To quote Steven Speilberg, “When I’m on an ‘Indy’ movie, I’m watching Indiana Jones and not the horse he is riding. Now I am faced with the challenge of making a movie where I had to watch the horse, and at the same time compel the audience to watch it along with me. My attention had to be focused on what the horse was doing and understand its feelings. It was a whole new experience for me.”
The main character is Joey, the horse, and 14 different horses were used to portray him: two foals, four colts, and eight adults. There was a special make-up team to dye their coats and markings to ensure continuity. As many as 280 horses were used in a single scene. A farrier was on set at all times to replace horseshoes sucked off in the mud during filming. Equine artist Ali Bannister was responsible for the “hair and make-up” of the horses.
Working with horses on this scale was a new experience for Spielberg: “The horses were an extraordinary experience for me, because several members of my family ride. I was really amazed at how expressive horses are and how much they can show what they’re really feeling.” The pre-production period allowed only three months to train the horses before shooting began.
One scene in particular where the British cavalry charged the German machine gun lines, was intense for lead actor Jeremy Irvine (Albert Narracott), starring in his first film role. The scene included hundreds of extras and 130 horses. Irvine explained: “It’s the weapons of the old war, men on horses, meeting the absolute destructive tools of mass slaughter. There was this line of machine guns and there’s this wall of lead coming out of these guns. There were real explosions at my feet, bodies flying through the air, stuntmen getting shot at. It was terrifying: the smoke and 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.”
Emily Watson who plays Albert’s mother (Rose Narracott) was quoted as saying, “The Michael Morpurgo book is Black Beauty Goes to War. So, if you’re English, two of the most emotive subjects you could touch on are Black Beauty and the First World War. The crew was constantly in tears, as there were war memorials and everybody had a story in their family … for English people everyone was touched by that war.”
On the set, Spielberg would arrive in the morning and say, “I couldn’t sleep last night. I was worrying about this shot!” Emily Watson praised his approach: “It was intimate, passionate, and about the acting. Every single priority that as an actor you would want to be there was there. It 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.”
Do not miss War Horse, and stay tuned for our post-production, “It’s a Wrap” installment.
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