A thoroughbred and the young man who trained it are separated when the horse is sold into military service, in an epic directed by Steven Spielberg. The Dreamworks release was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
It was a perfectly natural, ordinary occurrence in the farmlands of Devonshire in 1912 - the birth of a colt. But to Albert (Jeremy Irvine), it is no ordinary horse. And as it grows we, too, can see the horse's special qualities of beauty, strength and trust.
Albert is a dreamer, a quality he likely inherited from his father, Ted (Peter Mullan). When Ted attends an auction to purchase a plow horse for his family's leased farm, he can't help but be awed by the same colt - now a strong and fiery animal more suited for a race course than a plow's harness. He bids more than he can truly afford, and wins.
Try convincing the comparatively level-headed Rosie (Emily Watson) that her only slightly-inebriated husband walking home with his new purchase had made a sound decision. Both Ted and Albert fail.
But Rosie gives Albert one month to break in the horse for the work needed on the farm.
We see scenes of the growing trust between Albert and the horse, now named Joey.
Albert and Joey accomplish the near-impossible, plowing a stone-riddled field.
Financial troubles leave Ted no choice but to sell the animal to the military when war comes. Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) promises to take good care of Joey and return him to Albert's care at war's end.
What Albert does not fully appreciate is the bloodbath Joey is now facing.
As an officer's horse, Joey is soon leading a charge against a German position at Quievrechain.
Surprise is on the British side - but they soon face hardened German artillery.
Joey and another officer's horse, Topthorn, are captured by the Germans and conscripted into service on the other side of the battle lines.
Two brothers then use the horses to desert from the German Army.
Emilie (Celine Buckens), who lives on a farm in the French countryside with her Grandfather (Niels Arestrup), finds Joey and Topthorn. The domestic setting might seem familiar to Joey, but the horses' respite from war is short-lived.
Joey and Topthorn are taken by German troops and forced to haul heavy artillery.
As other horses expire or are crippled from their labors, Joey survives the grueling work, in part through the care of a handler (Nicolas Bro) who, like the others, recognizes something unique in the animal.
Confronted by a tank, Joey escapes and races through the trenches into No Man's Land.
Not far away is Albert, who has enlisted in the Army.
Michael Morpurgo told CBS News' Martha Teichner the genesis of his 1982 novel "War Horse" was a meeting with a World War I vet who admitted he talked to his horse on the front lines to stay sane - talked about being terrified, about missing loved ones, all the things he could not say to his pals. Researching the role of horses in battle, Morpurgo learned that nearly a million horses sent from Britain to the battlefields were killed - and many that survived were sold off to butchers rather than pay to return them to England.
"Having done all this for years, sometimes, surviving and surviving against terrible odds, and serving and serving, you know, the will of the soldiers, so to speak, they then found themselves being sold off for meat," Morpurgo said. "I thought this is such a tragic story, but it represents the tragedy of the people who went to that war and didn't come back."
Left: An undated photo of German engineers building a bridge over pits torn open by mines at St. Quentin, France, during World War I.
"So would it be interesting, I thought then, to write a story about not war from one side or the other - from British, from French, from German, Belgian, American - [but] write a story, if you could, that is universal, that takes a horse's eye view of this war, a horse that starts on one side, is captured by another side, lives with some people over whose land this whole thing is being fought. Maybe you can get some sort of insight into how ghastly this war thing is that we seem powerless to stop doing, even now."
Seth Numrich appears in a scene from the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of "War Horse." The critically hailed production - which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2011 - incorporated puppetry to bring the horses to life.
After flying to London to see the show based on his producer's recommendation, director Steven Spielberg responded enthusiastically: "I just loved Joey, and I loved his relationship with Albert, and I just hated to see them separated and I couldn't wait to see how they would ever come together again. That really pulled me."
Spielberg's greatest challenge was to make what had appeared abstract on stage - puppetry evoking a living horse - as strongly defined a character when portrayed by a flesh-and-blood animal.
Another adaptation challenge, given that the book's narrator was a horse, was to tell the story of the film through a horse's eyes without anthropomorphizing the animal as it experiences the horrors of war.
Fourteen different horses portrayed Joey, from colt to adult, with different horses trained for different actions. The primary equine performer was Finder, who had also starred in "Seabiscuit."
No computer-animated horses were used, although for safety's sake an animatronic puppet was deployed for a scene in which Joey is entangled in barbed wire.
For the cavalry charges, more than 100 horses were enlisted.
When asked what can and cannot be done when translating a book or play to the screen, Spielberg told CBS News, "Well, you can pretty much do anything because you know, in terms of the book and the play, it's different. You have to basically devote all of your energy and all of your passion to the medium at hand, and so there was a point where I had to forget the book and I had to forget the play, and I just had to make my version of 'War Horse.'"
Spielberg's affinity for the wide canvas to tell an emotionally charged story is strongly apparent in "War Horse." Of this year's Best Picture nominees, it comes closest in spirit to the films of John Ford, in which landscapes are as important to defining characters as dialogue.
Left: The work of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
The production was filmed entirely in England, with the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe standing in for Albert's Devonshire home.
The trenches and No Man's Land were constructed at Wisley Airfield, a former WWII military testing field.
The German artillery hill was shot at the denuded Bourne Wood forest in Surrey.
Prior to "War Horse," his first feature film, Jeremy Irvine appeared in the TV series "Life Bites." He has recently starred in the upcoming "Now Is Good," and as Pip in "Great Expectations."
Emily Watson received Academy Award nominations for Best Actress for Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" (1996) and "Hilary and Jackie" (1998).
Her other credits include "The Boxer," "Angela's Ashes," "Gosford Park," "Punch-Drunk Love," "Red Dragon," "Corpse Bride," "Separate Lies," "Synecdoche, New York," "Cold Souls," and the TV movies "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" and "The Memory Keeper's Daughter."
Scottish actor Peter Mullan, who plays the pitiable Ted Narracott, won the Best Actor Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival for Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe." His other credits include "Shallow Grave," "Braveheart," "Trainspotting," "FairyTale: A True Story," "The Magdalene Sisters," "Children of Men," the "Red Riding Trilogy," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2," and "Tyrannosaur."
David Thewlis (right, as the landlord Lyons) won the 1993 Cannes BEst Actor Award, as well as the new York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics Awards, for Mike Leigh's "Naked." He is best known as Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter films.
Thewlis' other film and TV credits include "The Singing Detective," "Little Dorrit," "Life Is Sweet," "The Trial," "Damage," "Prime Suspect 3," "Black Beauty," "Restoration," "James and the Giant Peach," "DragonHeart," "Seven Years in Tibet," "The Big Lebowski." "Kingdom of Heaven," "The New World," the remake of "The Omen," and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."
Tom Hiddleston recently played two "gods" - Loki, in "Thor" and the upcoming "The Avengers"; and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."
Leonard Carow as Michael, a German boy soldier, in Steven Spielberg's "War Horse."
Niels Arestrup (Grandfather) previously appeared in "Stavisky," "Sincerely Charlotte," "A Private Affair," "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "A Prophet," and "Sarah's Key."
Composer John Williams received two Oscar nominations this year for Best Original Score, both for Spielberg films: "The Adventurss of Tintin" and "War Horse." Williams is now second only to Walt Disney in Academy Award nominations.
"'War Horse' is the kind of musical score that is joyous, it's actually fun to record, because it's very performance-dependent," said Williams, "where we need to try to get a magic moment from the flutist that may come in one take more or less than in the other, and the string orchestra that follows it will need to create something special that you really can't synthesize with a computer or overlay with the complexities of the new technology.
"This is a lyrical film requiring a lyrical response, not only in the writing but also in the performance from the orchestra - something else Steven understands instinctively, and enjoys."