NEW YORK — Steven Spielberg never envisioned “War Horse” as a war movie.
Instead, the celebrated, Oscar-winning director of such classic war pictures as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler's List” said he saw the World War I-era story based on Michael Morpurgo's novel and the Tony Award-winning stage production as something much more intimate, more delicate.
“I've done other pictures about war, but I do not consider ‘War Horse' to be a war movie at all,” Spielberg said during a news conference hosted by Disney's Touchstone Pictures at the Regency Hotel. “I consider it to be a character story. I consider it to be a love story between a horse and a young man. Also, it's a story of great hope and great connection that this horse makes to every character, both German and British, as the horse travels on an episodic journey, almost an odyssey.”
“War Horse,” which opens in theaters Sunday, follows the episodic story of a spirited colt named Joey as he bonds with young farm boy Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) in the flinty English countryside of Devon, as boy and horse are torn apart by the arrival of World War I, as Joey is shipped off for cavalry duty, falls under the gentle care of a sickly French girl, is forced into cruel labor by German artillery officers and finally ends up stranded and injured amid the carnage of No Man's Land at the Battle of the Somme.
“The war is a backdrop. It provides the necessary drama to pull these characters apart and eventually reunite them,” Spielberg said. “So war is more of a catalyst than the cause celeb. This is a human narrative. It's about the connectivity that an animal can bring human characters. It's really much more a story about hope that can exist in extremely dark circumstances because hope is always in Joey's face.
“It's always in Joey, the way he moves, the way he breathes, the way he doesn't look at what's gonna happen tomorrow,” the director said. “He just exists and brings so much connectivity to the characters on both sides of the war. So I never looked at this as a war movie, and I think that's probably why we don't have an R rating, because I didn't shoot it the way I shot ‘Saving Private Ryan' or the way I produced ‘Band of Brothers' or the ‘The Pacific' with Tom Hanks.”
Several critics have noted echoes of classic Westerns in this film, especially evocative of the work of the great sagebrush auteur John Ford.
“Certainly, John Ford's work factors not just into my films and not just ‘War Horse,' but a lot of us who studied film and love film really admire John Ford,” Spielberg said. “And yet I didn't consciously create a tome to John Ford with ‘War Horse.' I didn't consciously do that. I simply went to England, looked at the locations and became very emotionally involved in how important the land and the sky were going to be.
“And obviously I become very involved in the look of the film,” he said. “We knew because it's such an epic story that the land is a character. And nature is a character. It determines whether the crop you bring in is going to be a success; it determines whether you're going to lose your farm or not to a foreclosure. The land was so important to these poor farmers, and the land makes such a strong statement later in France at the Somme, No Man's Land, it's called. It just seemed like I was going to use wider lenses, and rather than shoot everything in close-up, I was going to fall back and let the land help tell the story.
“And John Ford, of course, did a lot of that with Monument Valley in all of his Westerns,” he said. “But so did other directors like David Lean and Akira Kurosawa in celebrating the land that they were shooting their pictures on. So it wasn't really about John Ford; it was about an opportunity that availed itself to me because of how spectacular these locations were.”