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Novels about WW1, WW1 in Film and Television, WW1 in the Theatre

The horse that carried Spielberg to the First World War

The director had no interest in WW1… until he met an unforgettable horse named Joey.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved farm horse Joey, in Dreamworks' forthcoming War Horse

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved farm horse Joey, in Dreamworks' forthcoming War Horse

I confess to being a bit of a sucker for movies about horses. I watched Seabiscuit twice, and fell in love with the story of Hidalgo. Something about that scrappy, come-from-behind spirit of these amazing creatures that just gets you right there every time. And now, here comes a horse movie that, judging from the trailer, is going to lasso hearts everywhere and ride off with them like… well… like a pack of horse thieves.

This Christmas, Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures will release War Horse, described as “an epic adventure for audiences of all ages, and an unforgettable odyssey of friendship, discovery and courage.” Spielberg himself directed this epic story of a young boy named Albert and his beloved farm horse Joey. At the outbreak of WWI, Joey is sold to the British cavalry by Albert’s father and dispatched to the front lines. From there, Joey begins an extraordinary journey, fraught with dangers and obstacles. Albert, unable to forget his friend, leaves home for the battlefields of France to find his horse and bring him home.

The film is based on a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, whose inspiration for the book came from several sources around Devon, where he lives. One old soldier had been “involved with ‘orses” in the day. An old cavalry veteran of the war told Morpurgo how he had confided all his hopes and fears to his horse. Another eyewitness related how the army came to the village to buy horses for the cavalry and for pulling such equipment of war as artillery and ambulances. Researching deeper, Morpurgo learned the tragic facts of how over 10 million horses died in the war on all sides, some 940,000 of them British.

Morpurgo tells of receiving inspiration, as well, from a young boy who had come to his Nethercott farm for city children. Nervous and withdrawn, the child had spoken to no one for two years. One night, Morpurgo discovered the child in the stable, talking “19 to the dozen” to Morpurgo’s horse Hebe about his day on the farm. Morpurgo realized that the horse was listening and, in its own way, understanding the child.

Morpurgo’s War Horse was a phenomenal success and went on to be adapted into a triumphant, international theatrical hit – which is where Steven Spielberg first encountered it with a passionate reaction.

“I thought the story was absolutely fascinating, and I was simply transported,” the director recalls.  “It was a very honest story, I saw it as a movie for families, the journey of a boy and a horse who were once so close, whose destinies drive them far apart. “To me, this is a story about belief, hope and tenacity – the tenacity of a boy and a horse driven by devotion.” he says.

Though Spielberg has directed or produced numerous films and television programs set in the Second World War, including Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Band of Brothers, he admitted in a recent interview with Vanity Fair that, prior to learning about the War Horse book and play, “I had never been that interested in World War One”.

War Horse opens in the US on 28 December, 2011, and in the UK on 13 January, 2012. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, War Horse stars Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Kebbell. Lee Hall and Richard Curtis penned the screenplay based on the book by Michael Morpurgo and the recent stage play by Nick Stafford, produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and directed by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot.

Official movie site for War Horse

All text Copyright ©2011 Rick Koobs

About Rick Koobs

I'm an ex-pat from the American South ("Born in old Virginia, North Carolina I did roam"), happily relocated to East Anglia in the United Kingdom since Jan 2010. I reside in Norfolk's fine old city of Norwich with its grand Norman castle, ancient cathedral, and quite extensive history, and I'm loving (almost) everything about it. My interests include writing, Web publishing, art (appreciating it AND making it), movies, history, Tai Chi, permaculture design and the Transition movement. I have a more-than-passing interest in the First World War, and occasionally enjoy building scale model aircraft of that era.


3 thoughts on “The horse that carried Spielberg to the First World War

  1. horses in war! man, thats cruel. this horse story resonates with me like all those “Lassie come home” stories from childhood (man, I’d be tears worrying about Lassie being gone for so long). But on a more historical note, friend of mine was talking about WW1, his comment pertained to how this war brought out so many new technologies of killing but the strategies of war were still archaic and not effectively adapted. It was reminiscent of American Civil War style, very callous and wasteful of human lives.

    Posted by aumcooking | August 22, 2011, 10:46 am
    • It’s pretty dreadful, what happened to those 10 million or so horses. I read that of the nearly one million that went to the war from Great Britain, only 65,000 returned at all. The rest, if they did not die of battle, exhaustion or disease, ended up being slaughtered for food.

      We’ve ordered the Morpurgo novel and should have it in hand any day now. I’m certain some facts of the matter will have found their way into the narrative. But yeah, overall the story sounds like your basic Lassie Come Home scenario. Hopefully, in the film, the horse won’t go “Neigh! Neigh!” while the human characters ask, “What’s that, Joey? You say the Germans are planning a raid on the trench at oh-seven-hundred hours?”

      Posted by rkoobs | August 22, 2011, 11:19 am
      • yes, but what a disturbing dicotomy- horses (and men) on a battlefield with newly developed and introduced tanks, airplanes, mustard gas and lord knows what new Krupp manufactured repeating weapons on a killing field. Neigh neigh indeed.

        A few things really stick in my conscience about this war stuff.
        1. politicians and economists seem to think war is necessary and important for economic development.
        2. Killing devices are romanticized. (yes, I love cool swords!) It doesn’t make sense

        Posted by aumcooking | August 22, 2011, 11:39 pm

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