War Horse | 2011
Three words: Spielberg, Williams, horse. If your tear ducts are welling up already, then you’re all set for this deliberately old-fashioned adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s kids’ book (previously seen in a stunning stage production).
There’s thankfully little in the way of CGI, though the magic-hour glow of the first half does make Devon’s rugged Dartmoor look like the old Warner Bros ranch in Calabasas. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Joey run into ol’ Violet Eyes riding on National Velvet.
The Narracott farm, where Albert (Jeremy Irvine) brings up Joey the horse, is Ditsworthy Warren House, an abandoned cottage a couple of miles southeast of Sheepstor, on the southwest edge of Dartmoor in south Devon.
The nearby local village is Meavy, and just to the north lies Burrator Reservoir, the body of water above which Albie races Joey against the new-fangled motor car of the landlord’s son.
The rolling hills and rocky outcrops are Dartmoor National Park, mainly the area around Combestone Tor, Haytor and Ringmoor Down. The wild and mysterious moors have a long history in fiction, most famously as the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery, Hound of the Baskervilles.
There’s a distinct change of architecture for the horse fair, where Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) first buys, then is forced to sell, Joey. The market is held in Castle Combe, about a hundred miles to the northeast in Wiltshire. The village, on the southern-most edge of the Cotswolds, is about 12 miles from the beautiful Georgian city of Bath and the 14th century Market Cross used in the film really was the site of a weekly market.
At the other end of the village, where the main street crosses By Brook, is the spot where Albert says farewell to Joey as he’s ridden off to war, which in 1967 was transformed into the seafront of ‘Puddleby-on-the-Marsh’ for the original (musical) Doctor Dolittle.
Claimed to be the ‘prettiest village in England’, Castle Combe began as a British hill fort subsequently occupied by the Romans, and then the Normans. During the Middle Ages, the village was an important centre for the wool industry, using the water power of By Brook to produce a red and white cloth known as 'Castlecombe'.
It’s the kind of village that Hollywoodsters perceive as typically English (though ironically the British feel it looks like a film set), but its first brush with the movie industry was not a happy one. There was quite a bit of friction during the filming of Doctor Dolittle and only recently, with Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust and Joe Johnston’s 2010 take on The Wolfman, have movie crews been welcomed back to the village.
The cavalry barracks to which Joey is taken is Stratfield Saye, one time home of the Duke of Wellington, between Reading and Basingstoke in Hampshire. The stables now contain the Wellington Exhibition and – coincidentally – the grave of the Iron Duke's own ‘war horse’, Copenhagen.
The trenches of ‘the Somme’ were recreated at Wisley Airfield, an abandoned WWII military testing field a couple of miles east of Woking in Surrey.
Also in Surrey, near to the town of Farnham, you’ll find Bourne Wood, where Joey takes the place of the ailing Topthorn to haul heavy artillery up the hill. Bourne Wood is another location seen in The Wolfman, and in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, but is most famous as the spot where Russell Crowe ordered his troops to “unleash hell” at the beginning of Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator.