By choosing to make a film set during World War l, Steven Spielberg will have faced a number of challenges in terms of how to represent the past authentically. Many historical films are ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ a true story. War Horse is based on a fictional narrative yet contains within it representations of the past that will be of interest to those studying this period in history.
As you watch the following two clips carefully, imagine you are a historical consultant on the film. What questions you would like to ask the director about the research undertaken and the directorial choices made. For example, how did you ensure the uniforms were realistic? What primary source material did you refer to when making the film?
Pool your questions then as a whole class or in small groups discuss your ideas about some of the key issues of historical representation in film.
Here are some more questions to add into the mix:
- What kind of research did the people involved in making the film conduct? To what extent are the exchanges such as that between Albert and Captain Nichols authentic?
- How accurately do these clips portray the period in which it is set?
- What is the significance of Albert’s father’s Imperial Yeomanry penant? Notice it is in the artwork for the film. What does it represent in the clip and what might it signify throughout the film?
After you have watched the whole film, you might wish to consider the historical representation of the period more broadly. Here are some questions to guide your discussion:
- What is the message of the film? Does it tell us something about the time it was made or the time it was set? Or both?
- What is the purpose of the film? Is it to reflect on present attitudes to war? Is it political? How does this affect its usefulness as a historical source?
- To what extent do you think feature films based on fictional stories should be used to explore history?