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War Horse

War Horse is a 2011 war drama film directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel of the same name and its 2007 play adaptation. The film's ensemble cast includes Jeremy Irvine (in his film acting debut), Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan, Niels Arestrup, Toby Kebbell, David Kross, and Peter Mullan. Set before and during World War I, it tells of the journey of Joey, a bay Thoroughbred horse raised by British teenager Albert (Irvine), as he is bought by the British Army, leading him to encounter numerous individuals and owners throughout Europe, all the while experiencing the tragedies of the war happening around him.

DreamWorks Pictures acquired the film rights to the novel in December 2009, with Spielberg announced to direct the film in May 2010. Having directed many films set during the Second World War, it was his first film to tackle the events of World War I. Long-term Spielberg collaborators Janusz Kamiński, Michael Kahn, Rick Carter, and John Williams all worked on the film as cinematographer, editor, production designer, and music composer, respectively.

Produced by DreamWorks Pictures and released worldwide by Touchstone Pictures, War Horse became a box-office success and was met with positive reviews. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, two Golden Globe Awards and five BAFTAs.


In 1912, a bay Thoroughbred is born in Devon, England. At auction, farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) outbids his landlord Lyons for the colt, to the dismay of his wife Rose (Emily Watson). Their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), accompanied by his best friend Andrew, names the colt Joey, and teaches him to come when he imitates an owl's call. Against all odds, the horse and boy successfully plough a rocky field, saving the family's farm.

Rose shows Albert his father's medals from the Second Boer War, and gives him Ted's regimental pennant, confiding in Albert that his father carries physical and mental scars from the war.

In 1914, as war with Germany is declared, a heavy downpour ruins the family's crops, forcing Ted to sell Joey to the army. Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) sees Albert's attachment and promises to look after the steed. Albert tries to enlist but is too young, and before the company departs, he ties his father's pennant to Joey's bridle.

Joey bonds with Topthorn, a black horse with whom he is trained for his military role. The horses are deployed to Flanders with a flying column under the command of Nicholls and Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch). They lead a cavalry charge through a German encampment, but the unit is decimated by machine gun fire. Nicholls is killed along with almost all his fellow cavalrymen; the Germans capture the horses.

Gunther, a young German soldier, is assigned to the care of Joey and Topthorn. When his brother Michael is sent to the front line, Gunther takes the horses and the four of them desert. The German army soon tracks down the boys and they are shot for desertion; however, the Germans leave without noticing the horses. They are found by a French girl named Emilie. German soldiers arrive at her grandfather's farm, but Emilie hides the horses in her bedroom. For her birthday, Emilie's grandfather allows her to ride Joey; they run into the Germans, who confiscate the horses. Emilie's grandfather keeps the pennant.

By 1918, Albert has enlisted and is fighting alongside Andrew in the Second Battle of the Somme. After a British charge into no man's land, Albert and Andrew miraculously make it across to the German trench, where a gas bomb explodes.

The Germans use Joey and Topthorn to haul artillery, under the care of Private Henglemann. He eventually tries to free them, but Topthorn succumbs to exhaustion and dies. Joey escapes, narrowly evading an oncoming Mark IV tank, and gallops into no man's land where he becomes entangled in barbed wire. Colin, a British soldier, makes his way to Joey under a white flag and tries to free him. Peter, a German soldier, comes over with wire cutters, and together they rescue Joey and remark on the remorseless war. To decide who should take the horse, they flip a coin; Colin wins and guides the injured Joey to the British trench.

Andrew is killed by the gas attack but Albert survives, temporarily blinded. While recuperating, he hears about the "miraculous horse" rescued from no-man's land. Just as Joey is about to be put down, he hears Albert's owl call. Albert, his eyes still bandaged, is able to describe Joey in perfect detail, and the two are reunited.

World War I ends, and Joey is ordered to be auctioned. Though Albert's comrades raise a collection to bid for the horse, the auction is won by Emilie's grandfather, who tells Albert that Emilie has died and the horse is all he has left of her. However, the old man recognizes the strength of the soldier's bond, and returns the pennant and Joey to Albert, as "Emilie would have wanted."

Albert returns with Joey to his family's farm, embracing his mother and returning the pennant to his father. The elder Narracott extends his hand to the boy, now a man and like him, a former soldier. Joey watches on, seemingly with pride.


The horses

The pre-production period only allowed for three months to train the horses before shooting commenced. The main horse trainer was Bobby Lovgren, and other horse trainers included Dylan Jones, Bill Lawrence, and Zelie Bullen.

During filming, fourteen different horses were used as the main horse character Joey, eight of them portraying him as an adult animal, four as a colt and two as a foal; four horses played the other main equine character, Topthorn. Up to 280 horses were used in a single scene. A farrier was on set to replace horseshoes sucked off in the mud during filming, and the horses playing the main horse characters had a specialist equine make-up team, with their coats dyed and markings added to ensure continuity. Equine artist Ali Bannister was responsible for the 'hair and make-up' of the horses, as well as drawing the sketches of horses that are featured in the film. Extra filming involving a bay foal took place in California in March 2011. Working with horses on this scale was a new experience for Spielberg, who commented: "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 feeling."

Representatives of the American Humane Association were on set at all times to ensure the health and safety of all animals involved, and the Association awarded the film an "outstanding" rating for the care that was taken of all the animals during the production. However, a 2013 suit by former AHA employee Barbara Casey alleges that a horse was killed on set, but the organisation chose to "cover-up the death" to protect Spielberg's reputation. An animatronic horse was used for some parts of the scenes where Joey is trapped in barbed wire; the wire was rubber prop wire.


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