Steven Spielberg’s touching World War I drama War Horse is based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel of the same name. The film is produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, with executive producers Frank Marshall and Revel Guest.
Michael Morpurgo tries to adapt his book into a film screenplay, working for over five years, but nothing comes out of it. However, the novel is successfully adapted for a stage play by Nick Stafford in 2007. The film cannot be told solely through the horse’s viewpoint (as in the book), so most of the film is based on the narrative approach of the stage play. Unlike the play, which features puppet horses, the film uses real horses as well as practical effects (and extremely limited computer-generated imagery).
In 2009, film producer Kathleen Kennedy attends the stage play in London’s West End and tells Spielberg about it. Eventually DreamWorks acquires the film rights to the book. Spielberg goes to see the stage play in early 2010 and meets some of the London cast, admitting to being moved to tears by their performance.
DreamWorks executive Stacey Snider suggests Richard Curtis to work on rewrites for the drafts that Michael Morpurgo and Lee Hall have turned in. Curtis produces more than a dozen drafts in three months, working closely with Spielberg who is set to produce the film. Excited by the results, Spielberg finally decides to also direct – while he is waiting for the animations of his other 2011-release film, The Adventures of Tintin, to be completed.
After having hundreds of young boys read for the lead role, resulting in some speculation, that Eddie Redmayne might have been cast for it, Spielberg chooses relatively unknown stage actor Jeremy Irvine instead, describing his performance as “very natural, very authentic.” It is his first film role, and he has never ridden a horse prior to War Horse.
The film’s brilliant cast includes British, French and German actors (playing characters of their respective nationalities), among them Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbell, David Kross, and Peter Mullan. Robert Emms, lead actor in the London stage play, is cast as David Lyons. In addition to the main cast, some 5,800 extras are used in the film. Michael Morpurgo can be seen in a cameo role at the auction – as he is visiting the set several times.
Principal photography lasts for about 64 days, beginning with the cavalry charge, where the British cavalry, 130 horses in total and many hundreds of extras, charge the German machine gun lines. It is is filmed at Stratfield Saye House in north Hampshire, and results in one of the most devastating war sequences directed by Spielberg.
As Jeremy Irvine remembers:
“It was terrifying. The smoke and the smell and the taste of the guns firing. It’s not difficult to act scared in that situation. There’s no doubt this was deliberate: not only to have the film look great, but to have that effect on the actors. It was an eye-opening scene.”
Tom Hiddleston recalls Spielberg’s advice:
“He said, ‘Give me your war face, and the camera’s going to move across, and as you feel it come up in front of you, I want you to de-age yourself by 20 years. So you’re 29, and when you see those machine guns, you’re 9 years old. I want to see the child in you.’ And I just thought that was one of the most astonishing acting notes I’d ever been given.“
Emily Watson also praises Spielberg’s directing:
"On set, he’d come in, in the morning, and say, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night. I was worrying about this shot!’ Which was great! He’s human and he’s still working in an impassioned way, like a 21-year-old, trying to make the best out of everything.”
When Kathleen Kennedy sends Spielberg photographs of the various countryside locations she has scouted for him, he decides to cut other elements of the story to enable more filming in Dartmoor, Devon. Spielberg: “I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming War Horse on Dartmoor.”
After working on James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), production designer Rick Carter, Spielberg’s long-term collaborator, joins the War Horse crew. This time, he does not have to create a new reality, but rather to take a living landscape and make it as much a character in the film as any human being – or horse.
The famous horse’s image from the final scene, shot against the saturated red sky, looks like a nod to epics like Gone With the Wind (1939), but according to cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, the resemblance is unconscious: "I didn’t even know there was an image similar to that!” Kamiński acknowledges that he used John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as a template for his exterior filming, paying particular attention to Ford’s panoramic sky, landscape and terrain.
After having directed six films with World War II themes, Spielberg tackles his first film dealing with World War I. Sequences in the barbed wire trenches recall World War I classics such as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).
During filming, fourteen different horses are used as the main
horse character Joey, eight of them portraying him as an adult animal,
four as a colt and two as foals. Up to 280 horses are used in a
single scene. An animatronic horse is used for some parts of the scenes where Joey is trapped in barbed wire (the wire is rubber prop wire). Working with horses – on this scale – is new to Spielberg:
“When I’m on an Indy movie, I’m watching Indiana Jones, not the horse he is riding … Suddenly I’m faced with the challenge of making a movie where I not only had to watch the horse, I had to compel the audience to watch it along with me. I had to pay attention to what it was doing and understand its feelings. It was a whole new experience for me.”
Michael Kahn edits War Horse during
filming in his trailer on set. Kahn and Spielberg cut the scenes digitally on an Avid, rather than on film.
Visual effects for the film are created by London-based company Framestore. According to Spielberg, the film’s only digital effects are three shots lasting three seconds, which were undertaken to ensure the safety of the horse: “That’s the thing I’m most proud of. Everything you see on screen really happened.”
Spielberg comments on the film score composed by John Williams: “I feel that John has made a special gift to me of this music,
which was inspired not only by my film but also by many of the
picturesque settings of the poet William Wordsworth, whose vivid
descriptions of the British landscape inspired much of what you are
going to hear.”
The film opens to positive reviews, with Roger
Ebert saying the film contains
“surely some of the best footage Spielberg has ever directed”. He writes: “The film is made with superb artistry. Spielberg is the master of an
awesome canvas. Most people will enjoy it, as I did."
War Horse is a financial success, grossing $177 million worldwide (against a budget of $66 million). The film receives six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture – winning none.