Likely to be a three-hanky weepie, featuring stunning photography by Janusz Kaminski and an original score from John Williams, is a new picture directed by Steven Spielberg. In War Horse a young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) forges a deep bond with his beloved horse, Joey. At the outbreak of World War I, Albert’s handsome horse is press-ganged into the cavalry and shipped to France and to the treacherous mud soaked trenches of the battlefields. Despite being too young to enlist in the British Army, Albert embarks on a dangerous mission to find his horse and bring him back to their idyllic home in Devon. Once in France, Albert is soon caught up in the horrors of warfare and dodging enemy fire. Death, disease and fate take him on an extraordinary odyssey that sees him serving on both sides of the conflict before finding himself alone in No Man’s Land.
War Horse is based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, published in 1982. By some reports, Spielberg’s film also uses elements of the critically acclaimed, award-winning stage adaptation that opened in London in 2007, notable for its dazzling puppet design by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of the life-sized horses.
Within a large ensemble cast, Tom Hiddleston plays Captain Nichols, the cavalryman who forges his own connection with the noble creature at the center of this tale. Last seen as Loki facing off against Thor, the tall, fine-featured and erudite actor speaks enthusiastically about his recent experiences and burgeoning career.
Not surprisingly, he starts off by warmly praising his director. “Spielberg is a master. He’s just a miracle-maker. He’s one of the kindest men I’ve ever worked with. Deeply, deeply kind, and I think his kindness is something that runs through all his work. You can see he has a warm heart.”
Describing the relatively painless audition process, Hiddleston recalls the golden week that saw him being cast in both a Spielberg picture and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (in which the actor played F. Scott Fitzgerald). “I got Woody and Spielberg together in the same week – it was a good week. I went over to Dreamworks, which is on the Universal Lot in LA, and I sat down with Steven. He said he’d seen my tape and then we talked about the First World War history and horses. Certainly in British schools, and probably the same in European schools as well, the First World War is really a big part of our history and our education. So I felt very connected to it.”
The British-born actor recalls a treasured childhood memory that he shared with Spielberg during that meeting. “I’d played the trumpet on Remembrance Sunday when I was 13, and that was a great honour. After I told Steven that story, he said, ‘Well, I’d like you to do it.’” Hiddleston laughs with incredulity, adding, “Which never happens! Usually the casting director calls your agent and your agent tells you and then you have to do more tests. But he just asked me across the table.”
On the potential success of the movie, Hiddleston is effusive; “It’s just classic storytelling. I read the book, I saw the play and the reason the book and the play work is because it somehow encapsulates something very deep and profound about the human condition. In the figure of Joey, the horse, you find nobility and perseverance and strength and dignity in the face of horror.”
The actor describes War Horse as a story about redemption and survival, set against an almost romantic, poetic backdrop, adding, “In a way, there is a romance to the First World War because it was the most horrific episode and yet out of it came all that poetry and we learned all those lessons and there seemed to be no enemy; the great enemy was the War itself. It’s a very simple and beautiful story. Spielberg saw that when he saw the play and thought he could do something with it.”
Hiddleston struggles to describe his experience, fearful of sounding sentimental. “The book was so good. Richard Curtis and Lee Hall’s screenplay was so moving that I cried four times the first time I read it. There’s such a huge ensemble of characters, you feel how the horse touches so many lives in much the same way that those four years of horrendous trench warfare changed and affected so many lives.”
Filming took place during the summer of 2010 in Devon and Cornwall with South-East England locations doubling for the war scenes of North-West France. “My experience of shooting it was a dream. It was just a beautiful shoot – just glorious. Working with horses is amazing – they’re such beautiful creatures and they teach you so much about yourself.”
Hiddleston adds, “I think it will be a beautiful, beautiful film. I can say that confidently.”
War Horse is now playing in LA cinemas.