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Spielberg unveils new War Horse film as Oscars buzz grows

It began as an extraordinary children's book about the brutality of the First World War, seen not through the eyes of a combatant but of a horse.
A quarter of a century later, it was adapted for the stage in a production that took puppetry to a new level, and is still playing to packed houses in London and – since earlier this year – on Broadway, where it won several Tony awards.
Now it looks as if War Horse, originally a novel by Michael Morpurgo, has successfully made the final transformation – to the big screen.
An eagerly anticipated film version, directed by Steven Spielberg, is galloping towards its release in America on Christmas Day and in Britain on Jan 13. Its makers have begun showing it to select audiences in the US – including some film critics – and praise from members of the public is pouring in.
"When the credits rolled, everyone began to clap," Janet Till, a 51-year-old schoolteacher who attended a recent screening in Florida, told The Sunday Telegraph. "It is a tremendous film, extremely moving, and great cinematography

"I had virtually no idea what it was about before I went. I had not heard of the book or the play and I was very surprised how good it was. The war scenes were so powerful that they were hard to watch."
If it is as big a success for the film as Spielberg hopes, it will be a triumph for the story of the extraordinary odyssey of a horse named Joey from the rolling countryside of Devon to the carnage of the battlefields of France.
For months the project was enveloped in the secrecy typical of a Spielberg epic, as his DreamWorks studio skipped the usual film festival circuit and kept the drama – which features a predominantly British cast led by an unknown stage actor, 21-year-old Jeremy Irvine – under wraps.
As part of a plan to promote it through word of mouth endorsement, it has been unveiled to a tiny handful of cinema audiences in the US – its most challenging market – with more to come on Sunday. And the first signs are that Spielberg's gamble is likely to pay off.
Shot in Devon, the Cotswolds and Surrey, where unflinching French battlefield scenes of cavalry charges and No Man's land were recreated, War Horse is already being tipped to gather several Oscar nominations.
Although the plot is little-known in the US away from New York theatre-going circles, the reaction has been largely glowing.
Chris Stuckmann, a film enthusiast who reviews movies for the YouTube video-sharing site, said after a viewing in Ohio: "This is one of Spielberg's best and that is saying something. He is a genius at portraying war sequences and this is classic Spielberg."
On Sunday the director will field questions from cinema-goers invited to select screenings in 10 American cities as the publicity offensive opens in earnest over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
It is also being shown in Los Angeles and New York to critics and members of the Academy film industry guild who vote for the Oscars. Preview screenings will be held in London early next month.
The stage productions in London and New York met with huge acclaim for their deployment of life-size horse puppets, manipulated by handlers so unobtrusive that they somehow faded from view.
But the film used real horses – 13 of them just to portray the main equine character, Joey, who serves both the British and German armies before ending up alone in No Man's Land.
The cast includes British actors David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Peter Mullan and Irvine, a young theatre actor with no film experience who was selected to play the role of the farmer's son, Albert Narracott.
The book was adapted in collaboration with Mr Morpurgo by British writers Richard Curtis, whose previous films include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill, and Lee Hall, best known for the Billy Elliot screenplay.
Watson has described the story's appeal to British audiences. "The Michael Morpurgo book is 'Black Beauty goes to war'," she said in an interview. "So if you're English, two of the most emotive subjects you could touch on are Black Beauty and the First World War. The crew were constantly in tears, as there were war memorials and everybody had a story in their family... for English people, everyone is touched by that war."
But the 1914-18 war is less familiar territory in the US and it is Spielberg's first foray into that conflict. He won Oscars for his Second World War films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List and there is growing buzz that he could land another for what is, apart from his involvement a very British film – just a year after The King's Speech won the Best Picture category.
Some have criticised the film as too sappy and sentimental. Others complained about the slow-paced start on a Devon farm, where Albert forms a powerful bond with the animal bought by his father at auction before the British Army conscripts the horse when hostilities break out.
"War Horse is wonderful, beautiful and very touching... if you're Joe Popcorn," wrote Jeffrey Wells on the Hollywood Elsewhere website after attending a critic's viewing. "Or if you feel a nostalgic affinity for 'less edgy, more traditional' films and can just roll with what War Horse is serving. I think it's so shameless [as Oscar bait], it's almost a hoot."
But on the influential Deadline Hollywood website, Pete Hammond made the case for the film.
"What Spielberg has wrought is a stunning looking and highly emotional epic that is Hollywood moviemaking at its best, and seems likely to be the filmmaker's most Academy-friendly work since Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan," he said.
"Is it old-fashioned? You bet, but in this fast-moving techno culture that may be a welcome thing."


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