Now before we start, I must admit that as yet I have not seen the War Horse movie because if I watch a film I like it to be in silence and not have the rattle of crisp packets, slurping of drinks and every other obscene noise you get in cinemas. Therefore I will be waiting for the DVD to become available but from the trailers that I have seen I think it may be a very emotional experience. So what is the idea of this web page? Basically as there is such a huge Dartmoor connection with the film the intent here is to give some background to the movie along with the various aspects of Dartmoor that are relevant to the production of War Horse.
I have no intention of detailing the plot so as not to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film or book, needless to say the film is an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book ‘War Horse’ which was first published back in 2006 (ISBN-10: 1405226668 ISBN-13: 978-1405226660). The tale centres around a thoroughbred horse called ‘Joey’ who was purchased at great cost as a potential working farm horse. The farmer’s young son, Albert Narracott becomes attached to the horse as he takes Joey through his farm training when eventually the couple manage to plough a very rough piece of ground for planting the turnip crop. However, the farmer, Ted Narracott gets behind with his rent and promises to clear the debt when he harvests his turnip crop, unfortunately a rainstorm destroys this before he had a chance to get it in. As a last resort Ted Narracott sells Joey to a Captain Nicholls and with the money pays off what he owes his landlord. Captain Nicholls and Joey are then deployed to France were the captain gets killed in a cavalry charge and the horse is captured by the Germans. Albert Narracott then enlists and gets gassed during the Second Battle of the Somme and the story then travels through various trials and tribulations for both Joey and Albert. Eventually they are re-united and both return to the family home. And that in a very small nutshell is the basic plot but what aspects of Dartmoor are relevant to the book and what poetic licence has been used by the film?
Most importantly the Narracott farm in Morpurgo’s book was set in the parish of Iddesleigh which actually lies as the crow flies 8.25 miles north of the Dartmoor National Park boundary (just west of Okehampton). Interestingly enough there is a Nethercott Barton just outside Iddesleigh, is there a connection between this name and the fictional farmer’s name of Narracott? Now in the War Horse film the location of Narracott Barton was in fact at Ditsworthy Warren, the actual house is reported to date back to at least the late 16th, early 17th century and served as the dwelling for the rabbit warren (English Heritage’s Pastscape Record for Ditsworthy Warren House – HERE). The last warreners of Ditsworthy were the Ware family who remained in residence until 1947 when on the death of Percy Ware the warrening activities came to an end (Hemery, 1983, p.219, footnote). Today Ditsworthy Warren is owned by the Maristow estate but is leased by the Admiralty and is used as part of their ‘Supporting Infrastructure’ in the capacity of a ‘Stone Tent’ which houses up to 23 personnel in the house plus tents outside (Description of DTA and Military Activities pdf – HERE). There are still many landscape features pertaining to the rabbit warren to be seen in and around the Ditsworthy area but please note there is no vehicular access and the actual warren house lies on private property. From the suggested car parking site shown on the direction map opposite it is a 1.38km walk to reach Ditsworthy Warren House.
In both the book and the film Joey’s breed is that of an English Hunter and although not completely improbable it was very unlikely that back in the early 1900s the average small Dartmoor tenanted farmer could afford such a luxury as a hunter to pull the plough. As Wood (2003, p.110) notes; ‘ The Dartmoor farmer likes to ride, to hunt, to race. While few could afford a hunter and had little use for them outside hunting …’. On the moor the two main farm workhorses were the native Dartmoor Pony used for riding around the livestock out on the moor, pulling loads and as a packhorse. For ploughing various breeds of heavy horse were used due to their ability to pull a plough through the roughest of moorland terrains. So sorry guys not quite there on this one.
In both the book and the film there is great play in Joey ploughing a rough field in order to plant the turnip crop and I know not if by coincidence but there certainly is field evidence of cultivated strips of a date that probably goes back before the commercial warren was established. Additionally turnips were a commonplace crop grown on Dartmoor to serve as winter fodder for the cattle and sheep although there is no evidence of them being grown at Ditsworthy. For an excellent insight to what exactly the producers were looking for and how they achieved the various settings and locations see HERE
Next we move onto the local village portrayed in the film, sadly this was nowhere near Dartmoor as the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe was used a its location, apparently much to the annoyance of some of the local residents. So OK, maybe film directors do need locations where there is very little modern ‘interference’ such as satellite dishes, telephone wires etc for period films. Castle Combe is certainly no stranger to being host to film crews and I would imagine take very little ‘aging’ as a period setting. But, in a way is this fair? Probably not to anyone living outside Devon but it seems weird that having gone to all the trouble of moving the whole film crew along with their equipment to Dartmoor then truck it all the way up to Wiltshire. Maybe if there were no suitable locations on the moor then fair enough but there are numerous villages that could have provided the same atmosphere; Holne, Poundsgate, etc. Also you have the question of authenticity, look at any photograph of Castle Combe and all you will see is limestone building, something you will not see on Dartmoor. This is not the first time such an event has taken place, the recent episode of Sherlock and ‘Hound of the Baskerville‘ was partly filmed on Dartmoor as it should be with the Conan Doyle connection. They needed an inn for a location and so promptly moved up to a South Wales pub to film it???
Other Dartmoor locations used for various scenes and backdrops were: the Bonehill locale (OS grid ref. SX732774), Cadover Bridge/Brisworthy (OS grid ref. SX559645), Combestone Tor and surrounds (OS grid ref. SX670718), Hexworthy Bridge – (OS grid ref. SX659728), Meavy Village (OS grid ref. SX 5786730, Ringmoor Down (OS grid ref. SX559668), Venford Reservoir (OS grid ref. SX 685709), and finally what film would be complete without a shot of Haytor (OS grid ref. SX759771).
OK, so why did Stephen Spielberg use Dartmoor instead of the authentic book’s location of Iddesleigh? Having been involved in filming for the History Channel I know only too well that the Dartmoor weather is always unpredictable to say the least and not the most conducive for meeting expensive filming schedules. Nevertheless Spielberg was convinced that the rugged Dartmoor landscape was the one that would portray all the different moods and atmospheres needed to tell the story of Joey. It has been noted that the landscape and weather were considered the ‘third character’ in the making of War Horse, just behind Albert and Joey in the rankings. Somebody must have asked the famous Hollywood director why he chose Dartmoor and I am sure his reply will go down in the annals of Dartmoor history and be used in numerous advertising and media initiatives. Spielberg’s reply was:
“I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming War Horse on Dartmoor . And, 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“.
So what economical and environmental impact will the War Horse phenomena have on Dartmoor? Clearly with such a blockbuster movie that was directed by Stephen Spielberg there is a huge marketing opportunity for attracting visitors to the moor which should benefit local businesses. The ‘Visit Devon’ website are promoting a competition to ‘celebrate the release of War Horse’, the prize being a three night stay along with a guided walk. Under this umbrella Visit Devon are then promoting various Dartmoor hotels, inns, riding stables and guided walks – see link opposite. Visit South Devon website are also running a similar idea and again are promoting local businesses on and around Dartmoor – see link opposite. Brown’s hotel and award winning brassiere are promoting the fact that Spielberg and his crew used them as a base for filming – see link opposite The Dartmoor.co.uk website are working in conjunction with ‘Visit Devon’ as far as the competition goes and also offer a location ‘walk’, and I offer that term loosely as I don’t think I would want to follow that route from the map they provide – see link opposite. And so the list goes on with numerous holiday cottages, hotels, pubs etc driving the publicity machine. Unfortunately I am sure that many of the gift shops will be piled high with War Horse souvenirs such as fridge magnet etc but again it will be a source of revenue. Therefore providing the media hype about the number of people that will come in search of the War Horse phenomena is correct there can be no question that economically Dartmoor will hugely benefit from the increased revenue the visitors will bring. Maybe I should get on the band waggon and buy a horse, call it Joey and take it down to Ditsworthy every day offering ‘have your picture taken with Joey’ at a fiver a time? What would be a really nice idea is for some of the businesses that will surely profit from ‘War Horse’ to give a donation to one of the several Dartmoor Pony charities that carry out such good work on Dartmoor – but I won’t hold my breath.
From an environmental point of view more visitors mean more footfall and more traffic each of which make their own impact on the landscape and transport network of Dartmoor. Luckily most of the film locations are not particularly sensitive areas and so hopefully the impact will be of a minimum.
If you intend coming to Dartmoor and riding the War Horse trail of locations don’t just focus on that, within the exact same landscapes you will also see thousands of years worth of history, heritage and nature. Take some time to enjoy that as well, as soon as I can get there I will be producing a walk around Ditsworthy that will also take in the numerous other aspects of that landscape.
There is a sequel to the book ‘War Horse’ called ‘Farm Boy’ which is set back on the Devon farm and features Joey and events between the two World Wars. Does this mean that Spielberg will be back at some later date?
Having now seen the film and visited the film set I can say it was thoroughly enjoyable although I did watch it at home on the TV as opposed to the big screen. Not being a theatre fan I was of the opinion that the film would completely outshine the stage performance especially as the latter involved ‘puppets’. However, at the recent British Equestrian Trade Association show (of which the company I work for were main sponsors) we had the opportunity of a photo shoot next to the Topthorn horse (puppet). and it was totally amazing, astounding and brilliant. For all intents and purposes that was a real horse in every way, its manner, gait, actions, sounds and poise. Even the real horses at the show were fooled, there is no way that I will ever class these horses as puppets.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor, London: Hale Publishing.
Wood, S. 2003. Dartmoor Farm, Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing.