The war horse that beat Steven Spielberg to the screen by 88 years

A still from A Couple of Down & Outs, the original war horse film.
A still from A Couple of Down & Outs, the original war horse film.
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It is a poignant account of one man’s affinity with the gun horse he served alongside during the horrors of the First World War.

Now, a long lost film which predated Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie, War Horse, by nearly nine decades, is to be screened for Scottish audiences for the first time since its original release.

A Couple of Down & Outs is a silent drama which tells the story of Danny Creath, a returning serviceman who rescues his former Royal Horse Artillery charge from the slaughterhouse.

For years, it was thought all copies of the feature had perished, but close to a century on, a print has been discovered in an attic.

The copy, now in the possession of the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam, has been restored by the British Film Institute and will be screened next Saturday at the Barony Theatre in Bo’ness as part of HippFest, Scotland’s only festival dedicated to silent cinema.

For Sir Sydney Samuelson, the son of the film’s producer, G B Samuelson, it promises to be a memorable occasion.

He said: “The film had quite an impact on its release and it’s remarkable that all these years on, a beaten up, decomposing copy was found in somebody’s loft in Belgium.”

Samuelson, 91, who was the first ever British film commissioner, added: “It has been magnificently restored and it means a great deal that it is being screened again.”

Released in 1923, A Couple of Down & Outs is regarded as an important example of early British cinema, given how it eschews sentimentality to focus on the hardships faced by former servicemen readjusting to civilian life.

Creath, played by Rex Davis, is unemployed and living rough, and the film is critical of efforts to rebuild the country’s economy.

Alison Strauss, director of Hippfest, said: “It’s a fascinating and fresh perspective on the war. The fact it was created so soon after the end of the conflict gave it greater resonance and poignancy.”

Although technical innovations saw aircraft, tanks, and poison gas deployed in battle for the first time, the film serves as a reminder of the vital role fulfilled by horses in the First World War.

It is estimated that eight million horses were killed. While many gun and cavalry horses were struck down by shellfire, others used to transport ammunition and supplies perished because of the elements, illness, or starvation.

The animals’ role was immortalised in Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, War Horse, which was subsequently adapted into an award-winning play and Oscar-nominated 2011 movie, directed by Spielberg.

With HippFest also staging an exhibition about war horses in Bo’ness library, Saturday’s screening will be followed by a Q&A session with Dr Yvonne McEwen, project director of the Scotland’s War initiative.

A Couple of Down & Outs is what you would call the original war horse story,” she said. “The filmmakers felt strongly not only about the waste of human life, but the idea that animals were being left behind.

“There was a great sentimentality attached to animals during the war because they provided a great sense of comfort. Animals were integral to the purpose of war, but they also offered a wonderful antidote to its brutality.”