by Kristin Berkery
After reading Hollywood Hoofbeats, I admit it’s changed how I watch horses in movies. I’ve learned that incredibly life-like mechanical horses are used for those scenes that no horse would tolerate or survive, and CGI can produce unbelievably realistic and heart-stopping moments. Watching War Horse, I knew exactly what to look for to spot those special effects. Even so, they were so convincing that I was still shocked and amazed.
In the accident scene, a realistic mechanical horse was used to portray Gulliver immediately after he was hit by an 18-wheeler. The on-location American Humane Association representative actually believed the mechanical horse was real until he was shown otherwise.
Hightower died at the age of 26 after a long, successful career in the movies. Hollywood horse trainer Rex Peterson plans to write a memoir about Hightower.
Unlike some of Steven Spielberg’s other historic films, like Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, War Horse is a more romanticized tale. This makes sense considering it was inspired by a juvenile fiction story about a horse’s relationship with various people during the brutality of World War I. Since the other epic films were based on true events, comparing War Horse with those other flicks is like comparing apples and oranges.
I think because the book is a fictional story told from the viewpoint of the horse, Spielberg took the opportunity to inject some less-than-realistic elements to get the viewer emotionally involved in the film. For example, the horses are anthropomorphized in several parts, such as when Albert, the young protagonist, puts a harness collar over his head as a demonstration for Joey the horse. After seeing this, Joey immediately accepts the collar for the first time. In another part, Joey volunteers to take the place of his equine friend, a black gelding who isn’t up to the task of pulling extremely heavy artillery up a hill.
To experienced horse handlers, these moments sound a little hokey because horses’ brains just don’t work that way. Still, these anthropomorphized moments are brief enough that they don’t distract from the rest of the movie, and I suspect they’re used as a tool to draw in non-horse-loving viewers.
Depending on your personality, War Horse will leave you tearful at various scenes. I saw the movie with three friends and we were all touched at different times. One horse-loving friend began crying at the very beginning when Joey was born while another one held back the tears until close to the end of the movie when Joey is given back to his devoted friend, Albert. The waterworks started for me during the scene when Joey is rescued in No Man’s Land — it was emotionally touching to see a horse bring together men from warring nations in the midst of World War I.
The equine star of War Horse, a California-bred Thoroughbred gelding named Finders Key, is a gifted actor who conveyed believable emotions at the right moments. The horse master on the film, Bobby Lovgren, owns “Finder” and praises the horse’s ability to take direction and look animated during the intense scenes.
While 14 horses were used to play Joey’s role in the movie, Finder was the star that all the other equine actors had to emulate. His stunt doubles were chosen based on how closely they resembled Finder. With his handsome good looks and acting chops, Finder has already moved on to other TV and movie projects we can look forward to seeing.