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The film's cast includes David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbell, David Kross and Peter Mullan. The film is produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, and executive produced by Frank Marshall and Revel Guest. Long-term Spielberg collaborators Janusz Kamiński, Michael Kahn, and John Williams all worked on the film.
War Horse became a box office success and was met with positive critical consensus. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, two Golden Globe Awards and five BAFTAs.
In 1912, a teenage boy named Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) from Devon, England watches the birth of a Bay Thoroughbred foal and watches with admiration the growth of the young horse, galloping through the fields at his mother's side. Much to the dismay of his mother Rose (Emily Watson), his father Ted (Peter Mullan) buys the colt at auction, despite a friend pointing out a more suitable plough horse for his farm. Desiring to spite his landlord Mr Lyons (David Thewlis), and retain his pride, Ted bids higher and higher for the colt. The high cost of the horse (30 guineas) means he is unable to pay rent to Lyons, who threatens to take possession of the farm if the money is not paid by autumn. Ted promises to meet the deadline, suggesting he could plough and plant a lower, rock-filled field with turnips. Albert names the horse Joey and devotes much time to training him. Albert's best friend, Andrew Easton (Matt Milne), watches as Albert teaches his colt many things, such as to come when he imitates the call of an owl by blowing through his cupped hands.
Ted, who has a bad leg from a war injury, is frequently shown drinking alcohol from a flask he carries. Rose shows Albert his father's medals from the Second Boer War in South Africa, where Ted served as a sergeant with the Imperial Yeomanry. Ted was severely wounded in action, and received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery under fire. She gives Albert his father's regimental pennant, telling Albert that his father is not proud of what he did during the war, and that he had thrown the flag and medals away, though Rose saved and kept them hidden.
Albert trains Joey for the plough and, to his neighbours' astonishment, prepares a stony hillside field to plant with turnips. However, a rainstorm destroys the turnip field, so to pay the rent, Ted sells Joey without telling Albert to the young cavalry officer Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) as the First World War gets underway. Albert subsequently confronts the officer and begs for him not to take the horse, but Nicholls can only promise that he will take care of Joey as his own horse and hopefully return him after the war. Albert tries to enlist in the army but is too young, and before the captain leaves with Joey, Albert ties his father's pennant to Joey's bridle.
Joey is trained for military operations and becomes attached to Topthorn, a black horse with whom he is trained for his military role, and the two horses become friends. The two horses are subsequently deployed to France with a flying column under the command of Captain Nicholls, but the Cavalry charges are now hopelessly obsolete, a fact that becomes painfully clear when Captain Nicholls and his fellow cavalrymen charge through a German encampment and are met with the concentrated firepower of emplaced machine guns. Nicholls is killed along with most of his fellow cavalrymen, and the Germans capture the horses.
14-year-old Michael (Leonard Carow) convinces a superior that the two horses are fit to pull an ambulance wagon, and he and his brother Gunther (David Kross) drive the horses. Gunther gives the pennant to Michael as a good-luck "charm" when he is assigned to the German front, but Gunther ignores an order to remain behind and await call to a later position. Unable to persuade his brother to remain behind, he captures him from the column, on horseback, with Gunther riding Joey and Michael riding Topthorn. Their goal is to ride to Italy, but they stop for the night to hide in a farm's windmill and are discovered by German soldiers. Their status evident, they are executed by firing squad.
The following morning, a young orphaned French girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens), who lives at the farm with her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), finds the two horses inside the windmill. German soldiers arrive and confiscate all food and supplies from the property, but Emilie hides the horses in her bedroom to avoid them being taken by the Germans. Emilie suffers from a disease that makes her bones fragile and is not allowed to ride the horses for fear of falling. Nonetheless, Emilie's Grandfather allows her to ride Joey for her birthday, and she gallops the horse up the hill adjacent to the farm. This proves to be a dreadful mistake, and when Emilie does not come back immediately, Topthorn races off towards the hill, with the Grandfather following behind. He sees that she has run into the German soldiers who ransacked their farm earlier. The German soldiers take the horses, despite Emilie's protests. The Grandfather keeps the pennant.
Joey and Topthorn are put to pulling German heavy artillery, an exhausting task which kills horses quickly, either by gunfire or exhaustion. They serve in this brutal task under care of the German Private Friedrich (Nicolas Bro), who loves horses and tries to help them survive.
By 1918, Albert has enlisted and is fighting alongside Andrew in the Second Battle of the Somme, under the command of Lyons's son David (Robert Emms). After a British charge into no-man's land, Albert, Andrew, and other British soldiers miraculously make it across into a deserted German trench, where a gas bomb explodes, filling the trench with mustard gas.
Joey and Topthorn have survived years of hard service in the German army, much longer than most horses, but Topthorn finally succumbs to exhaustion and dies. Friedrich is dragged away by other German soldiers, leaving Joey to face an oncoming tank. The horse escapes and runs into no-man's land, where he gallops through the devastated Somme and gets entangled in the barbed wire barriers. From their respective trenches, both British and German soldiers spot Joey in the night mist, and although disbelieving at first that a horse could have survived the battle, a British soldier from South Shields, named Colin (Toby Kebbell), waves a white flag and crosses No Man's Land, trying to free the horse and coax him to the British side. Pieter (Hinnerk Schönemann), a German soldier from Düsseldorf, comes over with wire cutters, and together they free Joey from the barbed wire. They flip a coin to decide who should take possession of the horse; Colin wins and guides Joey to the British trench, now having formed a strange friendship with Pieter.
Andrew has been killed by the gas attack, but Albert has survived, temporarily blinded and with bandages covering his eyes. While recuperating at a British medical camp, he is told about the "miraculous horse" rescued from no-man's land. The army doctor (Liam Cunningham) instructs Sgt. Fry (Eddie Marsan) to put Joey down, due to his injuries. But when Fry is about to shoot, Joey hears the owl call he learnt as a colt. Albert is led through the troops to Joey, again sounding his call, and Joey hurries to meet his long-lost friend. Albert explains he raised Joey, and with bandages still covering his eyes, gives an exact description of the horse's markings, confirming his claim. Joey is covered in mud, so the veterinary surgeon at first dismisses Albert's statement, but he is astonished when soldiers wash away the grime, revealing the four white socks and diamond star on Joey's forehead.
The armistice that brings the end of the war coincides with Albert regaining his eyesight. When he learns that only officers' horses will be shipped home, he gathers funds from his fellow soldiers to purchase Joey at a scheduled highest-bidder auction, but finds himself losing a bidding war with a French butcher, reaching 30 pounds. Then a bid of 100 pounds is entered. The bidder is an older gentleman, Emilie's grandfather, who informs the butcher that if he is bid against, he will sell his coat and bid to 110 -- and should he be bid against again, he will sell his farm and bid to 1000. No other bid is placed, and the grandfather takes ownership of Joey, planning to return with him to his farm. He tells Albert that Emilie has died, and after hearing about the miracle horse, he has walked three days to get Joey back, for the sake of his beloved granddaughter's memory.
Albert pleads for the horse with Emilie's grandfather, who at first remains stoic. The old man is surprised, however, when the horse chooses to return to Albert as if to say goodbye, and he subsequently presents Albert with the military pennant, asking him what it is. Albert's quick recognition of the pennant convinces the grandfather that Joey is indeed his horse, and that returning Joey to his care is a better tribute to the memory of Emilie. Albert is seen returning with Joey to his family's farm, where he hugs his parents and returns the pennant to his father. The elder Narracott extends his hand to the boy who has become a man.
In credits order.
- Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott
- Emily Watson as Rose Narracott
- Peter Mullan as Ted Narracott
- Niels Arestrup as Grandfather
- David Thewlis as Lyons
- Tom Hiddleston as Captain James Nicholls
- Benedict Cumberbatch as Major Jamie Stewart
- Celine Buckens as Emilie
- Toby Kebbell as Colin, the South Shields soldier
- Patrick Kennedy as Lieutenant Charlie Waverly
- Leonard Carow as Private Michael Schröder
- David Kross as Private Gunther Schröder
- Matt Milne as Andrew Easton
- Robert Emms as David Lyons
- Eddie Marsan as Sergeant Fry
- Nicolas Bro as Private Friedrich
- Rainer Bock as Brandt
- Hinnerk Schönemann as Pieter, German soldier in No Man's Land
- Geoff Bell as Sergeant Sam Perkins
- Liam Cunningham as Army Doctor
- Gerard McSorley as Market Auctioneer
- Tony Pitts as Sergeant Martin
- Pip Torrens as Major Tompkins
- Philippe Nahon as French Auctioneer
- Julian Wadham as British Captain in Trench
- David Dencik as German Base Camp Officer
- Edward Bennett as Cavalry Recruiting Officer
- Johnny Harris as Infantry Recruiting Officer
- Tam Dean Burn as British Medic in Trench
- Maximilian Brückner as German Artillery Officer
Michael Morpurgo wrote the 1982 children's novel War Horse after meeting World War I veterans in the Devon village of Iddesleigh where he lived. One had been with the Devon Yeomanry and was involved with horses; another veteran in his village, Captain Budgett, was with the cavalry and told Morpurgo how he had confided all his hopes and fears to his horse. Both told him of the horrific conditions and loss of life, human and animal, during the Great War. A third man remembered the army coming to the village to buy horses for the war effort: horses were used for cavalry and as draught animals, pulling guns, ambulances and other vehicles. Morpurgo researched the subject further and learned that a million horses died on the British side; he extrapolated an overall figure of 10 million horse deaths on all sides. Of the million horses that were sent abroad from the UK, only 62,000 returned, the rest dying in the war or slaughtered in France for meat. The Great War had a massive and indelible impact on the male population of the UK: 886,000 men died, one in eight of those who went to war, and 2% of the entire country's population.
After observing a young boy with a stammer forming a fond relationship with and talking fluently to a horse at a farm run by Morpurgo's charity Farms for City Children, Morpurgo found a way to tell the story through the horse and its relations with the various people it meets before and during the course of the war: a young Devon farmboy, a British cavalry officer, a German soldier, and an old Frenchman and his granddaughter.
Morpurgo tried to adapt the book into a film screenplay, working for over five years with Simon Channing-Williams, but in the end they had to admit defeat. The book was successfully adapted for a stage play by Nick Stafford in 2007. To work dramatically, the story could not be told solely through the viewpoint of the horse (as it was in the book), and so the film version with a screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall is based on the narrative approach of the stage play more than that of the book. Unlike the play, which used puppet horses, the film uses real horses and CGI.
From 2006–2009, Morpurgo, Lee Hall and Revel Guest worked on a proposed film version of War Horse, which Morpurgo and Hall would write and Guest produce. Lack of finances meant that it was an informal arrangement, with the film rights not formally sold by Morpurgo to Guest's production company and no-one being paid for the work they undertook. In 2009, film producer Kathleen Kennedy saw the critically acclaimed production of War Horse in London's West End with her husband, fellow producer Frank Marshall and their two daughters. They were very impressed by the story and Marshall has recalled how he was amazed that no-one had already bought the film rights to the book. Steven Spielberg was told about War Horse by several people, including Kennedy, who was his colleague at Amblin Entertainment. After discussions with Revel Guest, it was announced on 16 December 2009 that DreamWorks had acquired the film rights for the book, with Spielberg stating: "From the moment I read Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse, I knew this was a film I wanted DreamWorks to make ... Its heart and its message provide a story that can be felt in every country." Spielberg saw the London production of the play on 1 February 2010 and met some of the cast afterwards. He admitted to being moved to tears by the performance.
Hall commented that "Weirdly the week that we finished it [the screenplay], Spielberg expressed an interest, we sent him the script, and within a couple of weeks he'd decided he was going to make the film—it was one of those situations that never happens in the world of film."
DreamWorks executive Stacey Snider suggested Richard Curtis to work on rewrites for the screenplay: she had worked with Curtis during her time at Universal Studios, and his work on the World War I-set BBC television series Blackadder Goes Forth meant he was already familiar with the period. Curtis was initially reluctant to take part, but on meeting Spielberg they got on so well that Curtis rethought and committed to work on the script. Curtis has stated that the screenplay is closer to the book than the play, and that 'the existence of the play itself helped him "be brave" about his own adaptation.' Curtis produced more than a dozen drafts in three months, and has spoken of the close collaboration he had with Spielberg while working on the script.
Having previously only been slated to produce the film, Spielberg decided to direct "the second I read [Curtis's] first draft. It happened faster than anything else we've [Spielberg and Snider] done together." It was announced that Spielberg was to direct the film on 3 May 2010; the cast was announced on 17 June 2010. Speaking at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2011, actor Peter Mullan said that he took the part not just because Spielberg was directing, but also because of the 'beautiful script, really nice script'.
According to an account of the book, play and film's development by Michael Morpurgo, within weeks of hearing from Kennedy about the London theatre production, Spielberg had "seen the play, met the cast, visited the Imperial War Museum and decided this would be his next film. In the weeks that followed he worked with Lee Hall and Richard Curtis on the script, and within months the film was being made". Spielberg was able to act so quickly because he was on a hiatus, waiting for the animation on his other 2011-release film, The Adventures of Tintin, to be completed.
Spielberg has directed six films with World War II themes (1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan), and has produced two others, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, as well as producing two major television miniseries set during this period, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. In contrast, War Horse is Spielberg's first foray into World War I storytelling, as Spielberg admitted that prior to learning about the War Horse book and play "I had never been that interested in World War I". Kathleen Kennedy elaborated on the appeal of the story: "In cinema we've told very few stories about World War I and I think that's one of the things that attracted us to this ... It's a forgotten war in the United States, and that had a very powerful effect on Steven and I [sic]."
Dr. David Kenyon and Andy Robertshaw of Battlefield Partnerships were military advisors on the film.
After some speculation, the cast for War Horse was announced on 17 June 2010. It had been rumoured in the previous week that Eddie Redmayne had been cast in the lead part as Albert Narracott; however, relatively unknown stage actor Jeremy Irvine was chosen instead. Spielberg commented after seeing hundreds of young boys reading for the role, Irvine had come in and done a cold reading and that "his performance was very natural, very authentic." Irvine auditioned for two months, going in two or three times a week, and learned that he had the part when he was asked to read a piece of War Horse script on camera in order to check his West Country accent, and the piece of mocked-up script that he read out was Albert telling Joey that Steven Spielberg wanted him to play the part.
The cast is European, with British, French and German actors playing British, French and German characters respectively. Robert Emms, who played the lead of Albert Narracott in the West End production of the play, was cast as David Lyons.
Casting for extras took place in Devon in late July 2010. In all, some 5,800 extras were used in the film. The granddaughter of Captain Budgett, one of the World War I veterans who had inspired Morpurgo to write the story, acted as an extra in scenes filmed in Castle Combe, and Morpurgo himself filmed a cameo role there, along with his wife Clare.
Prior to the start of filming, some of the actors underwent two months of intensive horse training.
Filming and locations
Spielberg films are renowned for the levels of secrecy and security during filming, and War Horse was no exception: filming took place under the codename Dartmoor. The filming period took 'about 64 days' in total.
Filming of War Horse began with the cavalry scenes being filmed at Stratfield Saye House in north Hampshire, the estate of the Duke of Wellington, where incidentally Wellington's war horse Copenhagen is buried. Here a cavalry charge involving 130 extras was filmed.
Filming on location on Dartmoor, Devon started in August 2010. Initially, Spielberg was only going to have four or five days' worth of second unit material shot in Devon, but after Kathleen Kennedy sent him photographs of the various locations she had scouted, he decided to cut other elements of the story to enable more filming to take place in countryside that Kennedy described as "so extraordinarily beautiful and absolutely perfect for the story". Dartmoor locations included the small villages of Meavy and Sheepstor, Burrator Reservoir, Bonehill Rocks and surrounding area near Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Ringmoor Down, Combestone Tor and surrounding area, Haytor, Hexworthy Bridge and Cadover Bridge/Brisworthy. Ditsworthy Warren House, an isolated Grade II listed building near Sheepstor on Dartmoor served as the Narracott family's farmhouse, and many scenes were filmed in the surrounding area.
On 11 September 2010, the annual Dartmoor Yomp was re-routed to allow filming to continue undisturbed. Spielberg praised the beauty of the Dartmoor countryside: "I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming War Horse on Dartmoor... And, with two-and-a-half weeks of extensive coverage of landscapes and skies, I hardly scratched the surface of the visual opportunities that were offered to me." Spielberg felt that the landscape was very much a character in the film.
Although Devon rural locations were used, scenes in the main village in the story were filmed at the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe, despite the vernacular architecture of Devon (predominantly cob walls and thatched roofs) being very different from that of Wiltshire (stone walls and stone tiled roofs). Filming began there on 21 September 2010 and continued until 1 October 2010. Some residents of Castle Combe were angered by the imposition of tightened security within the village, claiming they could not enter the village without waiting at perimeter barriers until breaks in filming.
After Castle Combe, the production moved on to Wisley Airfield in Surrey, where no man's land battlefield scenes were filmed. Shooting of wartime camp scenes also took place for about two weeks from 4 October 2010 at Bourne Wood near Farnham in Surrey, a frequent location for filming. On 13–14 October 2010 scenes were shot at the stately home Luton Hoo. Filming was also scheduled to be undertaken at Caerwent in Wales. Studio filming was undertaken at Longcross Studios, Chertsey in Surrey and at Twickenham Film Studios. The film shoot was completed in the last week of October 2010, with the entire movie, French scenes included, being shot in the UK, apart from some pick-up shots of a bay foal filmed in March 2011 in California.
The author of the book on which the film is based, Michael Morpurgo, visited the set several times while filming was being undertaken: "Spielberg’s a wonderful storyteller and a kid. He adores stories and that’s what he’s best at. It’s extraordinary to meet someone with that kind of enthusiasm, utterly unspoiled ... When I went to visit him on set, he was clearly enthralled by the countryside. He fell for Devon in a big way. He was warm, kind and open, and utterly without ego ... Spielberg was like a conductor with a very light baton. He hardly had to wave it at all. I was in awe.” Emily Watson also praised Spielberg's approach: "It was intimate, passionate and about the acting. And every single priority that as an actor that you would want to be there was there. It felt very real and focused." On set, he'd come in, in the morning, and say, 'I couldn't sleep last night. I was worrying about this shot!' Which was great! He's human and he's still working in an impassioned way, like a 21-year-old, trying to make the best out of everything."
For lead actor Jeremy Irvine, starring in his first film role, the filming process was intense at times, in particular the scene where the British cavalry, 130 horses in total and many hundreds of extras, charged the German machine gun lines. He explained: "It’s the weapons of the old world—our men on horses—meeting the absolute destruction of these tools of mass slaughter. There was this line of machine guns and there’s this wall of lead coming out of these guns. There were real explosions at my feet, bodies flying through the air, stunt men getting shot at. It was terrifying. The smoke and the smell and the taste of the guns firing. It’s not difficult to act scared in that situation. There’s no doubt this was deliberate: not only to have the film look great, but to have that effect on the actors. It was an eye-opening scene."
When actor Peter Mullan won the award for Best Film at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in Spain for Neds, the film he wrote, directed and in which he acted, Spielberg insisted that Mullan should attend the ceremony on 26 September 2010 to accept his award in person, and re-arranged the War Horse shooting schedule accordingly.
Spielberg commented on how he and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński developed the 'look' of the film: "...it doesn't feel like Ryan at all ... it has a much more daguerrotype feel, much more brownish. We're not using any of the techniques we used on Ryan. The only similarity is that it is war and it is handheld."
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 foals; 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. An animatronic horse was used for some parts of the scenes where Joey is trapped in barbed wire; the wire was rubber prop wire.
Film editor Michael Kahn spoke of his work on the film: "We have some shots in War Horse that are just fantastic ... We shot it in Devon, and you know it's gorgeous down there, and the horses are beautiful and the farms are beautiful, beautiful scenery and every shot is gorgeous, and eventually you get to the war part of it and it's really, really something." Kahn had a trailer on set and edited the film during filming. Kahn and Spielberg cut the film digitally on an Avid, rather than on film, a first time with this technology for Spielberg: "He decided that he’d like to try it," Kahn commented.
After filming, further editing was undertaken in the UK at Twickenham Film Studios, with the production moving back to the US in November 2010. Kahn also said of his work on the film: "We put together here in Hollywood. It worked well ... Those English actors are awfully good and so were the horses. The horses were beautifully trained. For an editor there were a lot of match [frame] problems with the horses but the shooting was so good that I got everything I needed.”
The film score by John Williams was recorded in late March and early April 2011. Tuba player Jim Self reported in May 2011: "For John Williams I [sic] recently finished recording for the film War Horse. It's a war movie so the score has a lot of brass—but it was gentle music often." English folk singer John Tams, who wrote the songs for the stage production of War Horse, was approached by Spielberg and Williams about including one of his songs from the stageshow in the film. In the liner notes to the film soundtrack cd, Spielberg wrote "I feel that John has made a special gift to me of this music, which was inspired not only by my film but also by many of the picturesque settings of the poet William Wordsworth, whose vivid descriptions of the British landscape inspired much of what you are going to hear." In the premiere of three of the tracks on New York radio station WQXR’s "Movies on the Radio", broadcaster David Garland drew parallels with the work of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Visual effects for the film were undertaken by Framestore, a London-based company. According to Spielberg, the only digital effects in the film are three shots lasting three seconds, which were undertaken to ensure the safety of the horse involved: "That's the thing I'm most proud of. Everything you see on screen really happened." Kathleen Kennedy elaborated, stating "We really did it very naturalistically. There isn't a lot of blood. Steven wasn't interested in bringing Private Ryan into it, but we did want to make a PG-13 movie." Actor Tom Hiddleston said of the film that Spielberg had "seen the stage play and he wanted to retain the magic and heartbeat of that ... It's a moving, powerful story you can take children to see, but it is still very upsetting ... People die, and it is war."
Publicity and release
War Horse was released in the US and Canada on 25 December 2011. The release date for America was originally set for 10 August 2011, but after a meeting in London in early October 2010 between DreamWorks and Disney executives, when some footage was screened, the decision was taken to move its release to 28 December 2011 in the holiday period. and in the UK on 13 January 2012. DreamWorks executive Stacey Snider said: "The reaction to the footage – which he [Spielberg] usually never shows – was that it feels like a big, holiday movie ... It just became inevitable that we would move it. (Spielberg) feels great about it." In late September 2011 the release date was moved again, to Christmas Day 2011.
Only a very few unofficial on-set photographs and clips of video footage were published in the press and online during the filming period. Due to the usual embargo on photographs and videos being taken and made public during Spielberg shoots, very few photographs emerged, with the majority being snatched paparazzi shots. In October 2010 Spielberg's cinematographer on the film, Janusz Kamiński, put an on-set photograph of himself on a battlefield set on his Facebook page. The first ten official photographs were made public by DreamWorks in several releases between 11 and 14 March 2011, in Empire magazine, in an article in the Daily Mail and in an article in Entertainment Weekly. On 16 March 2011 a British blogger published an account of her unofficial visit to the War Horse set at Ditsworthy Warren House, and despite the security on-set, was able to take photographs of the interior of the set and of Steven Spielberg. On 29 March 2011 DreamWorks presented behind-the-scenes footage, introduced on film by Spielberg, to theatre owners at CinemaCon in Las Vegas. Spielberg was unable to attend in person as he was still working on the post-production of the film.
On 29 June 2011, the first official teaser trailer for the film was released, and the official website was launched. On its launch, the website was rather a sparse affair, with just the official trailer and synopsis, and only two of the ten previously-released official photographs. Further footage, introduced on film by Spielberg, was shown at the Empire magazine 'Big Screen' event in London in August 2011. Jeremy Irvine talked about his experiences making the film at the same event The full theatrical trailer was released on 4 October 2011, and more on-set photographs were released on 17 November 2011.
The publicity strategy for War Horse unusually featured preview screenings for the public in US heartland areas before either the critics were shown the film or it was screened to the public in major metropolitan areas. The first preview screenings of War Horse were held at various locations across the U.S. on 1, 2 and 10 November 2011. Military veterans in Canada were invited to seven different screenings on 16 November, in honour of Remembrance Day, five days earlier. More preview screenings in the US took place on 27 November, with Spielberg attending a question and answer session at the New York screening that was beamed to the other screening cinemas and shown live on the internet.
Press screenings for critics were first held in New York and Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day, 24 November 2011, although there was an embargo on official reviews being published at that time. On 27 November there was a special screening in London for the crew and cast, the first time anyone involved with the film (apart from Spielberg and his close collaborators) had seen it. Three television advertisements for the film were released in the US on Thanksgiving Day, 24 November 2011, shortly followed by others.
The world premiere of the film was held on Sunday 4 December at the Avery Fisher Hall of the Lincoln Center in New York, where the Tony award winning Broadway production of the play of War Horse is currently playing in the neighbouring Vivian Beaumont Theatre. The UK premiere took place in Leicester Square in London on 8 January 2012, and was attended by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
A tie-in book by Steven Spielberg, titled War Horse, was published by Harper Collins on 27 December 2011.
Based on 203 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, War Horse received a 77% "Certified Fresh" approval rating from critics with an average score of 7/10. The site's critical consensus is "Technically superb, proudly sentimental, and unabashedly old-fashioned, War Horse is an emotional drama that tugs the heartstrings with Spielberg's customary flair."
Although there was an embargo on official reviews of the film being published before 21 December 2011, reviews started appearing from 26 November 2011 onwards in mainstream press such as The Daily Telegraph, which gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Christopher Tookey of Daily Mail gave the film 5 out of 5 stars and called it "Spielberg's finest hour".
Rex Reed of The New York Observer gave the film 4 out of 4 stars and said, "War Horse is a don’t-miss Spielberg classic that reaches true perfection. It’s as good as movies can get, and one of the greatest triumphs of this or any other year."
Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, saying the film contained "surely some of the best footage Spielberg has ever directed". He wrote, "The film is made with superb artistry. Spielberg is the master of an awesome canvas. Most people will enjoy it, as I did."
Ty Burr of Boston Globe said that the film was a work of full-throated Hollywood classicism that looks back to the craftsmanship and sentimentality of John Ford and other legends of the studio era. He gave it 3 out of 4 stars.
Giving the film an A- grade, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "The project is tailor-made for Saving Private Ryan Spielberg, the war-story specialist, as well as for E.T. Spielberg, the chronicler of boyhood desires and yearnings for family."
Richard Roeper praised War Horse by saying, "What a gorgeous, breathtaking, epic adventure this is." He gave the film 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Richard Corliss of Time named it the 5th best film of 2011, saying "Boldly emotional, nakedly heartfelt, War Horse will leave only the stoniest hearts untouched".
David Chen of /Film selected War Horse as the best film of 2011. In The Guardian, Simon Winder lamented that the film, "despite twisting and turning to be even-handed, simply could not help itself and, like some faux-reformed alcoholic, gorged itself on an entire miniature liqueur selection of Anglo-German clichés".
David Denby, in The New Yorker, wrote about the movie that "The horses themselves are magnificent, and maybe that’s reason enough to see the movie. But “War Horse” is a bland, bizarrely unimaginative piece of work".
The soundtrack recording by John Williams received a Sammy Award for Best New Film Score CD.
War Horse grossed $79,859,441 domestically and $97,200,000 overseas, for a worldwide total of $177,059,441.
Impact of the film in popular culture
Digital content from the film, as well as the pencil sketches by equine artist Ali Bannister that are used in the film, and costumes from the shoot, are currently part of the War Horse: Fact & Fiction free exhibition at the National Army Museum in London, which runs from 22 October 2011 until March 2013. A Channel 4 documentary, War Horse: The Real Story, inspired by the film and telling the true-life stories of horses sent from the UK to the battlefields of World War I was shown on 4 March 2012.
The play and film versions of War Horse are credited with renewing interest in the equine charity, the Brooke Trust, which was founded in 1930 to aid old World War I war horses suffering under terrible conditions in Egypt.
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