Director Steven Spielberg (far right) observes Jeremy Irvine (left) rehearse a scene with Joey on the set © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

First published in 1982, Michael Morpurgo’s young adult novel War Horse became an instant classic. Set against the backdrop of World War I, it tells the story of Joey, a miraculous colt bought by Ted and Rosie Narracott (Peter Mullan, Emily Watson). Their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and the horse become inseparable, but when the war breaks out they are pulled apart when Joey is sold and heads to the front as the mount of a dashing British cavalry officer, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston).

Who better to bring War Horse to the screen but Steven Spielberg, who has made such family favorites as ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park? He spoke about the challenges of making the movie at the press junket for the film in New York.

World War I is relatively unrepresented in movies over the years compared to other wars. How much of wanting to make this film was the challenge of depicting World War I?

Director Steven Spielberg and star Jeremy Irvine on the set © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

Because I don’t consider War Horse to be a movie about war, I don’t consider it to be a quintessential World War I picture. The war is a backdrop. It provides the necessary drama to pull these characters apart and eventually reunite them. So war is more of a catalyst than the cause celeb of this story.

This is a human narrative. It’s about the connectivity that an animal can bring to human characters. It’s really much more of a story about hope that actually can exist in extremely dark circumstances, because hope is always in Joey’s face.

It’s always in the way he moves, the way he breathes, the way he doesn’t look at what’s gonna happen tomorrow. He just exists and brings so much connectivity to the characters on both sides of the war, throughout the entire story.

You were going for a PG-13 for this. How did you take what you learned about making really graphic war scenes in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and toning them down and still be able to keep the power of them?

Director Steven Spielberg and star Jeremy Irvine on the set © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

I wasn’t toning it down as much as it was not showing certain things. To me it was a more creative choice. I was trying to figure out how do I do a cavalry charge without showing hundreds of horses falling, dropping and tripping?

I thought, ‘What if we do the cavalry charge, but we just show riderless horses jumping over the German machines gun emplacements and not show the carnage of men falling and horses being killed?’

To me it was a creative choice to suggest what was happening and allow you to make your own assumptions and contributions as the audience to really decide how graphic you want to be in your imagination to what that might have looked like had I shown it.

What kind of research did you do for this?

We went to the Imperial War Museum (in London), and they opened up all of their backroom exhibits that the public does not get to see on the First World War. And we were taken into the bows of the Museum into their archives, this was an exhibit that was for our eyes only.

We learned so much that we didn’t know about the First World War that I wasn’t willing to bring out in the film, because this wasn’t meant to be a history lesson. So there’s nowhere in the film that says four and a half million horses were killed in the First World War.

But it was important that we understood that kind of jeopardy for both Joey and his best horse friend, Topthorn were going to be in.

Can you talk about casting Jeremy Irvine for the role of Albert?

Director Steven Spielberg and star Jeremy Irvine on the set © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

I did not want anyone who was well known to play Albert. I figured if the horse was gonna be an unknown, so should Albert. (he laughs) Jeremy came in totally untested, not battle tested in any way as an actor, but he had a certain honesty.

All I look for is honesty in any young person I direct.

When I found Christian Bale (for Empire of the Sun) he was so honest I couldn’t deny the fact that there was an actor in this kid. Drew Barrymore, Henry Thomas, there was an honesty with them in E. T. I just look for authenticity.

Jeremy was the most real kid we saw. Also the horse liked him a lot!

What is it like directing a horse? How do you get a performance from them?

Director Steven Spielberg and star Jeremy Irvine on the set © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

Here’s the thing, Bobby Lovgren was our Horse Whisperer, and he had a tremendous team of gentle souls that understood how to connect with the gentle souls of these horses. So I directed the horses through our Horse Whisperers.

I didn’t think the horses could do what they turned out to do in War Horse.

Another thing that the horses did, which is something you never plan for, and was a miracle, is they started to improvise beyond any of our wildest hopes and expectations.

Every single day, the horses brought something we never expected them to bring.

Have you ever ridden a horse?

I did ride a little bit in the mid-80s and I got my back hurt, so I don’t ride anymore. My wife rides, my 15-year-old daughter is a competitive jumper. We live with 12 horses on our property and so I was immediately a good candidate to director War Horse, because I’ve interacted with horses for a long time now.

World War I was called the War to End all Wars, which of course, it didn’t. It began many other wars afterwards. But this was the war that ended the horse as an implement of warfare. It retired the horse forever from modern warfare.

War Horse is in US and Canada theaters on Christmas day December 25, 2011, Australia December 26, 2011 and UK theatres January 13, 2012

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.