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Associated Press
Jeremy Irvine stars in "War Horse," the story of an English farm boy and his beloved horse, Joey.
I hope audiences will take away from this film the importance that animals have in sometimes connecting humans together.

NEW YORK — Steven Spielberg loves the story of "War Horse."

"I hope audiences will take away from this film the importance that animals have in sometimes connecting humans together," said the Academy Award-winning director of "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan."

His latest effort is "War Horse." The film, which opens Christmas Day, takes place during World War I, fought in Europe between 1914 and 1918. The message is that none who served should be forgotten — neither soldier nor horse.

First, an immensely popular book in Britain from children's laureate Michael Morpurgo, then a Tony Award-winning play, "War Horse" tells the story of an English farm boy and his beloved horse, Joey. War separates them, but their connection remains.

At the red carpet premiere earlier this month in Lincoln Center, Spielberg said he simply had to make the movie.

"The war ended the horse's career as a war-time tool, and I don't think it was a good way to end the horse," the director said. "Four and a half million horses were killed in the First World War but it was also technology was taking over and horses were no longer necessary. But their heroic deeds are still, to this day, not forgotten and that's one of the reasons we tell the story and stories like Joey's story, so people don't forget the contribution the horse made especially in that era of history."

British stage actor Jeremy Irvine makes his film debut as Albert Narracott, who raises and trains Joey. He calls it an honor to be "part of the next step in this story's journey.

"It's a wonderful story and there's a reason why it's been so successful so far," Irvine said.

Another young British performer who makes a film debut in "War Horse," Celine Buckens plays the French girl who befriends Joey when he becomes separated from the British cavalry. She identifies hope as one of the movie's primary themes.

"I think that's one of the main messages — never give up, be determined," Buckens said. "It's a film where everyone will cry and everyone will laugh."

Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg's longtime producing partner, saw "War Horse" on Broadway with her family and told Spielberg of the moving experience.

"I didn't say to Steven, we have to make this movie," Kennedy said. "I said, 'You have to feel the emotion in this story.' "

Tom Hiddleston plays the dashing, kindly Capt. Nicholls, who buys the horse from Albert's father and promises to watch over Joey.

"The horse is a talismanic symbol of kindness, of courage, of hope, of forbearance and perseverance through the course of this ocean of horror, basically," Hiddleston said.

One of those "horrors" is Joey's treacherous travel through "no man's land," between trenches filled with barbed wire. Sometimes soldiers shot at each other, sometimes they charged with bayonet-tipped rifles. But sometimes there was peace and friendly interaction.

"Sometimes when you look at the absolute dark you can only see the light," said actor Toby Kebbell, who plays Geordie. "They always talk about that humane camaraderie and the nourishment they received from other men, which is rare for us, I guess. … It doesn't matter where people are from. That bonds them, and the horse bonds them. That's what's beautiful about it."

World War I nearly wiped out a generation of young men, but is largely forgotten now.

But Emily Watson, who plays Rosie Narracott, Albert's mother, remembers her family story.

"My great-uncle died in the trenches," she said. "He was 17 and my grandmother told me about it when she was in her mid-80s. She had never, ever talked about either war. She sat down and she told me how he had been presumed dead and then they got a letter from him, and a week later he died. And she, aged 88, sobbed and sobbed and sobbed as if it had been yesterday. She was 12 and he was 17, and that sense of loss and grief has always stayed with me. Imagined that multiplied throughout every household in the country, over and over and over. It's such a powerful thing."

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