Steven Spielberg on War Horse: "This is the first fully British film I've ever made”
Casualties of war; eight million horses died during World War One. But this loss of animal life was overshadowed, of course, by mankind’s sacrifice. In the nine decades since the Great War, this bloody conflict has been dramatised many times on film from a human perspective. War Horse, the new picture from Steven Spielberg, whose filmography runs red with the brutality of war (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun, HBO mini-series Band of Brothers), redresses the balance by centreing on one of these unsung long-faced heroes.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book, War Horse tells the story of Joey, a chestnut foal raised on a Devon farm where he forms a bond with his owner's son, Albert, in the years leading up to the First World War. To help solve the family's financial worries, Joey is sold to the cavalry and sent to battle where, through a series of dramatic events across the ravaged lands of war-torn Europe, he changes owner's hands several times (from allied troops, to French civilians, to German forces), he plays a part in many a tale that he can never tell.
Twenty-five-years after the book was first published, the story was brought to life on the National Theatre stage. Many thought the wartime story could not be captured on the boards (Morpurgo himself said, "they must be mad") but inventive stage direction and striking equine puppetry brought rapturous praise and a run on Broadway. The attention the play attracted meant the next audience to see it could only be that of the silver screen and it soon fell into the hands of a master of the modern filmmaking era.
“This is Michael Morpurgo’s baby,” beams Spielberg modestly, giving all credit to the source material on the day after War Horse's UK premiere, but what inspired the movie maestro to helm the adaptation? “The inspiration comes from your country!” enthuses the director. “This could have only been shot in Britain; this is the first fully British film I've ever made.” He pauses briefly before adding, “I once thought Empire of the Sun was a British film, but I think I disqualified that after I heard the reaction last night at the Odeon in Leicester Square and I realised my first British film was War Horse.”
Spielberg has assembled a stellar homegrown cast (including Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson and newcomer Jeremy Irvine), which he frames, with the help of his regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, in the grand, sweeping style of the auteurs who have inspired him most: Lean, Kubrick and, in particular, John Ford. “In the Quiet Man [Ford] included the land as part of his story telling, the land was a character. It's kind of fun to put a wide angle lens on and not be shooting close-ups all the time.”
Although passionate about his great British setting, Spielberg has ambitions beyond pleasing the West Country tourist board: he wants to educate. “I loved history, it was the only thing I did well at in school! But [today] children learn from media, and we feel responsible when we make a movie that touches on historical fact. What struck me during the research was the vast number of casualties of the horses,” says Spielberg speaking of the unmourned loss as one million British horses went to war for only 65,000 to survive (some only to be sold for meat rather than be brought home). Spielberg wanted to show the connection that can exist between man and animal and how their contribution was an important element to the war effort. “We tried to create a bonding story, where Joey circumvents the emotional globe of the Great War and connects with the people, that are not only caring for him, but Joey has a way of bringing people together, most importantly those from both sides of the war.” This is most poignantly represented in a scene where Joey is trapped in No Man's Land, wrapped in barbed wire, only to be freed by a British and German soldier working together.
Before leaving to embark with the film on more red carpet events across Europe, the director ponders on the representation of Joey as the average soldier. “Joey represents common sense, that is if people had the common sense, the common horse sense of Joey, then we wouldn't be having wars.”
It's a nice thought but, ultimately, Spielberg is an entertainer. The father of seven, who has ten horses at home and a wife who rides, was told by his own daughter to make the movie and in his hands War Horse becomes an epic family picture. Highlighting historical fact with fanciful historical fiction, it shows the bond between a horse and its rider, but does the multi Oscar-winning director know how to saddle up? “I may not ride, but I certainly know how to muck out a stable!”