Spielberg recreates period England for War Horse on location in UK
Steven Spielberg recreated early 20th Century England on location in the southern UK for his period epic War Horse. Filming focussed on the hills of Dartmoor and the village of Castle Combe in south-west England, while the trenches of the First World War were recreated in Surrey.
Seven different filming locations around the southern UK were used during the 63-day shoot. Holwell Farm in Devon was used as a production base for Spielberg and his extensive crew while filming in Dartmoor, with shooting focussing on three weeks in Castle Combe, Wiltshire.
Castle Combe has been used on-screen before in studio films like Stardust and this time it underwent a transformation, both to suit the World War I time period and to ensure the colour palette met the needs of Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s regular Director of Photography.
The village’s tarmac through-road was closed and covered with a temporary muddy surface more realistic to the 1914 setting. Modern street lamps, signage and post boxes were either covered or removed altogether, and white window frames were repainted with more muted colours that satisfied both the homeowners and Kaminski. It took a full week afterwards to return the village to its former state.
I have never before, in my long, eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming War Horse on Dartmoor.
Spielberg later commented: “I have never before, in my long, eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming War Horse on Dartmoor. With two-and-a-half weeks of extensive coverage of landscapes and skies, I hardly scratched the surface of the visual opportunities that were offered to me.”
A battle charge involving 120 galloping horses was filmed further east at Stratfield Saye House in north Hampshire, with the story following the horse Joey as he’s sold to the British army and serves in France. For this particular sequence a field of reeds was uprooted from south London and replanted in Styrofoam bases on location.
The film’s scenes of trench warfare take place in France and were filmed at the disused Wisley Airfield in Surrey, with 250 yards of trenches eventually dug over six weeks by some 750 crew members. Infrastructure had to be laid to keep the trenches in place and enable the crew to run dolly tracks. The shoot dates coincided with very wet weather conditions, which flooded the trenches.
Spielberg had a minor mishap himself when he slipped into a flooded trench: “A storm had washed away the warning cones and filled it up. I was totally under ice water. I threw my hands over my head and two big grips pulled me out.”
It was freezing and raining, but then there would be these amazing skies and the whole crew would stop and gaze out at the landscape because it was so beautiful.
Kathleen Kennedy, Producer
Kathleen Kennedy is Spielberg’s long-time Producer: “It was unbelievably rainy and cold. Even when you had your wellies on, sometimes you’d just take a step and one would be left stuck in the mud. It was freezing and raining, but then there would be these amazing skies and the whole crew would stop and gaze out at the landscape because it was so beautiful.”
War Horse is just one of many major studio films to have shot recently in the UK. The British Government recently announced that its filming tax relief scheme will be continued through to the end of 2015, helping the UK retain its competitive edge. War Horse saved about USD5 million through tax breaks.
War Horse was released in the US in December and opens shortly around the world.
(War Horse image copyright: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP/DreamWorks. Castle Combe image copyright: John Menard)
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