While the movie War Horse was filmed just last year, I still felt that it merited a mention in my Horses & History blog because of the historical nature of the story. The movie is set in World War I and follows the story of a young farmhand, Albert Narracott, who braves the trenches in an effort to bring his cherished horse, Joey, home after it is sold to the cavalry and sent to France.
How it All Began
A meeting that started out as friendly pub chat in Devon, England more than 30 years ago laid the foundations for a child’s story that was first published in 1982. Twenty-five years later the book became a hit theatre production in London and the USA and in December 2011, it will be a most anticipated film on the big screen with whispers of Oscar accolades. It opens in theatres around Christmas Day in North America.
Author, Michael Morpurgo, was enthralled by WWI veteran Captain Budgett’s story about the horse who was his partner, confident and friend during the hellish years of the First World War. Morpurgo recalls the old man’s words: “The only ‘person’ I could talk to about things that I really cared about – my family, my mum and my fear of dying – was my horse. And I’d go to my horse at night and I’d feed him and I’d stand there, and I’d stroke his neck and talk into his ear and I’d tell him… and that horse listened.”‘
Hollywood mega producer, Steven Spielberg, became aware of the War Horse theatre production through one of his producers, Kathleen Kennedy, who saw the stage show in 2009, where a metal horse was used instead of a real horse. The book had been successfully adapted for the stage by allowing the horse to tell the story through his eyes as in the book. Steven Spielberg admits that the era surrounding WWI had never really interested him until he had seen the play in London, met the cast, visited the Imperial War Museum, and knew right away that this would be his next film: “Its heart and message provide a story that can be felt in every country.”
Below are some interesting facts and trivia about the filming and making of this much anticipated film:
• Jeremy Irvine, who plays lead character Albert Narracott, was chosen from hundreds of boys, going in to audition two or three times a week for two months.
• The cast is made up of Brits, French and German actors.
• The great granddaughter of Captain Budgett, one of the WWI veterans who inspired Morpurgo to write the story acted as an extra in one scene.
• Prior to the filming, all actors underwent two months of intensive horse training.
• Spielberg films are shrouded in secrecy during production, and filming for War Horse took place in England and Wales in various locations under the codename Dartmoor.
• Filming took place in Surrey, Wales and Dartmoor at Meavy village, and near Widecombe-in-the-Moor, and Ditsworthy Warren House. An isolated Grade II listed building near Sheepstor served as the Narracott family home in the film. Even the French scenes were shot in England.
• Spielberg fell in love with the Devon countryside saying: “I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty…I hardly scratched the surface of the visual opportunities that were offered to me.”
• Some residents of Castle Combe, another location, did not appreciate being unable to enter their village until filming breaks.
• The crew were apparently often in tears during filming of the scenes showing horses being shot and maimed.
• Author, Morpurgo, visited the set during filming and has high praise for Spielberg saying: “Spielberg is a wonderful storyteller and a kid. He was warm, kind and open, and utterly without ego. Spielberg was like a conductor with a very light baton. He hardly had to wave it at all. I was in awe.”
• In one cavalry scene, 130 horses were used. Lead actor, Jeremy Irvine, said this scene was intense as all these horses had to charge the German machine guns. He explained: “It’s the weapons of the old world – our men on horses – meeting the absolute destruction of these tools of mass slaughter.” He admits that with real explosions, bodies flying through the air and stunt men getting shot plus the smell and smoke, it was not difficult to act scared in that situation.”
• Thirteen different horses were used in the film to depict Joey the horse. A farrier was always on the set to put back on shoes sucked off in the mud that was so much a part of WWI.
• Equine make up was handled by artist Ali Bannister ensured that their coats and marking always looked the same for continuity and. Check out her website at http://www.alibannister.com/portrait-artist
• Zelie Bullen from Australia trained the horses. Check out Zellie’s website at http://animalsallaround.com/about/zelie-bullen-profile
• The only digital effects in the film are three shots lasting only three seconds which were undertaken to ensure horse’s safety.
• Extra filming involving the birth of a bay foal took place in California in March 2011.
• Spielberg admitted that working with horses was a new experience for him despite the fact that some of his family members ride. He said: “I was really amazed at how expressive they are and how much they can show what they are feeling.”
• Spielberg didn’t want War Horse to be a recreation of an equine Private Ryan, so there is not a lot of blood, but be warned, it is rated PG-13 and, “It’s a moving powerful story you can take children to see, but it is still very upsetting…people die, and it is war.”
See the War Horse movie trailer at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1568911/