into battle
Friday, 20 January 2012

LEADING THE CHARGE

War Horse is a sobering reminder of the price paid by a generation of fearless men. But, as Fiona Hicks discovered, for its dazzling young star, making the Spielberg epic was also a life-changing experience…

Written by Fiona Hicks
Last year, Jeremy Irvine was a struggling actor from Cambridgeshire earning his keep as part of the chorus in the Royal Shakespeare Company. But now, the 21-year-old's face adorns the film posters for this year's biggest blockbuster, Steven Spielberg's War Horse.

'I went from having no lines in a theatre show to being in this big-budget movie. I'm still trying to take it all in. Just having lines is a privilege, to be in a movie – a Spielberg movie, no less – well, it's more than I can relate to.' He plays the protagonist Albert Narracott, the boy whose bond with his horse, Joey, circumvents the years, agonies and separation of war.

DM-AC-25226Spielberg auditioned hundreds of young men for the role, but singled out Jeremy Irvine very early on. 'Nobody had the heart, the spirit or the communication skills that Jeremy had. I screen-tested him five times and he just got better and better.'

In the flesh, Jeremy's sensitivity and consideration are striking, while his appreciation of the director and fellow cast members is genuine – a quality I suspect that will never leave him, despite the starry heights ahead. 'I admit that I was terrified by the scale of the film, and rightly so. But Steven was so paternal to me.'

The eminent film-maker scrapped the traditional director's chair with one that read 'Dad' instead. 'I also had this wonderful cast around me,' continues Jeremy, 'who stopped me from getting really freaked out. I remember one day Tom reminded me that it was just a job – no different from any other. You turn up, do the best that you can do, then you go home.'

The Tom he speaks of is Tom Hiddleston, another English actor who has enjoyed a stellar year. Having worked successfully in theatre, this Old Etonian has recently exploded on to the Hollywood scene. Kenneth Branagh gave him his big break by casting him in last year's superhero blockbuster, Thor. Since then, he has been seen in Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea and now Spielberg's War Horse.

Hiddleston plays the gentle Captain Nicholls, who is forced to buy Joey from Albert Narracott in order to go to war. He is as thrilled as Jeremy to be working with the director: 'I grew up on Steven Spielberg films; I must have watched Indiana Jones 50 times as a child. I always wanted to be on a horse, with Spielberg directing. And lo and behold, here I am! I feel incredibly lucky to be living a kind of dream.'

The 'on a horse' part of Hiddleston's childhood ambition certainly comes into fruition in the film – 14 horses were used to play the part of Joey, and all the actors spend the majority of their screen time with their animal co-stars. 'I've come away from this project with an undying love for horses,' says Hiddleston. 'I'd ridden a little bit before this film, but the sensitivity and nobility of those animals are something I never expected.'

Topthorn-and-joeyAll of the film's cast forged a real bond with the animals, but none more so than the young Irvine. 'Jeremy is an amazing horseman,' says Hiddleston. 'I would turn up to the farm where we had our riding lessons at eight in the morning to find Jeremy had already mucked out three stables, having been there for hours. He was the definitive John Wayne among us.'

It is surprising to learn that the young actor had never had any experience with horses before being cast in the film. 'I realised very quickly that the relationships that you see on screen have to be real,' he explains. 'I had to have a genuine bond with all the horses that play Joey, otherwise you'd get on camera and they wouldn't be interested.' The actors spent more than a month learning to ride and familiarising themselves with their mounts. 'There has to be a connection for it to be credible. It takes time, but there is no other way.'

In addition to this heart-rending relationship between a boy who watches his beloved horse dragged off to the front, the film inevitably draws heavily on the concerns of war. Spielberg's team spent months recreating the First World War trenches with painstaking detail, and the battle scenes are reminiscent of his previous war film, Saving Private Ryan.

Jeremy admits to being moved to tears while watching one of the battle scenes unfold: 'Having become friends over the time spent with Tom and Benedict Cumberbatch (another British star of the film), it was awful to realise that it was men just like them who were sent off to die in their millions. The futility of it all really hit home.' Hiddleston's old school, for instance, sent 3,000 of its former pupils into the army during the Great War, more than a third of whom died in action.

Hilddleston and Cumberbatch, an old Harrovian, both play officers who face brutal combat. Hiddleston in particular is well qualified to play a military figure, having had one grandfather who served in the Royal Artillery and another in the Navy. 'I felt an enormous responsibility to represent the kind of spirit with which that war was fought,' he says. 'It helped that the resources available to Steven and his production team were exceptional, so much so that the only thing that wasn't recreated was actual bullets being in the guns.'

Spielberg JoeytheHorse Jeremy-IrvineHis trademark bright-blue eyes glaze over as he recalls the filming. 'The experience of being in a battle charge was both thrilling and terrifying. The sound of 480 hooves thundering, the wails of 120 stuntmen screaming at the top of their lungs and the look of hundreds of extras running in terror – it felt as real as it could possibly get without it being so. I was overwhelmed with admiration and appreciation for the men who fought in the two world wars.'

Spielberg's finished film is typically epic in scale yet intimate in focus. The beautiful scenes encompass many heart-wrenching close-ups of both human and animal faces, lending the tender character emphasis for which he is known. There is one shot that homes in on Captain Nicholls's face moments before he is caught in the merciless fire of a machine gun. He goes from the triumphant expression of a noble officer to that of a terrified child, all in a matter of seconds. The next shot shows Joey frantically galloping on into battle without his officer. 'The horse's capacity for courage reminds people of their humanity,' says Tom Hiddleston. It is a very British story.

The film War Horse is now on general release.



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