guest, who had endeavored to make a film of “War Horse” since its theatrical opening, was also exhilarated by the match-up. “There is no one I can think of that we would prefer to have direct this film than Steven Spielberg,” she says, “He is a lover of horses and also the best war director of our times, so the two combined is exactly right.”
The filmmakers next turned their attention to adapting the novel. First they brought in British screenwriter Lee Hall, who wrote the triumphant “Billy Elliot,” and then, to add more layers, they brought in another Brit, Richard Curtis, whose films include “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill” as well as the TV series “Blackadder,” a comedy set in the trenches of World War I.
Curtis notes that the story has a strong connection to the world right now. “With the financial recession, and the threat of terrorism, that question of how individuals survive in a big dangerous world is something that we are all more aware of right now,” he notes.
But to bring those links out, he had to find answers to two complicated questions: How could Joey be the very center of the story even though he has no voice; and how could the narrative stay with Joey’s quest for reunion and not get mired in the muck and chaos of the war? “The war had to be a presence which you always know is there, a threat, but not the central subject,” says Curtis. “The challenge was achieving a balance—not diminishing the horror of the war but not eclipsing what is a very moving story about people bound together by a horse.”
As he discussed the nuances of the screenplay with Spielberg, Curtis also was put in mind of another subtle influence. “I think somewhere in Steven’s mind was the cinematic tradition of the Western. You start out in a lovely homestead where they’re pulling the water and there’s a friendly goose, and then suddenly there’s the foreboding sense that something bad is coming just over the horizon,” he observes.
When the darkness of war arrives in Devon, the resulting chaos cleaves Albert and Joey apart, but Spielberg and Curtis discussed coming up with a narrative device to tie the two friends together even as they each go off on disparate adventures. This became the pennant Albert ties to Joey’s reins the day he leaves his side.
For Spielberg, that simple object became a visual through-line. “I wanted to find a way to tie up all of the film’s stories with one thing that becomes a kind of unifying force and that is the father’s war pennant,” he says. “Joey takes with him this memento of their relationship and it goes from story to story until the very end. It was very important to me that there be that kind of visual talisman. The campaign pennant connects Joey not only to all these other stories but it also connects the boy to his father and home.”
Adds Curtis: “Steven is very skilled at weaving visual markers through a far-ranging story, and the pennant is very important because Albert’s father brought it back from his time at war—and now it becomes the one constant all the way through the film until it finally is returned back to where it came from. Our hope was that it would be a little, beautiful, shining thread through all that they go through.”
No matter what tweaks of plot they made, the writers always kept Joey at the heart of things. “He represents all of our innocence thrown into an unbelievable cataclysm,” sums up Hall. “In his perspective all the complexities are stripped back to the simple, and it becomes a very human story.”
DISCOVERING THE CAST
When it came to the casting, Spielberg was motivated entirely by character. He scoured Britain for actors he felt could seamlessly enter the film’s roles, regardless of whether they were known or unknown. “Steven has a great track record of making really wonderful discoveries,” notes Kathleen Kennedy, “and he was very excited by the opportunity this film provided to find the perfect ensemble to fill so many diverse and wonderful roles.”
An engagingly diverse cast was key to Spielberg’s vision. ‘“War Horse’ isn’t just the story of a boy and a horse; it’s also the story of the many different people who encounter them—and this became one of the happiest ensembles I’ve ever worked with,” the director notes. “Most of the characters never appear in scenes with each other, yet you’re left with the impression that they were all in it together. I’m really proud that so many good actors gave so much of themselves to us.”
One of the most essential choices was that of who should play Albert, whose love for the red foal his drunken father purchases carries him through the tribulations of war. In the midst of extensive auditions, one young actor caught the team's eye: Jeremy Irvine, a 20 year-old Briton who had grown up in a small country village, much like Albert.
“For Albert I didn’t want someone bringing in a portfolio of distinguished parts from other films,” says Spielberg. “I wanted a fresh face. Joey was a complete unknown, so let the boy be unknown too. I remembered that Christian Bale was the second person I saw for ‘Empire of the Sun,’ and months later I came back to him. The same kind of thing happened with Jeremy. We were right in the middle of the search process when we first saw Jeremy. So then we moved on to see if anybody could match him. After several more months of searching, it was clear he was the best person for the part.”
A fan of the book since his mother first read it to him at age 10, Irvine sees Albert as not so different from any boy on the verge of being thrust into adult responsibility. “When we first meet Albert, he is just starting to question his father and what sort of man he is—he's growing up, really,” observes Irvine. “But he finds the way to do that through this horse. I think everyone relates to that. We’ve all experienced something we want to escape from, and we’ve all had a relationship with a friend that plays a huge role in our going out into the world and coming of age.”
The WWI theme had a personal poignancy for the actor. “Two of my great grandfathers were in the war,” he explains. “One was at Gallipoli and had a horse called Elizabeth that he was very attached to. I saw the receipt showing that he bought the horse from the army for £28, exactly the same amount Albert has when he tries to buy Joey from the army! It was an amazing coincidence.”
Irvine embarked on a period of intensive training, riding up to 10 hours a day at the Hertfordshire stables, where the horses included stars from such films as “Seabiscuit” and “Black Beauty.” There, he learned to think the way horses do. “The horses were so sensitive,” he remarks. “It was a joy learning to ride with these magnificent creatures. And it’s incredible how quickly you can pick it all up when you’ve got the very best people teaching you.”
Once on the set, the demands of all the riding and battle sequences in the mud-logged trenches took their toll on Irvine, but he says it was all worth it to tell this story. “Some days you’d be under fake rain until you were freezing or you'd be covered head to toe in mud. You might spend 14 hours in dark, desolate locations that looked like the end of the world. But because it all seemed so real, we were able to get a real sense of what these young men went through. Steven never does anything by halves. Everything is done the best way it possibly can. He makes it so powerful.”
As a newcomer, Irvine had the chance to work with two veteran actors in the roles of Albert’s parents, who have known tough times even before WWI breaks out: Peter Mullan, the Scottish actor known for his roles in such films as “Braveheart,” “Trainspotting” and “Boy A,” and Emily Watson, a two-time Academy Award® nominee for “Hilary & Jackie” and “Breaking the Waves.”
Mullan was drawn to the film’s originality. “The way the film feels like a fable about a horse’s journey is genius,” he says. “It seems like it would be impossible to tell a war story differently from any other that has come before, but with this film Spielberg does that. Seeing war through a horse’s eyes is something beautifully simple—yet it reminds you of your own humanity.”
The actor also found Ted Narracott intriguing because he is a character who isn’t quite what he seems. Though he might be stubborn and unruly, he also hides a past of heroism and heartbreak from his own days in the Boer War. “Ted is a fundamentally decent guy in physical, emotional and spiritual pain,” observes Mullan. “His self-esteem might be gone, but I think the bad things he does only come out of frustration and loss. The family lives in a tough, emotionally repressed environment, but Ted genuinely loves his son—and he is deeply moved by what he achieves with Joey.”
The experience of working with Spielberg was exhilarating for Mullan. “Steven is very different from other directors I've worked with. He builds a performance take after take, and it often felt as though we were making a silent movie because we would get direction from Steven as we were acting rather than getting notes after. I loved it because with Steven you have to give yourself up completely.”
Emily Watson was also excited to work with Spielberg for the first time. “The material was so great, and Rosie was a meaty kind of character to get my teeth into,” she says. “I knew Steven was going to make this an epic story we all can relate to. What he always does so brilliantly is to let you see humanity from the unique outside view of a creature. That’s what he did with ‘E.T.,’ isn’t it?”
Watson had first seen the play when she was heavily pregnant and had been overcome. “There's nothing more powerful than a child being separated from his mother and then trying to be reunited,” she says. “The idea of this horse and boy finding their family again, when so many didn’t, was very potent.”
With Rosie, she was able to get to the heart of the story—the strength of those who never gave up hope they’d see each other again. “Rosie is the one holding the family together,” observes Watson. “It's a terribly hard situation, but she's determined to make it work. Her family is always one step away from being evicted, and then her husband spends all their money on a useless horse. But when she sees her son come alive with this animal, she, too, falls in love. Training Joey turns her boy into a man.”
Like many involved in the film, Watson had a personal connection to WWI. “We all have stories about the men who left for war,” she says. “My grandmother’s older brother, whom she worshipped, was killed at Ypres. She never talked about it until she was 80, and then she sobbed and sobbed as she told us she’d slept every day of her life with his letter from the trenches by her bed.”
Another key character from Albert’s village of Devon is David Lyons, the son of the Narracotts’ landlord who starts out as Albert’s rival only to become his commanding lieutenant in war. To play David, Spielberg chose Robert Emms, who also garnered critical acclaim for his performance as Albert in London's West End production of “War Horse.”
Emms says that no matter which character he plays, the story always moves him. “The themes of war and of friendship are timeless, and that’s why all kinds of people connect with this story,” he says. Spielberg gave Emms insight into David’s relationship with his father. “He talked about David sitting on the fence, not sure if he wants to be like his father or just one of the boys like Albert. I hadn’t thought about it that way and it really put me on track,” he recalls.
Playing David’s upper-crust father is award-winning English actor David Thewlis, perhaps best known for his roles in the “Harry Potter” films. He was drawn to playing an archetypal character from film history. “When Steven approached me to play Lyons, he pointed out that this is a classic character who goes back to silent films—the evil landlord—and I was glad to have a go at that in a very different way under Steven’s guidance,” says Thewlis.
As Joey heads to war, he becomes tied to the fates of three young British cavalry officers: Captain Nicholls, the debonair horseman who promises to take care of Joey for Albert; Major Stewart, who rides the noble black steed Topthorn; and Lieutenant Waverly, Captain Nicholls’ best friend.
Tom Hiddleston, the young British actor recently seen as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” took the role of Nicholls after winning over Spielberg. “I had seen him in some smaller parts and thought he was the reincarnation of Errol Flynn,” Spielberg comments. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have the first person who purchases Joey to be this classic dashing British hero. So we threw caution to the wind. Instead of casting against type, I went a bit on the nose with a suave, sophisticated but very mindful young soldier.”
Once he took the role, Hiddleston wanted to do Captain Nicholls, and all those young men like him, justice. “Nicholls is someone who has a real sense of how awful this war is going to be,” he observes. “His way of coping with that fear is to make these beautiful sketches of Joey, so I felt I was not just playing a soldier but a soldier with an artist’s spirit.”
Though he is an experienced rider, Hiddleston had to learn the more refined skill of wielding a sword on horseback in the style of British cavalry. He says: “Working with swords requires a lot of precision, practice and discipline—especially working swords around horses! From day one, we had to start learning to ride one-handed. It was all about practice and making sure we were safe.”
Benedict Cumberbatch, who has played historic roles ranging from Stephen Hawking to Sherlock Holmes, took the role of Major Stewart—and the reigns of Topthorn. He says of the role, “Stewart is young as many of the commanding officers were in the First World War. But he has an authority and certainty that are inspirational to his men. He knows the risks and the uncertainties of their task but to lead 300 men you have to give them a belief and purpose to create courage and loyalty.”
Playing Lt. Waverly is Patrick Kennedy, whose films include “Atonement.” Kennedy describes Waverly as “the joker in the pack. I don’t think he’s a particularly serious soldier, but he’s very well meaning. And I think a lot of his gregariousness and humor comes from the fact that he’s scared.”
On the German side, David Kross, who played Michael Berg in Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of “The Reader,” took on the role of Gunther, the German soldier who goes AWOL with Joey to try to save his underage brother. Kross says that for someone like Gunther a horse such as Joey was a spectacular thing to behold. “Gunther’s background is as a working class farm boy who has only ever dealt with working horses. So when he sees this Joey, who’s so beautiful and strong, I think it’s like seeing a Ferrari out there. He falls in love and realizes he has found his chance to escape.”
The German boys and Joey flee to a French farm where, hidden within a spinning windmill, Joey finds his first true respite from the war. Here, he meets Emilie, a frail but spirited little girl and the grandfather who hopes to shield her from the war as much as he can. Coming out of battle, they remind Joey of home. “The bond Emilie makes with Joey is very similar to the bond that Albert and Joey had,” notes Spielberg. “It’s as if the horse remembers Albert through this little girl who is taking such good care of him.”
Celebrated French actor Niels Arestrup, recently lauded for his role as a prison kingpin in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” takes the role of the grandfather. After extensive auditions Spielberg cast London newcomer Celine Buckens, who learned to speak in a French accent for the film, as Emilie. Buckens had never spent much time around horses, but she understood deeply why Emilie becomes so attached to Joey and Topthorn. “She is very isolated during the war, but the horses become a source of hope for her, a connection to the world beyond her grandfather,” she says.
The film was a life-changing experience for Buckens. Not only was it her first movie, and a dream chance to work with Spielberg, but despite knowing little about them before, she developed what she believes will be a life-long passion for horses. “Now, I love horses,” she says. “I’ve realized what beautiful and gentle creatures they can be. The horses I got to know were so amazing.”
Another character who bonds with Joey in a profound way lies at the center of a scene that Spielberg says he is most proud of in “War Horse”: when a Geordie goes “over the top” of the trench, risking his life in No Man’s Land, to rescue a horse that has somehow clung to life in a smoky maze of barbwire. When the Geordie meets his German counterpart in this broken land around this horse in need, a hushed, tenuous human peace is momentarily struck.
In the role of the Geordie soldier is English actor Toby Kebbell, recently seen in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Kebbell says the scene hit him hard. “When I finished it, it affected me far more heavily than I thought.” he recalls. “There was something so actual about going down into the trench, climbing out of the trench, climbing across No Man's Land. But that is why I act: for the experiences that come with it. It all became real to me.”
THE EQUINE CAST (AND THEIR TRAINERS)
If the human cast of “War Horse” was vital, the film’s cast of equines was even more so, for it was they who had to bridge the species gap to take audiences into a perspective unlike any other. The awe-inspiring allure of horses has captured the imagination of filmmakers since the genesis of the movies—indeed, some of the first moving images ever shot were of horses galloping. In the last century the horse has continued to play a rich role in movies, often in the background in Westerns, but taking the lead in such classics as “International Velvet,” “The Black Stallion” and “Seabiscuit.”
But never before “War Horse” had a film been attempted that was so dependent on the expressive abilities of horses or that accurately depicted the untold story of their sacrifices in war. So it was essential to Spielberg to find the perfect combination of devoted trainers and sensitive animals that would allow for both the safe undertaking of what he envisioned and genuine, soulful performances from the horses.
Ultimately, a large equine unit was forged, comprised of over 100 horses under the aegis of horse master Bobby Lovgren, who had also worked with the horses on “Seabiscuit” and is known for taking the art of horse training to new levels. Lovgren in turn recruited trainers from Australia, Spain and the U.S., as well as a team of groomers, handlers, transporters, a vet and even an equine hair and makeup unit, all diligently overseen by representative Barbara Carr from the American Humane Association.
“Bobby and his team literally performed miracles with the horses on this film,” says Spielberg. “The thing I emphasized from the outset was that the horses had to be safe. I love horses and I didn’t want them to ever be in harm’s way. Bobby did that. Another essential person was Barbara Carr, the American Humane representative, who was there for every single shot. I gave her full power to pull the plug if she ever felt any of the horses were not up to the challenges or if she thought they could be injured in any way. I wanted her to be part of all the action and stunts the horses perform, to watch the rehearsals where we moved in slow motion one step at a time, and to say ‘I think this is safe’ or not. It was a vital collaboration between me, Bobby and Barbara.”
When Lovgren saw the screenplay, he was moved by its rare portrait of animals in war, and by Joey’s steadfast heart, but he knew his work would be cut out for him—and for his horses. “At first, it was mind boggling to even think about,” he confesses. “The horses had so many different kinds of interactions with so many different kinds of people in war scenarios that would be very difficult for any animal, including a human being,” he comments. “But we set out to be very, very conscientious about safety, and our trainers were exceptional at what they did. No horse was ever injured on the set. When you see them limping in the film, they were trained to do that.”
Fourteen different horses played Joey in his progression from colt to adult, and they were tasked with stitching together a portrait of a horse that is every bit as naïve but ultimately as noble, loyal and brave as the young man who trained him. The horses included Lovgren’s own beloved horse Finder (whom he purchased after training him for “Seabiscuit”), who took on Joey’s most serious acting scenes. Lovgren says Finder has an uncanny ability to convey his feelings. “Two of the trickiest scenes for a horse are when Joey is caught in the barbed wire fence, which was actually made from plastic so as to be harmless to the horses, and when Topthorn struggles and Joey takes the reins to try to pull him up. It was so important to get the emotion of these scenes, but it’s quite hard to do that with a typical horse. I was really lucky with Finder because he has a personality that connects emotionally with audiences.”
Four different horses split the role of Joey’s wartime friend and rival, Topthorn, but in his most powerful scene, he is played by a special horse named George. Recalls Barbara Carr of American Humane: “George had to lay very still while Finder, who was playing Joey, had to come to his side. The horses were both so well trained and calm through all of this. Steven had the entire set quiet. No movement. He made everyone so aware of what was going on with the animals so that they were never put in any stress at all. And yet, it was so emotional, the whole crew was crying.”
Ali Bannister was instrumental in designing the “look” of Joey, and equine makeup supervisor Charlie Rogers had to make sure that all the different Joeys had that specific look. “Each of the Joeys was trained for specific actions, but they all had to look identical,” she explains. “Each had to have the four white socks and white star on their foreheads. It took 45 minutes to get a horse into ‘makeup’—and they all had different temperaments, so I had to have a lot of patience!”
Carr enjoyed watching Lovgren’s teamwork so caringly with the individual animals. “I was there for all of the horses’ training,” she explains. “I watched them learn to give certain looks and take on certain behaviors that humans can identify with, which are very difficult to train. And I watched them become accustomed to getting shaved to have the white star on their foreheads. In time, the horse became used to all of it.”
Often the horses were as enthusiastic about the scenes as the human actors, especially during the cavalry charges. “The horses were so excited to run,” says Carr. “We had a hard time stopping them because they were enjoying the run together as a giant herd, and it was so beautiful.”
The cast found the horses remarkably attuned to human reactions. “All through the film, I noticed that whatever I was feeling, the horses would reflect back to me,” says Tom Hiddleston, who plays Captain Nicholls. “They sense fear, they sense arrogance, and they can sense a kind of inner peace. When I was calm, they were relaxed and whenever I was nervous, they became excited.” Adds Patrick Kennedy, who plays Waverly: “We all became incredibly attached to the horses. Getting to know these horses and learning to ride them was the greatest privilege I’ve ever had.”
Spielberg was gratified by how much like actors the horses became. “I wanted it to feel like the horses were performing their parts as much as Emily Watson or Peter Mullan,” the director concludes. “And that is what happened. There were times during production when the horses reacted in ways I had never imagined a horse could react. You just sit back and thank your lucky stars that these horses are so cognizant that they are able to give everything to a moment.”
While nearly all of the scenes in “War Horse” are shot with living, breathing horses, Spielberg did commandeer an animatronic horse for portions of the sequence in No Man’s Land, after Joey is tangled in thorns of barbed wire, often a tragic ending for horses in WWI. Special effects supervisor Neil Corbould built a breathtakingly real, full-size Joey for the scene. “He was fully animatronics and sitting on his knees. We dug a 1.5-meter hole, and we had four or five puppeteers basically buried beneath the ground, operating the horse,” explains Corbould.
However, for the close-up of Joey’s face in that scene, Spielberg brought in Finder to get to the depth of Joey’s innermost feelings. Toby Kebbell, who plays the British soldier who helps to free Joey, recalls: “The animatronic horse was so realistic. It had the ability to blow air from the flair of its nose and to jolt its head. It was very close to Joey