Spielberg’s “War Horse” Shines Spotlight on Four-Legged Soldiers

Sadly, World War I, once known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars, seems to have become the Forgotten War. Only one World War I veteran is still living. (Interestingly, this vet is a woman: 110-year-old Frances Green, who joined the Royal Air Force at age 17 and served as a steward in the Officers’ Mess.)

My family became interested in World War I when we toured the war memorials in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. We strolled through the National Mall, admiring the fountains of the WW II Memorial, the stark beauty of the Vietnam Memorial and the haunting stone soldiers commemorating the Korean War. We nearly missed the WWI Memorial. There were no crowds gathered nearby and no signage indicating the presence of the simple, Greek-style domed structure, surrounded with columns. We read on a small plaque that it was originally used as a bandstand. The memorial was in disrepair, and its condition and anonymity seemed almost disrespectful toward the men and women who had bravely served in the first global war.

Fortunately, the Forgotten War has been brought to life on the big screen, thanks to the efforts of Steven Spielberg, the prolific producer and director whose list of blockbusters includes “ET,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Jurassic Park,” and “The Adventures of Tintin.” His latest film, “War Horse,” is the epic adventure of an extraordinary horse named Joey who impacts the lives of everyone who encounters him.

Joey, a hunter colt, is purchased by a drunken farmer named Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) who foolishly pays more than he can afford for a horse he doesn’t need. Undaunted, his young son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) is determined to teach Joey to plow their rocky field on the moors of Devon, England. Despite Albert’s best efforts to make Joey useful to the family, the rent comes due and the magnificent horse is sold to a captain in the British cavalry at the dawn of World War I.

Joey proves very useful in battle but changes both owners and sides of the war in his epic journey. When Albert comes of age and joins the war effort, he is determined to find the horse he considers a friend and family member. The remarkable courage of both horse and boy is not only a compelling story but also an introduction to a war few remember or care to study.

Producer Kathleen Kennedy came across the story of Joey and Albert when she took her daughters to see the stage version of “War Horse” (based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo) in London. “I was so amazed at how the play was connecting with everyone around me. Many people had brought their children, and the kids were as riveted as the adults. When I went home, I told Steven [Spielberg] that I had just seen this extraordinary play. He asked, ‘What’s it about?’ I said, ‘It’s about this boy who goes into the war to find his horse.’ He said, ‘That sounds fantastic! You just gave me chills!’ I got ahold of the book and we decided this is what we want to do.”

Steven Spielberg adds, “I don’t consider ‘War Horse’ to be a quintessential World War I movie. The war is a backdrop to pull these characters apart and eventually reunite them.” Nevertheless, he makes use of painstaking detail throughout the film to accurately portray the era of the Great War. Spielberg’s friend, producer Peter Jackson, loaned him most of his vast World War I memorabilia collection. He shipped three cargo containers to the location in England to add authenticity to the film.

In fact, the set designs were so authentic that a trench warfare advisor remarked in stunned amazement, “Here was the Great War in three dimensions. I could walk through it. I could smell it. It was really a very great evocation of what it was like.”

Costume designer Joanna Johnston brings a similar passion to the film. “My grandmother’s brother was in the war, and I had an image of him just before he went on a horse that is looking forward as he’s looking back. Right away, I sent it to Steven, and it became my personal way into the film and gave me something on which to base the scope of the costumes.” Joanna and her crew hand-sewed most of the costumes with meticulous attention to historical detail, even to the evolution of the unique German helmets throughout the war.

Of course, the plight of the horses in World War I was important to the cast and crew. It is estimated that between 4 and 8 million horses were killed in battle if you include all the nations that fought in the war. They endured the same harsh conditions as the soldiers, and the British recognized the sacrifices of these noble steeds by awarding them the Dickin Medal in 1943 for “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty.”

Even young star Jeremy Irvine made use of a connection to the Great War. “The fact that I have stories of both my great-grandparents in the First World War is not extraordinary. Nearly everyone does. It’s something that literally affected everyone in Britain. What is extraordinary is that my great grandfather had a horse, Elizabeth, in World War I that he bought from the army for 28 pounds– the same amount Albert has when he tries to buy Joey from the army. I’ve got the receipt for the horse, and I read his letters. It’s important that films like this keep the memory alive.”

According to screenwriter Richard Curtis, “There was a real sense of respect for the fact that people lived through these events.” Curtis understands why modern audiences can connect with the World War I era. “With the financial recession, and the threat of terrorism, that question of how individuals survive in a big dangerous world is something that we are all more aware of right now.”

After screening “War Horse,” I checked up on that World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. and was delighted to see that a ceremony was held this past November to celebrate its recent restoration. Perhaps now that the Forgotten War has been brought to the attention of American audiences, the memorial, and the heroes who bravely fought the first world-wide conflict, will receive the respect and recognition they deserve.

“War Horse” opens in theaters on December 25. The film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence. Look for my review of the film tomorrow on the Catholic Exchange homepage.

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