It’s always tempting to try and engage with a Steven Spielberg film on your own terms, with your own mind. But resistance is futile.
“The bones of War Horse is a love story,” Spielberg told a gaggle of not very insouciant film hacks at his press conference this week. “We wanted to create a bonding story, because [the horse] Joey has a way of bringing people together on different sides of the war, so he circumvents the entire emotional globe of the Great War.”
And that’s exactly it. There are no intellectual equivocations when you see War Horse. Your resolve will melt. Your lip will quiver. It has been ordained; Steven Spielberg wants you to cry, so you’re damn well going to cry. But there’s no shame in it because, after a sustained period of attempting to suck it up, i-D let Steven win, and let out a big, wimpy sob. So just relax and surrender. Here’s a tissue.
Sat in the saddle of Spielberg’s new movie is shaggy-haired, wide-eyed Devon-lad Albert Narracott, the lonesome boy who falls for a colt before he’s called up to do his bit in the Great War. Albert is played by 21-year-old Jeremy Irvine, who, in his last role before Spielberg came along, was playing a tree in the chorus of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He tells i-D about working with probably the defining artist of his generation…
We heard you got trench foot when Spielberg was shooting in the trenches. Has that all cleared up now? That’s been a little bit blown out of proportion, but yeah. You’re soaking wet up to your waist in mud for a couple of months. It’s like when you stay in the bath too long, apart from when you get out it doesn’t go away. As soon as you get to dry land, you’re all good.
It looked like a long, cold, hard shoot, and a real physical exertion to get yourself through it… Steven didn’t want to use CGI, so there are only three shots when CGI is used in the whole film. The set for the trenches was an entire airfield that got turned into the First World War. It was as real as it gets. There were explosions going off left, right and centre, we had rats, we had everything.
Were there times when you thought “I need to get out of here and go to the pub?” Yeah, but the thing was that I could do that. We were all, at the end of the day, going back to nice, warm hotel rooms. It certainly made you appreciate the fact that those young boys couldn’t ever do that. There is no way in hell that we could even begin to relate to what those men went through. Our rats were tamed, and we had fake ammunition, and we could go home at the end of the day.
Everyone in Britain seems to have a family connection to the Great War. How did you try and relate to a soldier going through that experience? Did you look into your own family’s past? I’ve always been a bit of a geek about the war. I’ve always collected stuff from the period, so my bedroom looks like a bit of an armoury. I read a lot of diaries from men that fought – you can download ten hours of men talking about their experiences in the war from iTunes, which is pretty amazing. In terms of finding the character, Albert, I really wanted to find an innocence. He’s fifteen years old in the film. Fifteen year-olds now are exposed to TV, internet, mobile phones, but he’s a young boy from an isolated little village that he’s probably never left. He has this amazing lack of cynicism, and he’s an only child, so when [the horse] Joey comes into his life he becomes almost like a brother to him. That’s why Albert is willing to risk his life to get him back.
They say the first rule of good filmmaking is never to work with animals. It must have been a struggle to act, take after take, with a horse? The horses we used in the film are the most highly trained animals in the world. They’re the F1 racing cars of the horse world. They are astonishing animals, and they are so powerful. If a horse wants or doesn’t want to do something then there’s no stopping them. But it’s funny; I can’t think of a day when we couldn’t do something because a horse wasn’t behaving.
How have your friends responded to your fame? People from back home are like ‘So you’re doing a movie. Whatever.’ I didn’t really tell many people about it because I’d decided to wait until the press came out, and when we were on set I’d gone a bit nuts with the catering. I’ve worked in theatre for most of my career, and in that industry if you’re given free food you stock up for a week. So I put on a stone in three months of shooting because I was nailing the great food on set. I was expecting a reaction from my friends when the press came out I got about twenty texts: “Jerry, did you eat the fucking horse?”
When your Grandson asks you to talk about the film, which is the moment you’re going to recall? I don’t think you can get away from the huge war sequences. I remember watching Saving Private Ryan when I was younger. My parents wouldn’t let me watch it because I wasn’t old enough so I got a VCR into my room and turned the sound right down. What boy doesn’t want to be in a Steven Spielberg war sequence? And to have the man himself sitting down and chatting to you about it before you do a take – I can’t tell you. The scale on film was for real, you genuinely couldn’t see the end of it. I remember reading the script for the first time, and it said I had to throw a grenade into a machine-gun nest. That’s every lad’s dream. If nothing else, I can say I’ve done that.
Warhorse is released Friday 13th January 2012.
Text and Interview: Tom Seymour
Additional Reporting: Brennavan Sritharan