By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 11, 2011 at 2:03AM
After a spectacularly busy few years, with six films being released in the first five years of the 21st century, Steven Spielberg's been taking something of a breather -- only "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" has reached theaters, and the less said about that, the better, to be honest.
But 2011 sees the legendary director return to his more traditional work ethic, with two classically Spielbergian movies hitting theaters in the space of five days, either side of Christmas. The long-in-the-offing motion-capture adventure "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn" is first up, followed swiftly by "War Horse," his more dramatic entry, and already looking a major threat for awards season next year.
Based on the successful novel by Michael Morpurgo, which was adapted by the National Theatre in London into a hugely successful stage play (the Broadway version starts previewing at Lincoln Centre next week), it follows Albert, a young boy who enlists in the army during WW1 after his beloved horse Joey is sold and sent to the front. The film is still a good nine months away, but filming has long since wrapped, and Baz Bamigboye has premiered the first official image from the film, which shows three of the major roles in the impressive supporting cast.
Tom Hiddleston, soon to play Loki in "Thor" and "The Avengers," is on the right, Benedict Cumberbatch, now best known for playing the title hero in TV's "Sherlock", on the left, and in the centre is actor Patrick Kennedy, most familiar from "Atonement" (he played the older brother of Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan's characters).
Nowhere to be seen is the film's young lead, Jeremy Irvine, plucked from obscurity to topline Spielberg's film, but the 20-year-old actor talked to Bamigboye and dropped a few details about his experience making the film. Despite his character's equine connections, Irvine admits that, "I'm not a huge animal person, and I didn't grow up around horses. In fact, I'd never ridden a horse."
Knowing that this probably wouldn't fly, Irvine started helping out in a stable during the audition process, and once cast, was sent on a two-month training course with Hiddleston, Cumberbatch and Kennedy (who all play army officers). Part of the regime included time spent with 'Liberty trainers,' or horse whisperers. Irvine relates of their methods, "The horses have no tack on and you communicate with them using body language. You get them to run around you, run behind you. You'd take your shoes off and the horse would run off with the shoes. The purpose was to become as comfortable as possible with the horses."
Eleven different horses play Joey at different stages of his life, not to mention the various other steeds that appear in the film. Of course, this only account for the second half of the title; there's plenty of combat involved as well. Irvine describes one scene, a doomed cavalry charge against more advanced German artillery: "It's the weapons of the old world -- our men on horses -- meeting the absolute destruction of these tools of mass slaughter. There was this line of machine guns and there's this wall of lead coming out of these guns. There were real explosioins at my fet, bodies flying through the air, stunt men getting shot at. It was terrifying. The smoke and the smell and the taste of the guns firing. It's not difficult to act scared in that situation."
It's all sounding pretty promising, particularly with the material (which would be tearjerking even if Michael Haneke made it) in the hands of a perfectly-matched Spielberg. The film hits theaters on December 28th. Invest in tissue companies before then. Not like that.