War Horse – A Timeless Story of Courage Loyalty Love & Hope

When you are on a great horse, you have the best seat you will ever have*

Down through the centuries horses have contributed much to the cultural development of every country on earth and in art in flight and in life, an association with horses cannot do anything else but enrich it. At Gundy, nearby to Scone in Northern New South Wales is Belltrees a large property, which by the turn of the twentieth century was one of Australia’s most famous rural properties. This is stunningly beautiful gently undulating country, wonderful for raising horses. The land has been cleared in moderation and stands of native white box and yellow box gum trees predominate.

Literally thousands of kangaroos inhabit the place, platypus swim in the river, and birds take off and land in huge flocks that blot out the sun as they whirl and rise. Lush green paddocks lead down to the fertile Hunter River flats, where horses graze against the awesome backdrop of the Mount Royal Range, Mt Woolooma (5000) being the largest in this aspect. There is a high hill on the property you can stand on to see for miles around that looks down on the great fifty-four-room homestead designed in 1908 by architect J.W. Pender.

The White family have owned Belltrees since 1831. Their ancestor James White had come from England in 1829 to help develop the Merino sheep industry. Daily at the height of the shearing season in a huge purpose built shed designed by Canadian born architect John Horbery Hunt (1838-1904) considered a bit of a radical in his day, one hundred men relieved eighteen thousand sheep of their wool.

Annually they exported three thousand bales of it back home to England. By 1912 there were some sixty-four houses for sixty full time workers and their families on Belltrees. They were all completely self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables, milking their own cows and killing their own meat. It was a simple hard working life in a caring community that had its own store, school, church, graveyard, post office and community hall. The men as they worked the land, relied on their horses. The relationship that developed between them was sacrosanct. They would muster sheep during the day and ride into town at night to court young ladies. They would ride over a tyranny of distance next to great bullock trains, laden with bales of wool, to the shipping port of Morpeth just on one hundred miles away.

Horses were shipped to South Africa from Belltrees to help the young men of the district, who left to fight the second Boer War between 1899 and 1902. These magnificent steeds had obtained their speed and agility through their thoroughbred lineage and their strength from the Australian stock horse, renowned in the outback for both its stamina and stubbornness. Most of all they were sure footed, as they hurdled rocks and leaped fallen tree branches, while driving sheep up and down hills and through verdant valleys. In the church grounds a memorial dedicated to Second Lieutenant Alfred Ebsworth, killed in 1900, is inscribed with a list of names of the other men from the Scone area, who served with him in the First Australian Horse regiment. Standing before it you are humbled as you read discovering that not just one, but two and three boys were all lost from the same family.

These men and their horses were the first to leave their mark in a legacy of loyalty, courage, and love and hope that would become the hallmark of a “War Horse” in World War One.

War Horse is a new movie from DreamWorks Studios, part owned by one of America’s most influential and successful filmmakers, writers, producers and directors – Steven Spielberg. It is the story of a great journey, a timeless story whose impact will surely be felt for a long time.

The team of talented people involved with Steven Spielberg in bringing this timeless tale to fruition are indeed impressive. To bring the story to the screen they had to become a community of collaborators all focused on one goal, excellence in the art of movie making.

They included the producers, photographers, production designers, music makers, daily creative work crews, transportation units, consultants, advisers for health and military aspects, aerial support, visual and special effects, lighting, catering, animation, stunts, medical team, armorers, costume designers and makers, makeup, hair, the art department and a league of other workers and supporters, as well as all the human actors together with a very impressive equine cast of 100 horses and their handlers.

The animal unit came under the aegis of horse master, Bobby Lovgren, who is renowned for his work at keeping horses safe when making the movie “Seabiscuit”. Keeping the horses safe was a passionate requirement of Steven Spielberg, who also ensured that a representative from the American Humane Association was on set for every scene involving the horses. And, she had the authority to pull the plug if she didn’t like what was happening. Lovgren and his team were required to perform miracles with their charges on a daily basis and they did this with the help of trainers brought in to England from as far afield as Australia, Spain as well as the U.S.A.

War Horse is the horse’s story. Joey is a unique English horse that forms a special bond with its youthful human owner, before being wrenched from him to carry a soldier to war. Albert will go to any lengths to see Joey come safely home. It tells the tale from when Joey is born to adulthood, where he finds himself on, and running through the battlefields of World War 1 in Europe. When he is left alone after his rider falls, he endeavours to complete the longest journey of all, the one that he hopes will eventually lead him home.

Viewers will surely require a whole box of tissues to survive what is a dramatic and incredibly stirring adventure. The script has been brilliantly adapted from a novel by Michael Morpurgo by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. An original stage adaption, War Horse has been produced in the West End at London, written by Nick Stafford for the National Theatre. On stage they use giant puppet horses, which required handlers of their own.

They were brilliantly conceived and the show has won five Tony Awards, which is no mean feat. When Steven Spielberg went to see this production for himself, it inspired him to bring the story to the movie screen. When Spielberg became involved those around him reported he took off at a gallop. It becomes obvious as the story progresses, just how much he has a genuine compassion, love and respect for horses. He responded to the tale with respect and reverently, and with grace supported everyone involved. Together they surmounted the many and varied challenges they had to hurdle along the way.

While the book told the story from the horse’s eyes, and this could be done successfully on stage with huge puppet horses, Spielberg knew he would have to take an entirely different perspective if his movie audiences were to truly engage with both the story and its characters.

He revealed that the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey sprang to mind. It was all about the ancient Greek hero Odysseus and the epic voyage he took to reach home after the fall of the ancient city of Troy. During that journey everyone he knew had given him up for dead. They were busy trying to survive as their own lives were torn asunder as a result. When suddenly he returns with a newfound wisdom gained on his journey and a fresh view on life, their reactions were not really as he might have expected. From page to stage to screen, embracing this concept allowed Spielberg to move the action from the gentle life lived in an English storybook village to an idyllic French pastoral scene, where pleasure is an integral part of life, even in the midst of war.

It engages with the turmoil and horrors of being confined in trenches, where men lived together in both terror and camaraderie as the carnage rages around them.

He visually links each element of the story with a talisman, a pennant tied to Joey’s reins by his owner on the day he was recruited to become part of the British cavalry.

It stays there throughout his journey as a memento to a life that has lost its innocence and provides a link to the one he is striving to return to, the one that has been changed forever.

Joey has to brave running through the mists of No Man’s land, that desolate eternal space between the trenches and the enemy hidden in its shadows, waiting to pounce the minute anyone stirs.

As he gallops relentlessly on, the instinctive forces that motivate him to succeed in his quest drive him forward in search of his owner Albert and the gentle life they knew together in the English village where he was born.

They both have courage, which is what keeps Joey, and his Albert going, for without it they would both be doomed.

Albert and Joey also share loyalty, the state of sentiment that embodies an unwavering feeling of devotion for country, creed, family and friends.

It is Love though that is the ultimate strength of the bond between them, one that seems unbreakable, despite events and those people who have intervened to end what might have been a happy life spent together in rural England.

Hope, well if they had both given that up there would be no future, not for them or for those around them, who are all depending on their ability to achieve a winning result, by fighting for liberty far beyond self.

War Horse is a story about a harrowing period of history that we must continually be reminded about, lest we forget.

It is honest in its intent, brave in its rendering, with a deep respect for the relationship shared by a human and his horse. It is about integrity and kindness with a wonderful lead character that in reality speaks no words, relying only on his actions to get him through.

This is a story about the past that speaks strongly to the present and in a very powerful way. In touchy economic times when we all need to re-visit the importance of family and friends in our lives, this is a heroic story, an epic tale of love and devotion, of endurance and persistence, qualities required in all those involved.

For the original author from all reports, it was a deeply moving experience watching the simple and touching tale that he had told gain greater breadth and depth, eventually plumbing the very depths of the spirit and the soul.

Casting the actors was no mean task. The old adage of not appearing in a film with animals or children had to be surmounted, so that in the end everyone would shine.

The stellar ensemble cast are engagingly diverse, as those thrown together in such troubled times would have been.

Choosing the actor to play Albert, whose love for the foal his drunken father purchases has brought forth yet another Spielberg find, a twenty year-old British actor Jeremy Irvine.

Both his grandfathers were involved in World War 1.

One had a horse called Elizabeth that he rode at Gallipoli.

Irvine grew up in an English country village and believed that it helped him to connect with what his character Albert might be feeling, as he and the horse are torn apart in the cause of the greater good.

In War Horse the range of experiences for the viewer is both intense and captivating.

There are the human characters, whose range of emotions must be explored if we are understood the terror, torment and futility of war.

Then there are the personalities of the horses who stand out against the beauty and terror of the natural landscape. Those tasked with finding locations cast their net far and wide in England to come up with some amazing places to film, adding to the impact visually.

From romantic farmlands in Devon, Cornwall at the southern tip of England to the gentle countryside of rural France and the battle scarred fields of Europe where the land has been degraded beyond belief, everyone in War Horse is in a struggle for survival that is heart wrenching, as much as it is challenging to engage with.

But engage with it we must because Spielberg is the ultimate movie maker and, together with the extraordinary creative team around him,  allows us to fully understand what true beauty is really all about.

We also discover this story is also about faith and how, if we allow, it will not only move mountains but also warm the heart far beyond the reach of life, or even death.

Today historical research enables and emboldens those who create costumes for such an important period piece.

These are as correct as designer Joanna Johnston could make them, right down to the threads of destiny they would become.

The actors reported that as they put them on they felt the layers of history being stripped away and that it was this incredible reaction that helped them gain credibility in both their portrayals and performances.

What would a great movie be today without an emotive musical score and a panoply of sensational sounds.

Legendary composer of music for the movies John Williams admitted that he was stymied at first, because he did not have an experience or connection to horses. Staying for a time on a horse farm in California, where he had to get up close and personal with one of nature’s most treasured animals he believed helped him a great deal.

He loved their natural curiosity and how they interacted with each other and the humans surrounding them.

He also enjoyed the scale of influences he had to work with visually, from forming sounds that would represent the sweetness of a gentle countryside at peace, to the dramatic music of battle. This meant Williams had to deeply engage with all the human emotions and the tragedy unfurling before him.

The inevitable harmony he created bringing the action alive binds the journey of both man and horse together in a spiritual connection that is tangible and very real.

These were times when stoicism became integral to character and leaders of men attempted previously unknown and unimaginable feats of bravery. They bore all without complaint, displaying a strength of right and purpose that was emboldening to all those around them.

Conspicuous gallantry, devotion to duty, having the courage of your convictions, caring for others and believing in a cause beyond self, were all cultural development concepts eagerly embraced.

The movie is set to become culturally influential, as well as embedded in pop culture as art and story, actors and horses become part of a greater experience. For centuries man and horse melded together as one, and not even a fierce battle could tear their bond asunder.

After World War 1 everything changed.

The horse was gradually phased back into paddocks on properties like Belltrees, where today they are breeding a new style of horse with bloodlines that go back to the first horses sent away to war.

Horses now in the main show off their great abilities by performing on a racetrack, in an entertainment arena, at the rodeo, dressage or show jumping events as well as on the prestigious polo playing fields of the world.

It is also amazing to realize that the majority of populations in cities all around the world today would, more than likely, have not ever engaged one on one with this, the most truly noble of all animals.

For centuries the horse was man’s true and very best friend. He carried not only the weight of his rider on his back, but also helped him realize his dreams.

How can we not salute the “War Horse”

War Horse
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy
Screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall
Based on the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

Music by John Williams
Cinematography Janusz Kami?ski
Editing by Michael Kahn

Studio DreamWorks Pictures
Reliance Entertainment
Amblin Entertainment
The Kennedy/Marshall Company
Distributed by Touchstone Pictures
Release date(s) 25 December 2011
Running time 146 minutes
Budget $90 million

Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott
Emily Watson
as Mum, Rose Narracott
Peter Mullan
as Dad, Ted Narracott
David Thewlis
as Lyons
Benedict Cumberbatch
as Major Stewart
Toby Kebbell
as Geordie
Geoff Bell
as Sgt. Sam Perkins
Tom Hiddleston
as Captain Nicholls
Patrick Kennedy
as Lieutenant Waverly
Niels Arestrup
as Grandfather
Celine Buckens as Emilie
David Kross
as Gunther
Rainer Bock
as Brandt
Nicolas Bro
as Friedrich
Leonard Carow
as Michael
Robert Emms
as David Lyons

Watch the Official Trailer on You Tube


* Sir Winston Churchill was a young army officer in the Second Boer War. He fought between the British Empire and the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers of two independent Boer Republics: The South African Republic and the Orange Free State.

Ref: 300,000 horses died during the conflict. Pocock, Roger S. (1917). Horses. London: J. Murray. pp. viii (n11). New London Theatre website Press Kit Shout Communications, Belltrees Website, IMDB War Horse for Cast, Images from iStock, www.image.net English: Second Boer War Horse Memorial, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa Wikemedia Commons, Mare and Foal at Scone: was an idea conceived by a local grazier in 1979 to signify the importance of horses in the area. Scone has over 65 horse studs in the region and is largely responsible for providing quality horses for both the racing and stock industries nationwide, with the Mare and Foal statue erected in 1982 to commemorate the area’s best known industry: This sculpture identifies Scone and the Upper Hunter Valley as the Horse Breeding Centre of Australia. It commemorates the role horses have played in the development of Australia and is a tribute to one of mankind’s greatest friends.

War Horse Movie Photos by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP ©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.  All Rights Reserved.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011

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