Steven Spielberg’s World War I era epic War Horse, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, unfolds amidst the sweeping backdrop of the many varied landscapes of Europe. It begins in rural England with a young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved horse Joey. When Albert’s father (Peter Mullan), a hard on his luck farmer trying to save the family’s farm, is forced to sell Joey to the British Calvary, the events of the First World War commence as seen through the audacious journey of the horse.
The historical period of World War I as lived by the characters in War Horse is brought to life through the work of costume designer Joanna Johnston who is part of Spielberg’s long time close-knit artistic crew. She has been working with the director since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Johnston has already helped recreate World War II with Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998). This is her fifth collaboration with the director.
A WWI film of such epic scale hasn’t been made in a while and Johnston was determined to make her work authentic and true to the period. Comprehensive research was instrumental in recreating the military uniforms. “We did go to the Imperial War Museum which gave us the blueprint of everything we needed,” said Johnston. During her thorough study of WWI documentation, she discovered that at this period in history, the officers did not wear standard issue uniforms. Officers had uniforms made to their own personal preferences by tailors. This made designing the costumes even more interesting. “The reality was that there are no uniforms from the First World War that you can use in the film. We had to manufacture quite a lot in quite a small space of time. I think we did about 800 uniforms in about seven weeks,” Johnston added.
Dressing Albert and his parents Ted and Rose (Emily Watson) led Johnston away from military research to rural clothing at the beginning of the 20th century. It was important to her to keep the family looking like the country people that they are as well as adding personal touches that identified who they are. With Albert, Johnston looked for ways to make him appear young and endearing. Ted, the alcoholic dad, who is haunted by his own wartime experiences of an even earlier era, is old fashioned and would wear a jacket he has had for a very long time. Rose is practical but she also takes pride in her family and home so she tries to dress the best she can with the limited resources available.
By the time Albert leaves the English countryside and his family to join the wartime efforts, the war has dragged on for a while. The neat idyllic look of the officers from the beginning of the war has been abandoned for a haggard, well-worn look. Albert himself appears tired and worn down as soon as he appears in battle. Johnston designed this path for costumes to follow the brutal facts of the history of WWI. “It was fascinating. It was a learning curve for me, to find out the whole history of the war through uniform,” said Johnston.