A Horse's Odyssey Home
How do you unfold a world-wandering tale of love, war, fortitude and hope when
your main character is an innocent
village colt in search of kindness, friendship and a way home?
That challenge instantly compelled Steven Spielberg when he encountered Michael
Morpurgo's novel " War Horse." The book presented an inspiring legend, but it was cut from a different cloth
than most. All manner of stories have
emerged from war - stories of romance, of heroism, of moral dilemmas, of divided
families transcending hardship.
But here was a story of wartime as it had never been experienced: through the
journey of an animal propelled into
battle with no malice or side to take, fueled only by the burning desire to live
and return to the ones he loves.
To do the story justice would be a creative and technical feat,
one that hooked into Spielberg's penchant for chronicling
the human condition. It was one that, for all its scope, would
have little to do with special effects and everything to do with
a more hand-crafted cinematic style, working humanely and
intelligently with remarkable animals and engaging human
performances, and guiding a devoted crew to overlay a triumph
of the spirit atop an unforgettably rugged landscape of conflict.
" War Horse" is about classical movie storytelling, weaving a
chain of individual stories into an intricate canvas portraying
the power of hope in the toughest of times.
The novel had been told with the simple power of allegory. The play, which
Spielberg first saw in London at the
urging of his long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy (who has produced four decades
worth of Spielberg's seminal
films), was emotionally transporting with its whimsical use of towering yet
bare-boned horse puppets. But Spielberg
immediately understood he would have to find his own visual path to bring the
story fully alive on the screen. He
took off at a galloping pace.
" The puppets were magnificent on stage, but I knew that if
we were going to tell the story, it had to be with real horses," Spielberg says.
" I loved the book also, but it is told from Joey's
point of view and you even hear Joey's thoughts. I knew that
was not an avenue that would work for the film, though it allowed me to
understand the importance of telling the story from different viewpoints."
Following a different track, Spielberg envisioned the film
emerging from the tradition of the odyssey - the mythic journey
that propels a youthful hero into the dangerous world only to return with
hard-won wisdom and a fresh view of
life. Only this time, the traveler would have the perspective of a different
species silently, yet soulfully, witnessing
humanity at its most troubled yet inspirational.
Structurally, the film became a study in shifting moods that lead into one
another - the rough-hewn, almost storybook
village of Joey's youth gives way to the shock and adrenaline rush of a brave
new mechanized battlefield, which gives
way to an idyllic French farm full of pastoral pleasures, which unravels into
the pandemonium of the trenches and
the desolate mists of No Man's Land, all of which only reinforces the driving
memory of the village where Joey's
journey began, and to which he strives to return.
Courage is what keeps Joey and Albert going through four
danger-filled years apart, and it is courage that becomes a
theme woven through the entire texture and fabric of the film.
" I think 'War Horse' has a lot to say about courage - and about
doing things not just for yourself but for the sake of those
you love. That theme comes through in many different ways," Spielberg notes.
He continues: " Albert and Joey have a tenacious belief in one
another. It all begins when they attempt together to plow this impossibly stony,
infertile field in Devon, before the
war. That creates such a synergy and empathic collaboration between horse and
boy that when they are separated
by the war, I think the audience senses that at some point there is going to be
a date with destiny. And when that
date occurs, you see that out, of the chaos, something wonderful happens."
Indeed, everywhere that Joey winds up in his journey, he
finds people and animals giving everything they've got to
the possibility of survival. From the start the idea of moving
seamlessly from one compelling story to the next, all through
Joey's experiences, was intriguing to Spielberg. " I don't think
I've ever worked before in this kind of episodic format, with
miniature stories all coming together into a larger tale," he
observes. " Characters come and go as Joey passes through
all these lives, and we get to see how each of the characters imprint themselves
on Joey - and how Joey affected them."
Whether those characters are British, French or German, Spielberg was interested
in the basic humanity at the root
of their actions. " War Horse" never concerns itself with identifying an enemy as
people from every side find solace
and connection with Joey. " The film doesn't take sides as to who is right or who
is wrong," says Spielberg. " It's really about how the characters relate
to this horse. Horses have no politics; their main concern is for the care of
their charges. And that is a very important thing that gives the story its
humanity amidst the war."
Another source of fascination for Spielberg in the story are the mysteries of
the powerful human bond with nature.
He himself lives with horses and has seen firsthand how close they can get to
their human companions. Now, he
wanted to expose the hearts of horses as they had not been seen on screen
before - in all their pure, primal feeling
" I have lived with horses for 15 years, and I've gotten to know how expressive
they are," the director says. " But
movies don't often spend time on what horses are feeling. In the 'Indiana Jones'
movies, for example, my job was
to focus on Indiana Jones, not his trusted steed. But in the course of making
'War Horse,' I was amazed at how the
horses were able to emote so tremendously. In the play the puppets were really
able to bring the emotion of the
horses to the audience because they were puppets, but I wanted to do that with
real horses in the motion picture."
A long-time history buff, Spielberg was well aware that the tests
faced by both horses and soldiers in WWI were some of the
most harrowing in history. Known as " the war to end all wars" because no one could imagine going through it again, it marked
a seismic shift from the chivalry and honor of warfare past to
the dehumanization and mass casualties of modern weaponry.
But Spielberg determined from the beginning that he would
use a truthful restraint that would keep the film anchored in
history without ever becoming graphic. " What was on my mind
was to make a very honest story," the director comments. " But
I was careful to pull back in ways I would not have on 'Saving
Private Ryan' or on our miniseries 'Band of Brothers' and 'The Pacific.' I
wanted the journey of Albert and his horse
to be an authentic, shared experience for families."
Creating that shared experience would also become a reunion for Spielberg with a
community of collaborators who
have helped to make his wide-ranging productions so culturally influential. " All
my stalwart family members, across
so many years and covering so many movies, came together to
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