His expert historical knowledge of the First World War led to our visiting speaker being hired to advise the makers of a Hollywood blockbuster. He took us behind the scenes of the film-making process, as Geoff Saunders reports
A good crowd turned out for our annual general meeting on Wednesday 10 May at the Christian Centre – and almost everyone stayed on to hear Andy Robertshaw talk about his role as military adviser on Steven Spielberg’s film of War Horse!
Andy started by introducing himself as a military historian, not a film-maker, who heard from a friend that Spielberg was filming War Horse, an adaptation of the stage play, itself adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s book. After a very informal interview he was told to get himself an agent and was then sent a carefully secured copy of the screenplay. He was in!
As a historical consultant, his role was to advise on the historical accuracy of both German and British actions and dress, but with no veto. If the director wanted it, he got it, as when he insisted the Dorsets went into battle to the music of bagpipes, notwithstanding the historical facts. But sometimes Andy did prevent obvious blunders.
Part of the role of historical consultant is to train extras and to fill minor acting roles. Andy’s starring role in the film was to lead his extras over the top, a short scene which needed many takes, not all because of – very amusing – mistakes by the others.
Of course, particular care had to be taken with the horses, though we were surprised to hear that the starring horse, Joey, was played by about 10 different animals. Equine make-up ensured the difference was never visible – though if you look carefully, Andy assured us, there were little giveaways. And the dead horses on the battlefield? Foam rubber, presenting their own problems when the wind got up. Another scene, where horses were supposed to pull a gun up a hill, took days to shoot and resulted in about 90 seconds of the final film.
A great deal of attention was paid to getting the real feel of trenches and trench warfare. This involved freeze-dried rats and artificial mud (real mud dried out too quickly for the filming). And to ensure a night sequence with gunfire was realistic, casting had found a stone-deaf horse, then told all the extras how vicious he was. If they looked scared, it’s because they were.
Andy gave a very engaging and amusing account of the film-making process, explaining that the sequence of shooting is very different from the sequence of the film. When the director eventually called ‘Wrap’ to finish shooting, everyone involved was delighted and somewhat proud of their achievements. All were hopeful of future assignments.
Some questions afterwards touched on the historical facts. Andy explained that very few horses were returned to the UK after the war: contrary to popular belief, they were not sold for meat, but as working horses on the Continent. The War Office, ever careful of its budget, could get a much better price for a working horse than for one destined for slaughter.