Miracle Horse

The cast and crew of War Horse talk about making the epic film

December 25, 2011

Actor Jeremy Irvine (left) receives direction from Steven Spielberg on the set of "War Horse."

Set against the backdrop of World War I, War Horse tells the epic tale of an unbreakable bond between a boy, Albert, and his “miracle” horse, Joey. As England is launched into the Great War, Albert is crushed to learn that his father has sold Joey to the British army. The story follows the courageous colt on a grand journey through the battlefields, where he makes a lasting impression on those from all sides of the war. Meanwhile, Albert has followed Joey to the front lines, never giving up hope that he will find his best friend.

The movie marks the second release from director Steven Spielberg this holiday season. (The first, The Adventures of Tintin, rolled into theaters on December 21. Read an interview with the director here.) The film is based on the 1982 novel by British children’s author Michael Morpurgo. It was also inspired by the successful stage play.

Spielberg’s longtime producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy, was the one who convinced him to bring War Horse to the big screen. Kennedy had seen the play in London. She was so affected by the story that she urged Spielberg to see it too. “That sealed the deal,” he said. He was also moved by Morpurgo’s book. “War Horse says a lot about courage; the courage of this boy and what he overcomes to achieve what he needs—not just for himself, but also for his best friend, his horse Joey,” Spielberg explains. “It’s also about the courage of this extraordinary animal.”   

The Perfect Cast

Fourteen different horses played the part of Joey in the film, as he grows from a foal to an adolescent to an adult. A team of makeup artists painted matching white socks on the legs and attached matching white stars on the foreheads of the horses used to portray Joey as an adult. Trainers taught the horses to do special stunts. Oftentimes, the creatures were so expressive in their emotions that they upstaged their human costars.

“Just living with horses for so many years, I know that they really do convey tremendous expression,” says Spielberg. “There were times in the movie when I wouldn’t even tell the horses what to do. They’d be in a scene and would be reacting in that scene in ways I couldn’t imagine a horse would be able to react or act.”   

Hollywood newcomer Jeremy Irvine plays Albert in the film. The actor admits that he’d never been an animal person before being cast in the role. Irvine and his costars trained on horseback for two months before filming began. “I’d never been on a horse in my life—or acted in a movie—so I had quite a lot to learn, really!” Irvine said, with a chuckle. “But I had the most fun in those two months learning to ride. These horses are so sensitive. They’re magnificent.”

Tales of a War Horse

The movie takes place during wartime, but it’s not a war film, says Spielberg. The true heart of the story lies in the relationships between Joey and the people he meets and helps as he finds a way back to Albert. Audiences will be rooting for the horse and his boy to reunite until the very end. "The film really focuses on the human elements and the people that Joey touches," says Irvine.

One of those people is British cavalry officer Captain Nicholls, played by Tom Hiddleston, who buys Joey from Albert’s father. After working on the film, Hiddleston says he now understands what people mean when they talk of the bond a person can have with an animal. “The gift that Albert gives to Joey is one of kindness and compassion and love and courage and hope, and Joey takes this with him on his odyssey,” says Hiddleston. “Every human being that Joey comes into contact with is someone he touches with those same qualities. Through Joey, we learn a lot about the best in people.”

War Horse gallops into theaters on Christmas Day. (A note to parents: This film is rated PG-13 for scenes of war.)

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