Steven Spielberg’s film epic War Horse, which is already building Oscar Buzz before its Christmas Day release, was inspired by the horse-assisted heroism of cavalry units during the First World War.
Based on the 1982 novel of the same name by British children’s author Michael Morpurgo — a book later adapted for a hugely successful stage production that uses life-size, mechanical puppets for the horses — the film is rooted in Morpurgo’s rediscovery and popularization of the story of Allied cavalry units in the First World War. Morpurgo has described how a series of conversations with Great War veterans in rural Devon, England, sparked his interest in the grim saga of how one million horses were deployed and died during the 1914-18 conflict by the British army’s cavalry forces.
The War Horse stories — novel, play and film — chronicle the enduring bond between an English boy and his horse, Joey, after its conscription for the war effort, and highlight the horrors of the First World War for both men and their mounts. But the unprecedented publicity opportunity generated by the Spielberg film has prompted fresh examinations of the real-life role played by Allied cavalry units in the war. A Morpurgo-backed exhibition called War Horse: Fact & Fiction opened at the National Army Museum in Britain in October.
“Any time Spielberg touches something it’s more than likely going to be a very strong product,” said Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook, “I think it’s going to be a powerful story that will emphasize the human-animal bond and . . . help to humanize the experience of this war.”