Author Michael Morpurgo on the hidden history behind Steven Spielberg’s Film


The director Steven Spielberg’s epic is a fitting testament to the thousands of horses that served and fell during the first world war.


British cavalry cross a temporary bridge, circa 1915. Photograph: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Ala/Alamy

War Horse has had an extraordinary career. It started in 1982, with Michael Morpurgo’s novel about a boy called Albert and his horse, Joey, who is sent to fight on the bloody battlefields of France in the first world war. The book was short, accomplished and moving, but barely acknowledged until, in 2007, it was turned into a play.

Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s National Theatre production – still stabled at the West End in 2012 – entranced audiences with its uncanny, life-sized horse puppets. The story became today’s Black Beauty, a sentimental education, a must-read classic, a global hit. And that might have been glory enough – except that War Horse was also, always, a film waiting to happen. Now, in Steven Spielberg’s hands, the story has become epic. Early signs are that War Horse the movie is conquering America and is likely to vanquish British audiences as well. And that must be, at least partly, because Spielberg knew, right from the start, that he held a trump card. He had what neither book nor stage could boast: real horses.

He would lead me out over the fields and down to the flat, thistly marsh by the Torridge river.’ – Chapter two.
Illustration: Mark Burgess

The film has a first-rate British cast – Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and newcomer Jeremy Irvine. But it is the horseflesh that does it. It is the horses that are the film’s star performers, with their gleaming flanks, flowing manes and hooves thundering through history. More than a million horses were sent to the first world war for use by British and Commonwealth troops; only 62,000 came back. And even if you are not horse-struck, it is impossible to watch the film – with almost 200 horses in its cast – without wondering: how did these creatures of flight face combat? And how, in the film, were they trained to “act” with such dazzling compliance?

Albert turned and went away through the crowd until I could see him no more.’ – Chapter three.
Illustration: Joe Hawkins

Horse trainers are famously elusive (and/or hopelessly tied up with their horses), and Bobby Lovgren, Spielberg’s head horseman, is no exception. While waiting for him to put down his schooling whip and get in touch, I catch up with Michael Morpurgo and congratulate him on War Horse‘s amazing trajectory (the novel has topped the New York Times bestseller list). He says: “I have been on quite a ride,” as he settles down in Bafta’s bar in Piccadilly, London. And he goes on to tell me the wonderful story without which novel, play and film would never have materialised.

In 1978, a boy from Birmingham visited the Morpurgos’ Devon farm as a result of their charity, Farms for City Children. His teachers explained that he was severely withdrawn, with a stutter. During his stay, Morpurgo observed how “adept he was with farm work”. Then, one rainy evening, he spotted the boy outside wearing slippers. He was with Hebe, a gentle Haflinger mare: “And he was talking to the horse, one to one, about what he had done on the farm that day. No stutter – words flowing out of him. I summoned his teachers and we hid in the vegetable garden to watch them.

“I was very, very moved. The boy wasn’t being judged or mocked. He trusted this creature. The horse wasn’t understanding, but was listening. She knew she must not move away. She must stand there – because that is what friends do.”

Morpurgo does not pretend to be a horseman himself. He was a rider when at Sandhurst, but “fell off a lot”. He took up riding again when his wife and daughter were keen – and “fell off a lot again”. But he understands the intensity of the relationship and believes it is historic – to do with the thousands of years men and horses have spent together. And that leads us to talking about history and about the War Horse exhibition at the National Army Museum (where Morpurgo is himself an exhibit).

There’s no way then?’ Albert asked. ‘There’s nothing I can do?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Captain Nicholls. “Your horse belongs to the army now … ’ – Chapter four
Illustration: Josh Philip Saunders

War was a graveyard for horses as well as for riders; Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” sets the tone: “Into the valley of death/Rode the six hundred.” It is the scale of the losses that overwhelms. Horses were used in war as early as AD83: Tacitus describes a battle between Roman cavalry and British chariots. In the Crimean war, hundreds of thousands of horses died of cold. In the Boer war, thousands perished in heat. And more horses served in the first world war than in any conflict in history. They were used for pulling heavy artillery, transporting supplies and the wounded – and for riding. Horses with hunting experience had an advantage, as did farm horses, which are trained to endure.

But Morpurgo observes: “Men and horses had to face the same dangers and died in the same way, from mud, wire, shells, exhaustion and disease.” I have heard (via a vet) that horses had their vocal cords removed, so as not to give away the army’s position. There is only one exhibit in the army museum to charm: a tender, informative letter, dated 29 September 1914, from Tom Morris’s great-grandfather giving “hints on horses”. It ends with the startling assertion that “a third of a pint of whisky” – diluted – will “often do wonders for a tired working horse”.

The thunder and the dust and the roar of men’s voices in my ears took a hold to me and held me at a pitch of exhilaration I had never before experienced.’ – Chapter five
Illustration: Andrew Oakheart

The exhibition reveals that, contrary to what one might imagine, cavalry charges were rare. But they did happen at the start of the first world war, and Spielberg includes an extraordinary gallop into a German encampment, the filming of which Morpurgo was lucky enough to observe. He describes the scene as “the last charge of the British empire”, as modern weaponry was overtaking horsepower. More than 100 horses surge across the Duke of Wellington’s estate in Stratfield Saye, Hampshire. Morpurgo loved watching: “It made the heart race.”

Rehearsals were endless. Many of the cast – including Jeremy Irvine, who plays Albert – were new to riding (they put in 10-hour days at a Hertfordshire stables). Tom Hiddleston, playing a cavalry officer, was an experienced rider but had to master galloping with one hand waving a sword. The horses crash through tents and tables constructed to collapse – chairs are made of foam. Special effects were used only when safety was at stake. And it is a relief to know that the barbed wire Joey gets caught in is rubber and the horse in that scene is animatronic (although his face is real). And I was thrilled to learn that in no man’s land, when Joey races through the night on his own, he is being ridden. “The rider wore a skin-tight suit – like a diver.”

Knowing this spoils nothing, it makes the scene even more remarkable. Morpurgo adds that he loved watching Spielberg at work: “He adores stories. He is a kid – I don’t mean that disparagingly. He is a terrific enthusiast and communicator. It was wonderful to watch him at the top of his game. He is fantastically organised, like the conductor of an orchestra.”

I’m frightened as hell, so you’d better have enough courage for the two of us.’ – Chapter five.
Illustration: Katie Rewse

I’m beginning to give up on hearing from the horse experts when vivacious Ali Bannister gets in touch. She paints penetratingly accurate equine portraits and was responsible for Joey’s look. She tells me about the mind-blowing attention to detail on the film. There were various horses playing Joey to represent different ages. Bannister designed Joey’s markings (white star and socks) and had to make sure they were identical on every horse. She acquired a splendid job description – Head of the Equine Hair and Makeup Department – and when she was not painting the horses, seems mainly to have been working with mud.

“Real mud, when it dries, changes colour. It looks grey and flat on film.” So they applied “three shades of artificial mud” and monitored every splash (mud continuity). “We were dunking their tails in sloppy mud.” This will amuse riders: they spend their lives trying to get mud off their horses.

Then – finally – I catch him: Bobby Lovgren, renowned South African horse trainer. He tells me War Horse has been the “biggest” challenge of his career. He explains that they chose an “experienced” cast (dressage and show-jumpers) because young horses take too long to train and time was limited (working with foals is hardest of all). He tells me about the other trainers – from Australia and Spain – and how “the Spanish boys” helped with the ploughing scenes. “There is no simple answer to how you train,” he says. “It is a gradual progression. I will be evaluating: does the horse have the aptitude? Can I control him enough? He has to learn his ABC before he can read and write. It takes patience.”

‘I ran on until I found myself alone … It had all been so quick and deadly.’ – Chapter six
Illustration: Holly Francis


And if he finds his method hard to put into words, it is because words are beside the point. What he has with his own horse Finder (star of Seabiscuit and one of the Joeys) is trust: “‘If I am there, my horse has confidence. We have never betrayed that confidence.”

It seems Bobby can ask a horse to do anything: to rear – “that’s not difficult” – or limp or appear dangerous, but working on the film could not have been safer.

For Lovgren, War Horse is “heart-breaking and an eye-opener”. So how does he think horses were persuaded into battle? “They had no option. It was the horse’s life.”

We agree that “war”‘ and “horse” are words that were never meant to go together.





‘We charged out of the shade of the wood and into the sunlight of battle.’ – Chapter six
Illustration: Ciaran Murphy

“… suddenly I found that I had no rider … Blind terror drove me on, with my flying stirrups … I reach the kneeling riflemen first.” – Chapter six
Illustration: DG Smith

‘Suddenly I found I had no rider.’ – Chapter six
Illustration: Nathan Aardvark

‘The wounded were everywhere – on stretchers, on crutches, in open air ambulances and etched on every man was the look of wretched misery and pain.’ –Chapter six
Illustration: Lucie Williams

‘… the only way was to jump the wire … ’ – Chapter eight
Illustration: Annette Hamley-Jenkins


‘Within minutes the mist began to clear away.’ – Chapter fifteen
Illustration: Alan Marks

‘Although I didn’t know it as such, the first tank I ever saw came over the rise of the hill with the cold light of dawn behind it, a great grey lumbering monster that belched out smoke from behind it as it rocked down the hillside towards me.’ – Chapter fifteen
Illustration: Divya Scialo

‘ … the thunder and lightning of the bombardment was so terrible in its intensity, turning the deep black of night into unnatural day… ’ – Chapter fifteen
Illustration: Fi Smart

‘ … a wasted, shattered landscape, between two vast unending rolls of barbed wire that stretched away into the distance behind me and in front of me’ – Chapter fifteen
Illustration: Sishir Bommakanti



‘We have shown them, haven’t we?’ – Chapter sixteen
Illustration: Catherine Fearnley

‘“Now what do we do?,” he said, walking towards us and looking at the German who stood head and shoulders above him.’ – Chapter sixteen
Illustration: Nicolo Carozzi

He peered closely and then set to again brushing down towards the end of my nose and up again between my ears.’ – Chapter seventeen
Illustration: Alexandru Savescu

And you said Joey had a white cross on his forehead?’ – Chapter seventeen
Illustration: Jason Mowry

‘That’s what I came all this way for and I’m going to find him. Either I’ll find him, or he’ll find me.’ – Chapter seventeen
Illustration: Robert Newberry





War Horse Memorial:

New statue at Ascot Racecourse honours heroic beasts of First World War

War Horse – designed by sculptor Susan Leyland


Just 62,000 equine recruits returned from battlefields of France and Flanders out of 1m enlisted


A new memorial is being unveiled near Ascot Racecourse today paying tribute to the animals that served so bravely during the First World War.

The bronze sculpture of a horse – emaciated, head bowed in sorrow for fallen comrades, a tangle of barbed wire lying at its hooves – was designed by sculptor Susan Leyland and will appear on the Heatherwood roundabout close to the famous racetrack.

The statue was cast at a foundry in Scotland at a cost of £300,000, weighs one-and-a-half tonnes and stands eight foot six inches high atop a nine foot plinth of Portland stone.

It has been christened “Poppy” after the name proved the winning entry in a competition organised by Britain’s Brownies and Guides.

Purple poppy rosettes will be sold in memory of military animals in time for 23 August, a new national day in their honour, with the funds raised going to the Household Cavalry Foundation and Mane Chance Sanctuary.

The memorial remembers the 1m British, Allied and Commonwealth horses, donkeys and pack mules who served in the bloody conflict a century ago, only 62,000 of whom returned from the battlefields of France and Flanders.

The beasts were used as cavalry mounts, to drag heavy artillery into position and carry supplies, ammunition and even the corpses of dead soldiers.

Just like their human counterparts, the animals suffered terrifying conditions as a result of loud shellfire and rattling machine guns, many dying in the mud from bullet wounds, disease, starvation, exhaustion and pneumonia.

Their story was memorably told in Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse, the subject of a spectacular National Theatre production in 2007 and a star-studded film adaptation by Steven Spielberg in 2011.

The memorial is intended to ensure their vital contribution to the war effort is never forgotten.

See   HERE – The War Horse Memorial at Ascot

AND ALSO – The War Horse Memorial on the Heatherwood Roundabout   HERE IN ‘ASCOT MATTERS’





‘WAR HORSE – Author Michael Morpurgo on the hidden history behind Steven Spielberg’s Film’ :- Guardian – Kate Kellaway  8 Jan 2012

IMAGES – Folio Society and the House of Illustration 22 Feb 2016 :- These are the 25 Book Illustration Competition finalists in the running to illustrate the Folio Society’s new edition of Michael Morpurgo’s much-loved children’s book about a farm horse caught up in the first world war. The winner announced on 25 February 2016 was Alan Marks.

WAR HORSE MEMORIAL, Ascot Roundabout :- Independent – Joe Sommerlad 8 June 2018