An Extra Life On… War Horse

An Extra Life On… War HorsePaul W Franklin writes for Bleeding Cool about the life of an Extra.

Recently I've been pootling around the East coast of Australia, in a rather carefree beach-going manner, reading a bit of Bukowski and Kerouac.

"Good for you", you're probably not thinking.

The point is: there are several points. Firstly I've been too preoccupied with 'discovering myself' to care about other things (mostly discovering myself hungover and sunburnt), although I did manage to write a short film consisting entirely of rhyming couplets, and then I was like Crap it's Christmas!, and then Shit it's January, when's War Horse out? and then I noticed on IMDB that it is. So I thought I'd better write about it.

Point Number Two is that if filmmakers made films like Bukowski and Kerouac wrote books, then (a) there'd be a lot of messy unpolished films out there, and (b) I wouldn't have nearly enough work and would have to get a proper job. Mind you, after my minor meltdown on Hugo maybe that'd be a blessing.

So what better way to bow out – if only temporarily – than on the new Spielberg-directed picture, War Horse. My colleague Spielbo seems obsessed with wartime dramas recently (Munich, Schindler's List etc), and just when you're thinking "Surely it's time you made E.T. Returns"? he goes and makes another serious one. Based on the very popular London stage play with big puppet horses, I know very little about the story, but this is what I've garnered from the trailer:

A fine specimen of a horse gallops across battlefields accompanied by smoke and a stirring John Williams soundtrack.

A boy gazes fondly at the animal.

The horse gallops more. The music grows more stirring.

The young man yet again ogles the noble beast.

The horse keeps galloping, then appears at the end of a young girl's bed!

The man draws a picture of the horse, creams his breeches, then rides it into the sunset.

They snuggle in post-coital bliss, the man stroking his lover's mane whilst wistfully whispering Wilfred Owen poems into its twitching ears.

The last bit didn't happen, but it might as well have. I learnt nothing about the story from those two minutes; all I got is that this bloke is worryingly in love with the equine hero. Not exactly a family film. What's that? The screenplay's by Richard Curtis? The guy who wrote Four Weddings? Now I'm just getting images of the horse turning up at the man's house, soaking wet and blurting 'Is it still raining? I hadn't noticed?' (I'll never forgive you for that line, Richard.)

Anyway, as a Supporting Artiste, I'm not concerned about that. First off, I'm concerned with how to put my skirt on. Sorry, kilt. It's not a skirt, it's a kilt. That's right: Today, Matthew, I'm going to be… a Jock. If you've seen Braveheart (which was of course entirely historically accurate) you'll be aware that the Scots enjoy wearing sk…kilts even in battle, and since I was playing one of the cluster of them amongst the British forces, I would be wearing one. I've no problem with that – all men love a bit of dress-up occasionally don't they?

Don't they.

Regardless, there I was attempting to don the heavy man-skirt when the Scottish costume guy came over:

"Let me help… Have you ever worn a kilt before?"

Yeah one time.

"Oh aye?"

Yeah it was at a New Year's Eve 'Beheaded Celebrities' party. I went as William Wallace.

He looked offended. I was worried I might've offended him.

You probably find that slightly offensive?

"A tad."

I apologise. If it's any consolation, I'm a big fan of the guy.

It's funny, you'd think wearing a kilt in battle, like a big tennis skirt, would help you move more freely, but that kilt was extremely tight. So much so it hindered my lungs and other vital organs. Strange.

The set was, frankly, a masterpiece in itself. An old airfield yet again, the grassy area of which had been dug up like the Time Team bunch went crazy, riddled with trenches, tents, dead horses, ruins, bodies, obstacles, holes, burning trees and big, big puddles. Filled in with mud. Loads of mud.

Along the trench we lined, ready to go over the top. And after a brief speech by a proper actor, over we went. No Man's Land was a mess: a sprawling, er, minefield that had 'How Well Are You Insured?' written all over it. In blood. The A.D. yelled 'Action!', the section leaders blew shrill whistles, and up the ladders we went, charging almost blindly into the mire. After three steps an explosion to my left rocked me (that's not just a newsreader expression, they really do rock you), and a long moment later dirt pattered down on my flat-rimmed helmet and hindered my vision. Onwards I charged, shouting Die fucking German scum!! (I was miles from camera, nobody could hear me), negotiating mortar-holes and trying not to slip over. To my right, an ex-army guy fired blanks from a Vickers gun, a hundred yards ahead of me the Jerries were firing back, and much closer to me another explosion went off.

This almost makes up for not getting on Total Wipeout, I thought, charging until I was about as close to the enemy lines as one could hope to get. (Also, they should totally make this an Olympic steeple-chase event.) I mimicked being shot in the chest  – cos, y'know, I get caps bust in my ass all the time round South London – and collapsed in an exhausted muddy heap.
Thankfully, it took so long to set the shot up again, what with fires and explosions etc, that I had plenty of time to catch my breath.

This kind of larking around went on all week, taking turns to charge into the mire, look ready to charge, or slouch around medic tents passing disturbing porn clips around on mobiles. Around the third day the weather turned from 'Pleasantly cool October day' to 'It's time I moved to Spain', and ponchos were handed out. Ponchos that were extremely thin. About as thin as the thinness of the veiling of the apology of the A.D. who told me that they had no more, after I'd ripped the first one.

In other words: it was apparently more my problem than his.


Ah well, this would give me a chance to get more deeply into my character, proper method acting. Considering November 11th was approaching I thought this particularly apt. Perhaps not so apt that going over the top was something I looked forward to rather than dreaded, but hey.

Ater a while you get used to the sensation of being universally, consistently damp, like how you get used to Hollyoaks being consistently crap. That's just the way it is. Whilst sitting in a trench, muddy dampness seeping into my arse and my tin helmet merely re-routing rain over my shoulders, it did occur to me that Richard Curtis was responsible – at least in part – for the rather moving scene at the very end of Blackadder Goes Forth where they finally go over the top. Almost gets him off the hook for that line. Almost.

Eventually Friday evening arrived, and the week came to an end. Scraping myself up, I trudged – 'Drunk with fatigue' as Wilfred Owen wrote – back to the marquee. As I left the set, I heard an A.D. saying to us "Okay guys, that's a wrap for today, go and get out of the rain."

Is it still raining? I hadn't noticed…

Next time: Close encounters with horse's hooves, amusing oneself in a POW compound, and The End. Paul W Franklin is a pseudonym.

About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.