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WAR HORSE

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 and nobility.

" 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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