Thanks to ‘War Horse’ and ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ it’s high times for Dartmoor

A reader comment in last week’s “War Horse” assessment sparked me to an element of this year’s Oscar season that I hadn’t even noticed: Dartmoor’s time in the spotlight.

The Dartmoor moorland in South Devon County, England is a protected National Park known for its tors, rivers and bogs (yep, I’m skipping a stone across the Wikipedia entry). It’s notable this year, though, because two of the upcoming holiday season’s crowd-pleasing, sentimental entries share ties to the location.

Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo” was adapted from the memoir by Benjamin Mee, who purchased the Dartmoor Wildlife Park (now called the Dartmoor Zoological Park) and set up shop with his family. The film was shifted to a San Diego County location, however.

Crowe did tell me, however, that he and production designer Clay Griffith “studied every frame” of the BBC documentary “Ben’s Zoo” throughout production. When Mee saw the finished product, he told Crowe, “It looks just like Dartmoor.”

Crowe says he’s looking forward to visiting the zoo for the first time in the next few months.

Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” meanwhile, actually filmed under the codename “Dartmoor” and set up production in the Dartmoor countryside for a number of weeks. Much of the landscape is captured gorgeously by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and indeed, the film’s opening visuals are a brief love letter to the scenery.

Quoted in The Telegraph newspaper way back in October of 2010, Spielberg confessed, “I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming ‘War Horse’ on Dartmoor. And with two-and-a-half weeks of extensive coverage of landscapes and skies, I hardly scratched the surface of the visual opportunities that were offered to me.”

This afternoon, Spielberg participated in an MSN-sponsored live stream Q&A and spoke about the connection to John Ford cinema some have made about “War Horse.” It’s notable because of what that connection reveals about Spielberg’s perspective on his locations in the new film.

“Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures,” Spielberg admitted. “I think the thing that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford…celebrated the land.” And in “War Horse,” he said, the landscape is very much a character.

“All I know is that the Devon Tourist Board must be rubbing their hands in glee at this,” In Contention reader Peter Pedant wrote in response to my “War Horse” piece over the weekend. “It’s such beautiful countryside and I can see the tourism boom there is going to go on for a long time.”

Maybe it will indeed get a spurt of interest, and that never hurts. As a huge National Park hound myself (I’ve been to many throughout the U.S. and consider that kind of spirit important and vital), I certainly hope the area gets an uptick in visibility.

I feel more and more strongly about this kind as the years go on, I notice.

Keep up with what’s going on at the Dartmoor Zoological Park via its website and Twitter feed. Learn more about the Dartmoor moorland, meanwhile, at the official National Park site.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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