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In most of the old westerns they used to trip horses to make the fall. Does that seem particularly awful to you now that you’ve done it without tripping them?
I remember hearing about Errol Flynn’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and there’s an amazing cavalry charge in that. You see the horses go down and, if you look very closely and you press the pause button and go frame by frame, you can see these horses have no idea what they’re riding into.
They fall so suddenly that it seems very cruel in retrospect.
Part of the reason that Michael Morpurgo was inspired to write the book was he found out that nine million horses were killed in the First World War. When you get close to one horse I can’t even conceive of what nine million horses look like.
I’m very pleased and very proud to have managed to make this film which features no small degree of barbarity towards horses, but to do it with great kindness and impeccable safety.
What was it like working with Steven Spielberg?
He is absolutely extraordinary at his job. He is a childhood hero of mine. I’ve grown up in the firing line of all of his greatest movies. I was a child when I saw ET, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
I felt like I grew up alongside him. And in many ways he was a primary architect of my imagination. He has literally expanded what I thought was possible. So it was an enormous privilege to be in his company.
And with all that expectation, I realized I’d never quite thought about what he’d be like. What’s most impressive about him is the speed of his decision making, and the open- mindedness that he brings to the set. He’s an amazing strategist.
Since you weren’t in the entire movie, emotionally what was it like watching it for the first time?
I wept like a child. I just found it stunning. I remember reading the script for the first time and finding it very moving and then the experience of the shoot itself was incredible.
Something happened in the course of the film where all of us worked with horses in a way that none of us had quite before, and the horses involved made the experience completely unique.
By the end of the shoot we were all completely converts to horse loving. I understood what people talked about for a long time, about there’s a very special bond that you can foster with an animal like that, and so I just found it incredibly moving.
Is there a message that you’d like the audience to take away from this movie?
Michael Morpurgo said that he didn’t write a war book, that he wrote a book about peace and that Joey is an agent of peace in the context of a horrific war. The gift that Albert gives to Joey, which is something that he’s received from his mother and his father, is a gift of kindness, compassion, love, courage and hope.
Those things are the things that Joey takes with him on his journey, his odyssey through this ocean of death.
Every human being that he comes into contact with is someone he touches with those qualities of kindness and compassion and love. And I think through Joey’s journey and through Joey himself we have a lot to learn about the best in people.