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December 18, 2011

'War Horse' is Not a War Movie, Spielberg Says

by Alan Silverman

A stirring new drama directed by Steven Spielberg is winning critical praise, including Best Picture nominations for the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards. It is based on an award-winning play about a British cavalry horse in World War I. Here's a look at the film version of War Horse.



The story opens in 1912 on the rugged farmland of Southern England. A farmer brings home a colt from the local horse auction and a lifelong relationship begins between the spirited animal and the farmer's shy teenager, Albert.

ALBERT "I'll train him."
MOTHER "You stay out of this, Albert. You don't know about horses."
ALBERT "Please, mom. Please let me. I can do it."
MOTHER "Well, you've got one month to break him in or I'm taking him back myself."




The horse that Albert names "Joey" grows into a strong and smart steed - exactly the kind of animal the British Cavalry needs two years later when World War I breaks out in Europe.

Joey goes off to war and Albert quickly follows, determined to find and bring home the horse he loves so dearly.

Albert (Joey Irvine) and his horse Joey are featured in this scene from
Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey are featured in this scene from "War Horse" (Photo: DreamWorks Pictures)

War Horse began as a historical novel for young readers that was adapted as a stage play in London with Joey and the other horses in the story portrayed by life-sized puppets created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. After seeing a performance of the play, Steven Spielberg decided to make a film version.

"So many people came out of the play talking about the brilliant puppetry of the horses; but I came out of the play affected - not because they were puppets playing horses and great puppeteers creating a reality with those - I came out of the play very, very struck emotionally by the storytelling of the people who adapted Michael Morpurgo's book into a play," Spielberg says.

The book is told through the thoughts of Joey as the horse endures years on the front lines. In the play, it is Albert and the other people telling the story and Spielberg felt that the film had to take that approach, especially because it features real horses.

"Because the second Joey starts to speak it becomes much more of a real fable and I think you suspend your disbelief so radically when the horse starts to think out loud that there are no touchstones with your own life or anything you can relate to," explains Spielberg. "So the first decision was not to let Joey think or speak, but just let Joey emote and exist inside the sequences with these human characters."

Director Steven Spielberg chats with actor Jeremy Irvine between takes of
Director Steven Spielberg chats with actor Jeremy Irvine between takes of "War Horse" (Photo: DreamWorks Pictures)

Although brutal battles are part of the story, Spielberg says War Horse is not a war movie.

"I consider it to be a character story," Spielberg insists. "I consider it to be a love story between a horse and young man and also a story of great hope and great connection that this horse makes to every character, both German and British, as the horse travels on an episodic journey …on almost an odyssey through his own experiences surviving the war. The war is a backdrop that allows us to create drama, but World War I isn't the reason I made this movie."

ALBERT "What is it?"
SERGEANT "It's a horse they found wandering about in 'No Man's Land.'"
ALBERT "What kind of a horse?"
SERGEANT "A miraculous kind of a horse would be my guess."


Joey represents some eight million horses that fought and died in World War I as the once mighty cavalry was decimated by new battlefield weapons like machine guns and barbed wire. War Horse stars newcomer Jeremy Irvine as Albert. The behind-the-scenes team includes frequent Spielberg collaborators like Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams.