Ask anybody with a passing interest in movies who they think of when they hear the word “director”, and 9 times out of ten, you’ll get the same name: Steven Spielberg. The man is undoubtedly the most successful director of our time, perhaps of all time.
He single-handedly invented the blockbuster with 1975’s JAWS, but he’s also responsible for some of the most viscerally powerful “serious” films ever made: SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). He’s one of the biggest personalities in entertainment, recognized the world over with several entries in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time.
His brand has bled over into new media like videogames and television and his influence can be felt in the ambition of every single up-and-coming director. Simply put, Steven Spielberg IS movies.
There’s a growing pool of cinema enthusiasts who are quick to discredit Spielberg as a studio hack or a peddler of maudlin entertainment. I’ve certainly been guilty of downplaying his accomplishments on occasion, which is a hard feeling for me to grapple with since much of his work has directly inspired me to pursue film as my life’s work.
No matter your stance on the man, you have to respect his contribution to the art form, as it has indelibly shaped the very fabric of the entertainment industry. The earliest film I can remember seeing was a Spielberg film.
It was E.T: THE EXTRATERRESTIAL (1982). I could have only been three or four years old at the time, and I remember it well because it was during a tumultuous period in my brand-spanking-new life. My younger brother had just been born, and due to our growing family, my parents moved us out of the home in the working-class southeast Portland neighborhood in which I was born.
As my architect father was designing and building the house that I would eventually spend the bulk of my childhood in, we lived in a small apartment out in the suburbs, with a large, vacant field serving as a backyard. One day my mother sat me down in front of our TV and popped in a VHS cassette of E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL while she prepared dinner.
I don’t know why I connected with it at such an early age—perhaps the film’s suburban setting subconsciously connected with my own alienation that stemmed from my new, similarly-suburban surroundings. By the end of the film, I was a sobbing mess. Just soggy as all hell, blubbering as the credits rolled.
My mother leaned out from the kitchen to ask what was wrong. I remember my reply very distinctly, delivered between wet gasps of air as my little frame shook: “It’s just SO SAD!!!”.
Most people don’t really begin to start forming concrete memories until about four or five. And indeed, this early period of my life I can only remember in brief snippets, like a hazy half-forgotten dream (oddly enough, I can still remember some very vivid dreams from that time).
But there was something about this movie that just cut right to the core of my little heart, searing itself into my permanent memory before I could really begin to process what I was even watching. It’s a great illustration of cinema’s profound emotional power in the hands of a capable filmmaker.
Like laughter or music, cinema is a global language in its own right, transcending borders and cultures and connecting us all to the greater human experience. Spielberg is an aspirational figure for many wannabe filmmakers because he’s proof positive that anyone with talent and passion could go on to become the biggest filmmaker of all time.
Many of these filmmakers, myself included, will find parallels between Spielberg’s development and their own—to a point. In fact, the parallels stop right around the internship phase, unless you too got signed to a television-directing contract after showing your short film to an executive at Universal. My point is that Spielberg didn’t have the luxury of connections to get him in the door. What got him there was the singular desire and drive to make movies.
EARLY AMATEUR WORKS (1959-1967)
Spielberg was born in 1946, in Cincinnati, OH to a concert pianist mother and electrical engineer father. He moved around a lot as a kid, spending good chunks of his childhood in New Jersey and Scottsdale, Arizona. The Spielbergs came from an Orthodox Jewish heritage, which Spielberg would grapple and explore with in his films later in life.
As a child, he initially found himself embarrassed by, and at odds with, his family’s faith. As you can imagine, Orthodox Jews were probably rare in midcentury Arizona, so he was self-conscious about its strange perception to his WASP-y set of friends.
Despite his exotic heritage (to Arizonians, at least), Spielberg grew up like any other prototypical suburban American boy in the mid-twentieth century. He was quite active in the Boy Scouts, and as fate would have it, it was his stint in the Scouts that would lead to the making of his very first film.
The twelve year-old Spielberg found himself with a photography merit badge to complete, but his father’s still camera was broken. Instead, he got permission to make a movie with his father’s working motion picture camera. He conceived and shot a short western, called THE LAST GUNFIGHT (1958). And just like that, Spielberg was bit by the bug. Hard.
I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years making movies with my neighborhood friends, so it’s reassuring to see that Spielberg did the same thing when he was young. Even at such an early age, his aptitude for composition, pacing, and grandeur is immediately apparent.
It’s interesting that the subject matter of his early amateur work deals with the same themes as his professional oeuvre. Amongst his movies in this time period, he shows a preoccupation with alien encounters and World War 2, no doubt inspired by the stories his father would tell him after returning from the war.
He’d later realize a lot of these themes again on a professional level, such as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Looking at the whole of his filmography, one notes that a substantial percentage of his work takes place in the World War 2 era.
It’s clear that the conflict and the resulting cultural shifts profoundly shaped him, giving him an appreciation for history and dramatic stakes. His 1961 short, FIGHTER SQUAD, would be the first time Spielberg ever tackled the subject of World War 2.
Even in his teen years, Spielberg accomplished big production values with inspired resourcefulness. In filming a story about WW2 fighter pilots, he used his father’s access to military equipment to achieve an unbelievable degree of authenticity.
He even went so far as to shoot in the cockpits of grounded fighter planes, which he shot using 8mm black-and-white film seamlessly intercut with stock footage of aerial dogfights. I did something similar in one of my own early shorts, whereby I cut in the climactic explosion shot from Terence Young’s DR. NO (1962) when I needed a big explosion to happen in my story.
There’s a tactile joy and magic to editing when you first discover it, and the purity of youth makes for some charming resourcefulness. It was this very resourcefulness that would propel Spielberg to unparalleled heights throughout his career.
Also in 1961, Spielberg filmed the short ESCAPE TO NOWHERE, inspired by a World War 2 battle that occurred in East Africa. Spielberg shot it on 8mm color film with his friends and siblings in the dusty Arizona chaparral that was his neighborhood’s backyard.
Originally running 40 minutes long, there’s only a 2 & ½ minute excerpt that exists for public eyes. The excerpt depicts a heated battle, with no real coherent sense of geography or who’s who.
Due to the limitations of childhood, Spielberg’s actors are all dressed the same—army pants and helmets, and white t-shirts—and probably all are using the same handful of rifles. Young boys frequently play war in their backyards, filling in the majority of the battle with their imaginations.
ESCAPE TO NOWHERE is just like playing war as a kid, only fully realized. There’s a palpable homemade, amateur element to the film, understandably due to Spielberg’s resources at the time, but he makes up for it in sheer zeal and energy.
However, even at age 13, it’s striking to see his craftiness with homegrown special effects (stomping on shovels to kick up dust in simulated landmine explosions) and his imaginative approach to composition and camera movements—one handheld tracking shot is clearly intended to emulate a dolly, etc. It’s unclear whether the soundtrack on the excerpt—Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries” laid on top of a booming sound effects mix—accompanied the original film or was the work of whoever uploaded it to Youtube.
If it’s original, it shows Spielberg’s innate sense of spectacle and understanding of sound’s crucial role in film. It also predates his filmmaking contemporary Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous use of it in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) by nearly twenty years.
Regardless, ESCAPE TO NOWHERE is a captivating and chaotic look at Spielberg’s fascination with World War 2 and how it shaped his approach to one of his finest films, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
Spielberg’s success as a filmmaker can’t be attributed to talent alone. He’s also proved himself as a cunning businessman and studio head. The long, (somewhat) healthy life of his own Dreamworks Studios is a testament to his grasp on the business side of filmmaking.
The origins of this aspect of his career can be traced back to his very first amateur feature film: 1964’s FIRELIGHT. In shooting a story about alien UFO’s terrorizing a small town (a forerunner to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), the 18-year old Spielberg set about making his first serious-minded film.
By this point, he knew that filmmaking was what he wanted to pursue as his career, and he was eager to get started on it. Shooting again with friends and family in Arizona, Spielberg put in $600 of his own money, emerging with a 150 minute long 8mm sci-fi epic.
FIRELIGHT became his first work viewed by a paying audience when he booked a screening at the Phoenix Little Theatre and charged 75 cents a seat. The budding entrepreneur turned a profit of only one dollar, but the fact remains that he had nonetheless turned a profit. It was a formative night in what would become an exceptional career.
Unfortunately, only a few minutes of FIRELIGHT are available for public view, and they seem to be random excerpts taken throughout the film. Again, however, these excerpts show a young Spielberg already in control of his craft, with his now-signature style beginning to find its footing.
The excerpts depict a dark film, with high-key lighting giving an unworldly glow to the proceedings. A variety of suburban, Americana character archetypes—the high school couple on a date in dad’s pickup truck, the young child playing in the yard, etc.—look up in awe as a red flare of light (standing in for the UFO) slowly jerks across the screen.
The sound design reflects the grand cinematic ambitions Spielberg has for the story, even if his limited visual resources can’t quite pull it off. It’s a curious prelude to his further exploration of alien life forms in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005).
During this early amateur period, Spielberg made another short, the unfinished SLIPSTREAM (1967). Like THE LAST GUNFIGHT before it, it is unavailable for public viewing so I can’t consider it in the context of Spielberg’s development. It’s unclear to why the film was unfinished, but it probably owes to the fact that the young Spielberg was embarking on college, and the significant life changes it brought likely derailed the project.
While Spielberg’s amateur work is scarce, the scraps available to us give intimate insight into the mind of an auteur who would go on to help make cinema what it is today. By starting out in childhood, Spielberg got a head start over his contemporaries.
He had already been making movies for ten years by the time he received attention for his 1968 short AMBLIN’. Thusly, when Hollywood came knocking, Spielberg was ready.
When I first decided that I wanted to make films for a living (which was at the tender young age of eleven), I immediately began to dream about one day moving to Los Angeles to pursue that career. I knew that I’d have to go to film school, and had heard that the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California was the best in the country.
Naturally, that meant that I would go there. For the next seven years, all my filmmaking efforts, as well as my school performance, were aimed towards the singular goal of getting into USC. Of course, you can imagine my crushing disappointment when that rejection letter came in the mail one sunny spring day. As fate would have it, I was destined for a detour in Boston to study film at Emerson College before moving to the balmy climes of southern California.
It’s impossible to tell whether a USC education would have had a different impact on my still-budding career, but funnily enough, next year I’ll be marrying a Trojan, so in a way I still get to have my cake and eat it too. I say all this because in those dark days following the USC rejection, I had one bright, shining beacon of hope to guide me onward: the knowledge that director Steven Spielberg, inarguably the most successful filmmaker of all time, had been rejected from USC too (twice!).
By virtue of his association with high-profile USC alumni like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, many people simply assume that Spielberg had gone there as well. Instead, he attended California State University at Long Beach and dropped out altogether after his sophomore year (he later finished his degree in 2002). I was reassured in the notion that, if he could accomplish all that he has without the aid of a USC education or family connections to the industry, then surely so could I.
Of course, Spielberg experienced his own trials and tribulations to get where he is today. During his late teens and early twenties, Spielberg was desperate to break into the movie business any way he could.
Rather famously, he took a tour of the Universal lot and ditched the tram halfway through, wandering around for hours and making friends with various people who then allowed him to sneak back onto the lot whenever he pleased. This bold move on his part would indirectly lead to him getting an audience with Universal VP of television of production, Sid Sheinberg—a story that I’ll get into a little later.
All this sneaky stuff would be for naught if Spielberg had nothing to show for his own talents. Obviously, he couldn’t show his amateur home movies (except maybe 1964’s FIRELIGHT) and still be taken seriously. To that end, he began writing a short script about a young man and woman discovering each other and themselves on a hitchhiking trip to California. Spielberg met an aspiring producer named Denis Hoffman who was looking to fund a film, and they decided to begin work on what would eventually become Spielberg’s first 35mm short: AMBLIN’ (1968)
Presented completely without dialogue for the entire duration of its 25-minute running time, AMBLIN’ is a light-hearted romp through the Joshua tree-dotted landscapes of the Mojave Desert. Actor Richard Levin plays the unnamed young man, and Pamela McMyler plays his free-spirited female companion.
As they work together to hitch a ride to the coast, the woman coaxes the man into several rites of passage—like smoking pot and having sex in a sleeping bag, to name a few. All the while, the man carefully guards his guitar case, which only makes the woman more curious to find out what’s inside.
Shooting on a budget of $15,000 with a crew of college kids, Spielberg nevertheless makes the film feel professional and polished. Together with cinematographer Allen Daviau, Spielberg employs a blown-out aesthetic and sun-bleached color palette.
He resourcefully creates a grand sense of scale by composing his characters as lone figures against the expansive desert landscape (an effect somewhat dampened by the format’s limiting 4:3 aspect ratio). Spielberg’s camerawork is youthful and energetic to match the tone of story, using dolly shots, rack zooms, and handheld takes that evoke the experimental style of the New Hollywood movement with which Spielberg would later become associated with (a movement that itself was directly influenced by the bold cinematic transgressions of the French New Wave).
Michael Lloyd contributed the film’s score, which plays from end to end in place of dialogue. Lloyd’s work takes on a boppy, travelling vibe that sounds a lot like the easy-going folk/hippie rock of its day.
The folk-y/western theme song that plays over the opening credits is performed by a band called October Country, which conveniently happened to be one of the acts that producer Hoffman was managing at the time. Spielberg knew he was making a career game-changer, even if his disgruntled, unpaid crew didn’t.
He was so nervous during production that he reportedly puked every day before showing up on set. Despite the adverse conditions of the shoot, Spielberg came out with a finished film that he could use as a calling card.
This may not seem like that big of an accomplishment in today’s democratic age of filmmaking, where everyone has a short to their credit. But in 1968, the sheer cost of film stock meant that the pool of successful short film directors was pretty thin.
Spielberg had a leg up over the countless mob of LA wannabes simply by virtue of having something to show. This is where the aforementioned Universal connection comes into play.
After spending a summer getting to know various people on the Universal lot, a copy of AMBLIN’ found its way into the office of television VP Sid Sheinberg. Sheinberg was so impressed by the film that he signed the young Spielberg to a seven-year TV-directing contract. With that, the ambitious 22-year-old filmmaker had officially become a paid director. Achieving his dreams came at a cost, however—Spielberg had to drop out of college and put his education on hold. Real-world directing would be his film school now.
AMBLIN’ continued playing an influential role in Spielberg’s career by giving him the name for his first big production company, Amblin’ Entertainment. Amblin’ Entertainment has gone on to become one of the most iconic shingles in cinematic history—every kid who grew up watching movies in the 90’s has that logo (featuring the classic E.T. bicycling against the moon imagery) seared into their memory.
For the film that launched the biggest career in the game, AMBLIN’ has been surprisingly neglected. Judging by the stream available on Youtube, it hasn’t been officially released since the days of VHS. The well-worn copy available online has warped the presentation to a far-from-pristine state.
Given the extensive number of film restorations that Universal has been commissioning for its centennial celebration, it strikes me as odd that they wouldn’t preserve the debut work of its most valuable director. Perhaps Criterion will come to its rescue if it ever decides to give one of its coveted spine numbers to a Spielberg film.
For a film that’s now more than 40 years old, AMBLIN’ comes off as very dated due to its focus on late 60’s youth culture. Its poor visual presentation doesn’t help either. However, it is still a fascinating document by the world’s most successful filmmaker at the shaky beginnings of his career.
A far cry from the big-budget blockbuster spectacles that would make his name, AMBLIN’ is a quiet, intimate story with themes of discovery and innocence against the wider world—themes that would come to define Spielberg’s style and chart the course of his career.
NIGHT GALLERY: “EYES” EPISODE (1969)
American screenwriter and TV producer Rod Serling was a household name in the 1960’s, due to the massive popularity of his show “THE TWILIGHT ZONE”. This was not only due to the strength and quality of his work, but also due to the fact that he introduced each segment on-screen in his now-signature enigmatic showman’s demeanor.
In 1969, Serling created a second series titled NIGHT GALLERY that would serve as another outlet for his exploration of the weird, the strange, and the macabre. It was also around this time that Side Sheinberg,
Universal’s VP of Television, signed the young, twenty-three year-old director Steven Spielberg to a television contract after being impressed by his short film, AMBLIN’ (1968). To his credit, he was wise enough to see both Spielberg and Serling’s new series as complementary to each other, and thus Spielberg found himself with his first paid directing assignment: one of the three segments that would make up a televised anthology movie/pilot.
Spielberg’s segment is entitled “EYES”, and tells the story of a rich, elderly, and vainglorious blind woman who contracts her (very reluctant) doctor to perform an eye transplant surgery that will restore her vision, albeit for only twelve hours. The eye comes from some sad sack who is desperate to pay off his own debts, unaware that he’s losing his eyesight forever in exchange for a paltry sum that will be gone just as soon as he’s paid.
The surgery goes off seemingly without a hitch, only for the woman’s new eyes to fail her shortly after exposing them to light. Subsequently, she is plunged into a dark nightmare of a night that will take away her very sanity.
As Spielberg’s first big directing job, “EYES” naturally marks the first occasion that Spielberg works with big Hollywood talent. And during that time, it didn’t get much bigger for him than working with Oscar-winning screen legend Joan Crawford, star of such seminal Hollywood classics as MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962).
In one of her last high-profile performances, Crawford looms large on NIGHT GALLERY’s small screen as the blind Mrs. Menlo, who lives on the top floor of her large Park Avenue apartment complex like a Queen lording over her castle. Being as such that she is the sole tenant in the entire building, however, she has no subjects to rule over besides her trusted doctor.
Crawford’s performance is “old-school Hollywood” big, much like Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). By this point in time, the old guard of Hollywood’s Golden Age starlets were just that: old. A lifetime of excess and indulgence had made them grand old dames, stubborn in their ways and their collaborator choices.
Upon learning that the young hotshot Spielberg would be directing her on his first time at bat, Crawford reportedly called up Sid Sheinberg to demand he be replaced by someone more experienced. It could’ve ended Spielberg’s career before it even begun. Fortunately for him (and us), Sheinberg talked Crawford down from the ledge and backed his man.
Despite this early hiccup, Crawford and Spielberg got along famously, even so far as keeping in touch for the remainder of her lifetime.
Television isn’t the most director-friendly medium, in that directors are subject to an aesthetic and tone predetermined by the producer or show runner. Since Spielberg was helping to launch a new show, he enjoyed much more freedom in shooting his segment.
While he most likely didn’t have a hand in creating NIGHT GALLERY’s recurring moments (the spooky opening titles or Serling’s on-screen segment introduction), Spielberg gives his segment a bold, colorful, and bright look that sets it apart from the other stories.
Working with cinematographers Robert Batcheller and William Margulies, Spielberg opts for a classical approach to match the elegant production design by Howard E. Johnson. A neutral color palette accentuates bold punches of color, and high-key lighting adds a lurid quality to the 35mm film image.
Camera-work is fairly reserved, employing both dolly shots and locked-off static shots. Spielberg covers most of the action in well-composed, evocative wide shots, which gives a greater heft to his strategic close-ups. Despite the sober “establishment” approach, Spielberg was able to incorporate elements from the transgressive, burgeoning French New Wave movement into his coverage.
He uses a well-placed series of jump cuts to add intensity to an already-intense outburst by Crawford, and creates an expressionistic climax by swapping out a traditional set for an inspired blend of sound design and well-placed pools of light that cut through a harsh blackness. In doing so, Spielberg shows a remarkable aptitude for turning the ordinary into anything but.
The eye-swapping conceits of the story are highly reminiscent of the same conceits that would shape the plot of Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece MINORITY REPORT over thirty years later. The imagery of gauze bandages wrapped around the eyes is consistent between both works, and the imagery of eyes in a larger sense recurs throughout Spielberg’s filmography, like the iconic T-Rex pupil dilation shot in JURASSIC PARK (1993).
For his first real directing gig, Spielberg’s contribution to NIGHT GALLERY is a curious rarity in the pop cultural wasteland. The series is highly-regarded amongst cult fans, but even then, it’s difficult to find the TV movie that launched prior to Season 1.
To view it, I had to venture into the dark corners of the internet to salvage an old VHS rip with Spanish subtitles. Hardly the sort of preservation and reverence you expect would be given to the first professional work of the biggest director in mainstream American cinema, but these are the times we live in.
EYES is a humble beginning for Spielberg, a project overshadowed by Serling’s then-celebrity and influence. His natural talent is immediately apparent; one could be forgiven for thinking that he had already been a working television director for several years.
Due to the quality of his segment, Spielberg would be called to work on several other shows (including another episode of NIGHT GALLERY), and his status as a “director to watch” was affirmed.
NIGHT GALLERY EPISODE: “MAKE ME LAUGH” (1971)
In 1971, the young television director Steven Spielberg was invited back to the scene of his first major directing gig, ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY, for another crack at bat. His second episode, titled “MAKE ME LAUGH”, told the story of a failing comedian (Godfrey Cambridge) who would give anything just to make people laugh.
By chance, he runs into a self-described “miracle guru” (Jackie Vernon) who reluctantly grants him his wish after his pleas for caution fall on deaf ears. Sure enough, the comedian shoots to stardom off of his ability to make guts bust at the slightest of utterances.
But he soon finds that this dream comes at a price—no one can ever take him seriously. For a comedian, this would be all good and well, but his gift becomes a curse when he loses out on a serious dramatic part on Broadway and, subsequently, the career acclaim and reverence that he truly desires.
There are a few notable performers in the piece, led by Godfrey Cambridge, who excels at appearing sweaty and desperate as his dreams unravel before his very eyes. Tom Bosley, who previously appeared for Spielberg in his “EYES” NIGHT GALLERY episode, plays the comedian’s mild-mannered agent.
Real-life comedian Jackie Vernon seems an odd choice to play a turban’d mystic/sage, but his goofy cadence brings an unexpected flavor to the proceedings. And finally, Al Lewis—who’s better known as Grandpa Munster—makes a cameo as a gruff nightclub owner with little patience for the comedian’s failings.
As far as NIGHT GALLERY episodes go, “MAKE ME LAUGH” is probably the most straightforward and non-surreal. Spielberg presents the story in a reserved manner with classical camera moves and non-distracting locked-off shots.
Little of the New Wave flourishes that dotted his camerawork in “EYES” shows up here, but he does utilize the scale-generating power of a crane for his ending shot. I mention this crane shot mainly because it hints at Spielberg’s own internal ambitions and what was likely his nagging desire to graduate from TV into big-budget feature film making.
Even the most pedestrian of coverage angles, the close-up, possesses a strange kind of subliminal vocation in its composition. Spielberg was trying very hard to be noticed while simultaneously “coloring inside the lines”.
“MAKE ME LAUGH” doesn’t show much in the way of growth for young Spielberg, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. These were journeyman years for the director, whereby he cut his teeth over the safety net of a predetermined aesthetic and a support group of producers, supervisors, editors, and other craftsmen.
The urge to get into features was growing stronger, but he was only midway through his television phase when he made “MAKE ME LAUGH”. I imagine that he felt like he was spinning his wheels, but with each successive television gig, Spielberg was growing stronger and more confident. When his day in the sun came, he would be ready.
COLUMBO EPISODE: “MURDER BY THE BOOK”, AND OTHER TELEVISION WORKS (1971)
The year 1971 was a fateful one for director Steven Spielberg. The young hotshot had already racked up some impressive credits on ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY and MARCUS WELBY, MD in the years prior, but 1971 in particular saw the production of no less than 6 television projects—one of which became his break-out into features.
First up is THE NAME OF THE GAME, a series that was well into its third season when Spielberg came onboard to direct an episode titled “LA 2017”. The show revolved around the magazine industry and was set in the present day, but “LA 2017” used the “it was all a dream” conceit as an excuse to transport the show’s main character (Gene Barry) into a future version of Los Angeles.
Why they did this, I haven’t the slightest clue. Anyways, the series appears to be unavailable on DVD, and the only version of the episode that exists online is a short fan-made trailer featuring scenes from the episode. Going off that, it’s quite apparent how much of a deviation it is from Spielberg’s previous television work.
As his first project with a feature-length running time, Spielberg uses imaginative, slightly kitschy production design to create a dystopian Los Angeles of the future. Based off the trailer, it seems to be populated by geriatric hippies who perform in underground rock clubs.
This makes a strange kind of sense, given the fact that most of pop culture’s predictions about the future are really just projections of the present times they’re made in. As the father of the modern blockbuster, Spielberg’s career has understandably been heavily associated with visual effects.
“LA 2017” marks the young director’s first professional use of visual effects, as well as his first professional dabble in the sci-fi genre. Judging by the glimpses given in the trailer, Spielberg’s visual style at this time seems to be coalescing around evocative low-angles and compelling close-ups, with camerawork reminiscent of—and no doubt influenced by—the French New Wave movement that was then-unfolding across the pond.
After the successful reception of “LA 2017”, Spielberg contributed two episodes to the unsuccessful television show THE PSYCHIATRIST. His episodes, “THE PRIVATE WORLD OF MARTIN DALTON” and “PAR FOR THE COURSE”, were unavailable for viewing, as is the entire series.
Later that year, Spielberg landed a plumb job in directing the series premiere of COLUMBO, a property that had already enjoyed a few successful TV movie incarnations. Featuring well-known film actor Peter Falk as the titular detective, COLUMBO bucked the trend of most television serials at the time by regularly crafting movie-length episodes.
Each COLUMBO episode was self-contained, further leading to its cinematic nature. Spielberg’s episode, titled “MURDER BY THE BOOK”, featured a “perfect crime” mystery, wherein Columbo cracks the case of a brilliantly covered-up murder.
Jim Ferris (Martin Milner) is one half of a writing team behind a successful series of murder mystery books, but in reality he is the one that does all of the writing. His partner, Ken (Jack Cassidy) enjoys all of the benefits of the series’ success without actually contributing anything.
This poses a problem when Jim decides to go solo, which would dry up all of Ken’s income. Naturally, Ken kills Jim and covers it up using a ruse from one of their stories. Once the murder is discovered, Columbo gets on the case, immediately setting his sights on Ken as a suspect and unraveling his so-called “perfect plan” quite easily.
Ken was so confident in getting away with murder, he neglected to mind that his meticulous plan was laid right out in the open—inside Jim’s own books—for Columbo to find. Despite being a series premiere, Spielberg still adheres to the aesthetic established in previous COLUMBO TV movies by going with a naturalistic, high contrast look.
Dolly and crane-based camera movements give the episode a high degree of production value, while Spielberg’s use of a handheld, documentary aesthetic in the crime-scene sequence further points to his fascination with the French New Wave. One of the great things about watching old TV shows and movies shot in Los Angeles is recognizing certain landmarks and how their surroundings looked at the time of production.
I remember seeing an aerial shot of downtown LA in Michelangelo Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT (9170) and being blown away by how non-existent today’s skyline was back then. Similarly, I recognized the locale of an early scene in “MURDER BY THE BOOK”, which featured a building on Sunset Boulevard that I came to know very well after working inside of it for two years.
However, in COLUMBO this building was still under construction, having only reached the steel frame stage. It has no real bearing on my analysis of Spielberg’s work here, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it.
Spielberg would go on to direct an episode for the series OWEN MARSHALL: COUNSELOR AT LAWcalled “EULOGY FOR A WIDE RECEIVER”. This too wasn’t available for viewing at the time of this writing, so “MURDER BY THE BOOK” is the latest example of Spielberg’s episodic work.
However, it is appropriate given the fact that it was his work on COLUMBO that directly resulted in Spielberg being hired for the television film DUEL (1971). To him, it was just another TV gig, but fate had other plans.
By 1971, the young Steven Spielberg had made significant headway as a television director. His eye started to wander into theatrical feature territory, but he was uncertain how he’d get there. Until a better opportunity would arise, the best he could do was approach each TV gig with the same kind of attention to detail that he would lavish on a work of cinema.
Ironically enough, Spielberg’s first foray in theatrical exhibition wasn’t so much a calculated move as it was stumbling headlong into it. After his successful foray into feature running times with his “MURDER BY THE BOOK” episode of COLUMBO earlier that year, Spielberg’s assistant brought him a short story written by I AM LEGEND author Richard Matheson about a man stalked on a desert highway by a trucker stricken by a serious case of road rage.
The young director was immediately enamored with the simplistic, yet almost Hitchcock-ian story conceit. Using the rough cut of his COLUMBO episode as proof of his ability, he acquired the rights to the story and set it up at ABC as a Movie of The Week.
Spielberg’s adaptation, DUEL, is ferocious in its simplicity. A mild-mannered salesman named David Mann (stage and screen veteran Dennis Weaver) is driving through the California desert en route to an unspecified “appointment”.
He encounters a monstrous truck lumbering slowly ahead of him, so he drives around to pass the behemoth. Unfortunately, this incites a murderous rampage of terror as the truck stalks David’s car across the vast expanse of desert.
Literally driving for his life, David soon realizes the only way to rid himself of the menace is to confront it head-on. Dennis Weaver gets the majority of screen-time to himself, as his co-star is the faceless hulk of a truck looming ever closer in his rearview mirror.
To this end, Weaver ably holds our attention and interest like one would endeavor to do in a one-man stage show. His transformation from mild-mannered pushover, to terrified impotent, and finally to cunning fighter is compelling to watch.
The truck itself, however, is just as much a leading character as David is. It becomes a primal force of nature, belching black smoke into the sky and bearing down in David’s rearview mirror like some vengeful beast. Spielberg brilliantly never shows the actual truck driver at the helm, thus giving the truck itself a malevolent sentience.
A lot has been written in recent times about “the decline of men”. In a nutshell, the phenomenon is described as men relinquishing their “traditional” status as heads of households, breadwinners, masters of the universe, etc. Analysts like to argue that distractions such as video games and pornography have lulled men into a state of submissive complacency, in addition to abdication from parental and social responsibilities.
Now, I personally think a lot of that talk is bullshit, but the greater conversation does have a lot of valid points. Watching DUEL, I noticed several corollaries that lead me to believe this isn’t a recent conversation at all.
One of the major themes running through DUEL is this concept of emasculation. David Mann (the last name isn’t coincidental) is initially depicted as something of an ineffectual pushover. The truck that chases after him is a symbol of a primal masculinity, roaring like hellfire as it mercilessly hunts down its prey.
Those are the obvious signs, but Spielberg cleverly peppers in several other subtle moments that reinforce the theme. For instance, the film begins with audio from David’s radio: a man calls into a local radio show and expresses his paranoia over his neighbors getting a hold of his tax return and finding out that he has filed his family’s taxes with his wife designated as the head of the household.
Yet another instance finds David entering a roadside diner to gather himself together and eat some lunch, only to find that the trucker that’s been terrorizing him is in there too. Spielberg blocks the action so that David is sitting alone in the corner of the diner, a section that’s been painted entirely with pink.
The image of a grown man relegated to “the pink corner” is understandably emasculating, made even more so by the curious glances he receives from the line of grizzled truckers eating at the bar. David’s internal monologue, rendered as a breathless voiceover, also reinforces the story’s challenge of his masculinity.
He describes his ordeal as being “suddenly back in the jungle”, with the stakes being reverted to a primal state of life or death. He is the hunted, and he has to become the hunter if he is to survive.
While DUEL was intended for television exhibition (the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is a dead giveaway), Spielberg strives for a grandly cinematic approach in his collaboration with cinematographer Jack A. Marta. The 35mm film image looks as sun-baked as its desert setting, with saturated orange, red and brown tones burnt into the high-contrast frame.
The camerawork evokes the relentless juggernaut pursuing David by using a restless mix of cranes, rack-zooms, and car-mounted POV shots that speed along the cracked two-lane blacktop. Since this is the first professional work where Spielberg is truly calling the shots in terms of style, he indulges in a variety of nouvelle vague techniques that make DUEL one of the most visually stylized films he’s ever made.
In creating the film’s score, Spielberg turned to composer Billy Goldenberg, who had scored early television works for the director like ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY: “EYES” (1969) and COLUMBO: “MURDER BY THE BOOK” (1971). Goldenberg creates a driving, discordant score that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock film.
Furthermore, Spielberg uses a variety of bland, generic muzak for the in-radio music. By using source music that’s devoid of any personality, Spielberg reinforces the tamed, neutered aspect of David’s personality, as well as the film’s theme of masculinity on the wane.
Spielberg once said that he watches DUEL about twice a year so he won’t forget how he made it. He was only given ten days to shoot—a tall order when you are a relatively inexperienced director and want to shoot everything on location. He had to fight to shoot the film in the way he wanted.
In those days, television simply wasn’t given the same kind of care and consideration that cinema enjoyed. Most directors would have shot the majority of DUEL on soundstages using chintzy rear projection techniques, but Spielberg wasn’t like most directors.
He barnstormed through the shoot so fast, that it’s actually something of a miracle that it turned out this good.
DUEL is consistently rated as one of the best television films ever made. We all know the stigma that comes with the Movie Of The Week format, so the fact that Spielberg worked so hard to transcend it as a testament to his love for the craft. When it aired, it scored some of the biggest ratings ever—even by today’s standards.
In Europe, it was released theatrically in cinemas after Spielberg shot a few extra sequences to pad out the running time. Its association with the cinematic medium has become so entrenched over time that it is commonly thought of as Spielberg’s first feature film.
DUEL comes off as understandably dated now, but the action is still as pulse-pounding as the day it came out. Its success showed that Spielberg was capable of making a killer film, and that his days in television were numbered. Indeed, the road ahead was paved with the promise of greater things.
“SOMETHING EVIL” (1972)
Spielberg’s first television movie, 1971’s DUEL, was a big success—even going so far as to screen theatrically in European cinemas. Before he could go headlong into features however, there was still the matter of that little seven-year TV contract he signed for Universal.
The very thing that had kickstarted his career now held him back from reaching new heights. In 1972, Spielberg once again tackled a Movie Of The Week, this time for CBS. Capitalizing on a surge of fascination with demonic possession and exorcism brought about by the publication of the infamous novel by William Peter Blatty (I’m talking about “The Exorcist” of course), Spielberg and CBS embarked on a little horror tale called SOMETHING EVIL.
SOMETHING EVIL is pretty standard as far as horror films goes. An idyllic, nuclear American family (and almost always white) moves into their dream home in the country—in this incarnation, rural Pennsylvania. Soon enough, the wife begins hearing strange sounds at night, and before she knows it, she’s caught in the grip of a horrific demonic possession.
In SOMETHING EVIL’s case, the possessed is the family’s young son, and the mother must fight to save her little boy from Satan himself. The film stars Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis as Paul and Marjorie Worden, respectively.
McGavin is the father who reluctantly leaves their home in NYC for Dennis’ impulsive plea to buy a country house two hours away. As he is frequently away on business for his high-powered career in advertising, Marjorie is usually alone in the house with the children. The performances of SOMETHING EVIL are not really noteworthy.
Uninspired at best. Dennis’s shrill Mid-Atlantic accent is grating on the ears, and I found her overall character to be really irritating. The usage of such stock tropes, even in the fledgling days of demonic horror stories, points to writer Robert Clouse’s utter disinterest in crafting a television experience that aspired to anything higher than its station.
SOMETHING EVIL could be considered Spielberg’s first (and only?) dabbling in the horror genre, except it’s really more of a melodrama than an outright scary story. It doesn’t boast a conventionally moody aesthetic, instead opting for a straightforward, unadorned visual presentation by cinematographer Bill Butler.
Unimaginative, sedate camerawork counters Spielberg’s reputation for inspired compositions and moves, save for a few evocative frames seen from a low angle. Despite the success of DUEL before it, SOMETHING EVIL has never been released publicly, so it’s hard to discern whether it looks any good or not.
The only version of the film that seems to be available is a badly-worn VHS dub loaded onto Youtube, which washes everything out into a smear of green and yellow. As a horror story, SOMETHING EVIL is completely ineffective, save for one singular thing.
Marjorie is woken up in the middle of the night several times by sounds of a baby crying. Naturally she gets up to find out what the sound is, and spooky-time commences. Nothing scary actually happens during these sequences, but that damn sound effect Spielberg uses is unnerving.
When I have kids, if they cry like that at night, they’re on their own. Nope nope nope. SOMETHING EVIL does contain a theme that runs throughout Spielberg’s body of work, that of the “absent father”. This theme is a reflection of Spielberg’s own difficult relationship with his father, and tends to manifest itself most strongly in stories with suburban, familial settings.
In SOMETHING EVIL, it isn’t exactly a broken home, per se, but Paul and Marjorie do have their share of marital troubles—namely, his rational disbelief alienating his over-sensitive wife. A long commute and a successful career in the city takes him out of the story for long stretches at a time, leaving Marjorie to face the forces of evil alone.
And in the end, it is only a mother’s touch that can save a young boy from possession. All told, SOMETHING EVIL is probably the most lackluster thing Spielberg had done up to that point (at least from what I’ve seen). As an exercise in horror, it falls flat on its face—making me wonder if that’s why Spielberg has never really attempted a true horror film in his career.
It’s not terrible, it’s just an uninspired hour of television that is as easily forgotten an hour later. It’s so generic that the writer couldn’t even be bothered to specify what the “evil” was that he was referring to in the title. SOMETHING EVIL is…. something bland.
1971’s television film DUEL had generated director Steven Spielberg some significant attention from the cinematic world. Longing to answer their call, he frustratingly found himself still bound in place by his TV contract, which was nearing its end.
His impatience to graduate into feature filmmaking showed through in his 1972 TV film SOMETHING EVIL, and 1973 saw the production of the last television work that he was contractually obligated to. This project was SAVAGE, a feature-length pilot about a muckraking journalist named Paul Savage (Martin Landau) who investigates rumors of a sex scandal concerning a nominee to the Supreme Court.
Despite the lurid subject matter and its high-profile star, SAVAGE ultimately failed to be picked up as a series. To this day, it remains unreleased on home video, and the only version I could find on the internet was a five-minute cut-down of various scenes.
From what I can piece together, Spielberg attempted to make something slick and entertaining (unlike the indifferent SOMETHING EVIL before it). The 35mm film image is appropriately polished and lit by SOMETHING EVIL’s cinematographer Bill Butler.
Spielberg employs various low angle compositions and extensive camera moves as his aesthetic by this point had begun coalescing into something distinctly his own. Gil Melle is credited as the music composer, but I can’t tell if the music on the embedded Youtube video is from SAVAGE itself or was added for the cut-down.
If it’s original, then the light jazzy mood fits the sophisticated, urban sensibility Spielberg is after. Like that trailer of THE NAME OF THE GAME: “LA 2017” (1971), I can really only comment on what I can see from the cut-down.
Spielberg– already a TV veteran by age 27– seems to be in firm command of his faculties within the medium. It’s almost like he knows this is his last hurrah in this world (even though it wouldn’t be), and he wants to go out on a strong note. SAVAGE also finds him taking on the sort of serious, decidedly adult issues for that he would later explore in films like SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and LINCOLN (2012).
SAVAGE itself looks to be entertaining and strong, but its inability to amount to a successful series dooms it to the footnotes of a career that has all but overshadowed it.
“THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS” (1974)
The success of 1971’s television film DUEL generated some momentum for director Steven Spielberg’s career, and as soon as his TV contract with Universal expired, he decided it was time to make the jump into feature filmmaking.
In 1974, he partnered with producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck to make a fictionalized film about a true event that took place in 1969-era Sugarland, Texas, whereby a young couple broke out of jail and abducted a police officer en route to steal their son back from the foster family he was given to by social services.
This film was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and was a striking debut in the feature film realm for the young director. Boasting a box-office friendly star like Goldie Hawn and with the full financial backup of Universal Studios, Spielberg was able to make an earnest, crowd-pleasing take on the then-popular “lovers on the run” genre.
This genre in particular, kickstarted in 1967 by Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE (1967), served as an ideal format for many of Spielberg’s directing contemporaries to make their debut—Terrence Malick had BADLANDS in 1973, and Francis Ford Coppola had THE RAIN PEOPLE in 1969, to name a few.
The story begins when Lou Jean (Hawn) smuggles her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of the pre-release facility where he’s got just four months left on his prison sentence. Their intent is to get to Sugarland, Texas and reclaim the infant son that was taken away from them and placed into foster care when they were arrested.
Their escape is briefly foiled by a young police officer named Slide (Michael Sacks) until Lou Jean steals his gun and takes him hostage. As they make the policeman drive them to Sugarland himself, the couple incites a media frenzy and a police response of epic proportions.
As the sole recognizable “name” talent, Hawn anchors an eclectic cast of solid performances. Hawn plays well into type as a gum-smacking, feisty redneck queen who doesn’t take no for an answer. I’m familiar with Hawn mostly as an older actress, so it was striking to see her so young here, looking very much like her daughter, Kate Hudson.
The rest of the cast is relatively unknown to me, but I was impressed by their performances nonetheless. Atherton is appropriately jittery as Lou Jean’s anxious husband, Clovis. As Clovis and Lou Jean’s police hostage, Michael Sacks does a great job of portraying his conflicted emotions as he comes to befriend his captors.
In many ways, he is the film’s protagonist, as he undergoes the biggest transformation by the end of the film, which concludes on a shot of him in a moment of solemn contemplation beside a lake. And then there’s Ben Johnson as Sacks’ superior, Captain Tanner: a seasoned Texan cop whose sensitivity and expertise is challenged by Lou Jean and Clovis’ unpredictable streak of mayhem.
Spielberg fully embraces the opportunity of making a feature film by hiring the great Vilmos Zsigmond as his cinematographer. Zsigmond had already shot 1972’s DELIVERANCE for director John Boorman, but the man who would eventually lens Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) was still a young upstart when he collaborated with Spielberg on THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS.
Zsigmond is one of the best cinematographers to ever work with the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a personal conclusion that’s evident in Spielberg’s film. The 35mm film image is high in contrast, with a dusty color palette evocative of the Texas setting.
Spielberg had gained something of a reputation in the TV realm for placing a lot of his focus on camera movements and lens choices (more so than his peers), and his comfort with movement brings a great deal of energy to the film. He uses cranes, dollys, car-mounted POV shots, and complicated zooms to tell his story, as well as employing his now-signature low angle compositions to powerful effect.
Spielberg’s use of a surreal perspective technique in 1975’s JAWS, accomplished by zooming in while dollying out and first used by Alfred Hitchcock in VERTIGO (1958), is heavily referenced in film circles. What’s not mentioned, however, is that Spielberg first uses it in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, during the climax where snipers hide inside the foster family’s house and wait for the fugitive couple to approach.
THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS also marks the first collaboration between Spielberg and world-renowned composer, John Williams. The two must have gotten along quite well during production, but I wonder if they had any clue that their collaboration here would result a lifelong friendship and several of the most iconic film scores ever produced.
Williams’ score for THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is considerably less iconic, but still effective in setting Spielberg’s intended tone. It’s appropriately cinematic, utilizing various folk instruments like harmonicas and guitars to convey the country tone.
There’s even a strange kazoo-like instrument thrown into the mix, which reminds me of SESAME STREET, but seemed to be the sound du jour for this type of picture at the time. A modest selection of honky tonk source cues fill out the world and place the story inside of a palpable reality.
THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS fits comfortably within Spielberg’s body of work as one of his more-daring films, ending on a note of ambiguity and uncertainty rather than the cathartic happy endings for which he’s known (and often derided). It also deals heavily with the concept of a broken family, a theme that runs heavily through Spielberg’s canon.
Here, both parents are to blame for their separation from their son due to their criminal behavior—a stark difference from Spielberg’s other depictions where the father is the main absentee. It should be noted, though, that Goldie Hawn’s character is the instigator and key proponent of the plot; Atherton is initially reluctant to break out of his pre-release facility to fetch his son, and is more prone to doubt about the success of their mission.
In that sense, the father is not as invested in his family as the mother is, a notion that fits much more easily into Spielberg’s thematic conceits. Spielberg’s first true feature film was well-received, even going so far as to receive the Best Screenplay at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Most directors don’t enjoy the benefits of making their first film with the backing of a major film studio– a significant perk that made Spielberg’s debut more high-profile than it might have otherwise been. Interestingly enough, it hasn’t been paid as much attention in recent years by Universal’s home video department.
One would think that their most treasured director’s first feature film would be readily available in the high definition Blu-Ray format, but as of this writing, there are no plans for its release in the foreseeable future. Time has shown that many films are simply lost forever when they fail to make the jump to subsequent video formats, so we should be concerned that an important work of cinema is at risk of being lost beneath the tidal wave of the massive studio blockbusters that Spielberg helped to create in the first place.
As well as THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was received upon its release, and as much of a career game-changer as it was for the young director, it could not begin to compare to Spielberg’s next film, which would change the face of Hollywood filmmaking forever.
“We’re going to need a bigger boat”.
It was an unscripted line, an off-the-cuff remark during a take that somehow grabbed hold of an entire collective consciousness. The phrase has become a linguistic shorthand for confrontation with insurmountable odds.
It came from the 1975 film JAWS, a seemingly frivolous B-film about a Great White shark terrorizing a small beachside community. However, something about the movie tapped into a primal fear, generating an unconscious callback to those terrifying caveman days when we weren’t at the top of the food chain.
The fear generated by the film also leaked out into the real world: people refused to go swimming in the ocean, and beachside resort towns felt the sting of needed tourist dollars going elsewhere. The 28 year-old director Steven Spielberg couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting himself into when he signed on to JAWS.
He had seen the galley version of the eponymous novel by Peter Benchley in his producers’ office, and was drawn to it because of the thematic similarities to his 1971 TV film, DUEL. He responded to the struggle between anonymous, unknowable evil and an every-man protagonist, and saw an opportunity in JAWS to do for water what he did for the open road in DUEL. In the process, however, he’d inadvertently change the face of cinema forever.
JAWS is the kind of movie that most of the world’s population has seen, so we are all familiar with its story. Amity Island—an idyllic, fictional seaside community—finds itself besieged by a monstrous shark during peak tourist season.
The town’s chief of police, Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with subduing the shark threat while contending with familial troubles and hamstringing, bureaucratic challenges on his authority by a shamelessly negligent mayor. As the body count climbs and the town’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch, Brody teams up with a shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and a skilled fisherman (Quint) to take down the fish themselves out on the open water.
Spielberg and his producers (David Brown and Richard Zanuck) agreed that hiring a cast of well-known faces would ultimately take away the effectiveness of the shark. To that end, Spielberg sought actors like Roy Scheider to headline his shark tale.
Scheider is a strong everyman type, somewhat like Dennis Weaver’s mild-mannered protagonist in DUEL. Scheider gives a tremendous amount of paternal pathos to the part, and many times comes off as an authority figure not unlike Gregory Peck. The emotional through-line of JAWS is embodied in him, wherein one must conquer their own doubts and believe in themselves if they are to conquer unstoppable evil.
Robert Shaw plays Quint, a tough, salty bastard of a fisherman straight out of MOBY DICK. I was blown away to find that this was the same Shaw who terrorized Sean Connery’s James Bond as SPECTRE agent Red Grant in Terence Young’s FROM RUSSIA LOVE (1963).
In that film, he’s so young, fit and Aryan he qualifies as Hitler Youth, but only ten years later in JAWS, he’s just as believable as an old, burnt-out barnacle of a man. Shaw’s performance as Quint is just as iconic as the titular shark itself, although I will say that his accent is bewilderingly ambiguous. Is it Irish? Pirate? What?
Richard Dreyfuss plays Hooper, a shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute who’s called in because of his extensive knowledge of sharks. Dreyfuss is a fine foil to Scheider and Shaw, balancing out their measured machismo with an anxious, nerdy energy and hotheadedness.
JAWS is one of Dreyfuss’ earliest appearances, and one that almost never happened at all—he famously turned down Spielberg upon first approach, only to come crawling back to the production after convincing himself that his perceived “terrible” performance in a prior film would sink his career if it came out and he didn’t have something already lined up. Given Dreyfuss’ long and fruitful career since then, those concerns obviously never came to pass.
Rounding out Spielberg’s cast is Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody and Murray Hamilton as Amity’s mayor, Vaughn. Gary balances out the prevailing machismo tone fairly well, but is ultimately never really given anything substantial to do besides fret and wail about the wellbeing of her husband.
Hamilton does a great job playing the opportunistic mayor archetype, giving the glad-handing character a smarmy, curmudgeon edge. JAWS finds Spielberg collaborating with Bill Butler, his cinematographer for the television films SOMETHING EVIL (1972) and SAVAGE (1973).
Freed from the boxy constraints of the small screen, Spielberg and Butler take full advantage of the panoramic real estate that the anarmorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio offers. For a film with such dark subject matter, JAWS looks surprisingly bright and sunny (as befitting a film set in an idyllic beach community).
Spielberg and Butler have cultivated a palette of neutral tones and striking primaries, especially the blue of the ocean/sky, and the red of blood in the water. In fact, red is used so little throughout the film that, when it bubbles up from the ocean depths, the effect is acutely arresting.
Spielberg makes no attempt to avoid lens flare, which not only gives the film its sun-bleached patina, but also marks the first instance of a visual conceit that would mark many of Spielberg’s works to come, as well as influence the filmmakers who would follow in his footsteps (I’m looking at you, JJ).
Spielberg’s first high-profile film utilizes surprisingly primitive camerawork, mainly because of the realities of location shooting under harsh conditions. For instance, the majority of the camerawork is handheld, due to having to counterbalance the roll of the ocean during boat-based sequences.
The well-documented technical difficulties with “Bruce” (the life-sized shark animatronic) resulted in a lot of unusable takes, so Spielberg embraced the Alfred Hitchcock approach and created a palpable atmosphere of suspense by showing the shark as little as possible. In a further nod to Hitchcock, Spielberg reprises the infamous VERTIGO zoom technique during a key beach attack sequence, and in the process created a reference-grade example of the technique that he first used in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS.
Spielberg also ratchets up the tension by continually adopting the shark’s POV as it swims towards its prey. The underwater photography results in some of JAWS’ most enduring and iconic moments, but many film buffs will be able to see the influence of another underwater monster movie: Jack Arnold’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).
There’s one sequence in particular that illustrates the fundamental effectiveness of JAWS as well as the young Spielberg’s mastery of the craft. This is the aforementioned beach attack that occurs early on in the film. The scene assumes the POV of Chief Brody as he uneasily watches over a crowded beach blissfully unaware of the shark that lurks in its waters.
Spielberg gives us several character threads to follow—a dog, a young boy, an obese woman—and we see them through Brody’s eyes, with the uneasy tension that comes with knowing something everyone else does not. Spielberg, along with editor Verna Fields, strings together these vignettes into a suspenseful edit that commandeers our eyeballs and rumbles ominously in our gut.
In addition to the already-virtuoso nature of the sequence, Spielberg had initially planned to cover the entire thing in one continuous shot. While this conceit was highly indicative of traits shared by many a young, overconfident director, Spielberg was experienced enough to realize that there was little value in an approach that wouldn’t justify the considerable resources he’d need to accomplish it.
Instead, he used screen wipes of people walking past the camera as a way to seamlessly hide his cuts and punch-ins. The “Get Out Of The Water” sequence has become one of the most well-known in cinema, with Spielberg channeling the likes of Hitchcock and Sergei Eisenstein to remind us of the primordial power of montage.
For the most part, Spielberg brings back his core creative team from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS for JAWS. The film was production designer Joe Alves’ second collaboration with Spielberg, and he would eventually go on to direct JAWS 3-D (1983) himself.
Editor Verna Fields won an Academy Award for her work on JAWS, and ironically, her work would prove to be too good—many critics attributed the film’s greatness to Fields’ touch instead of Spielberg’s. In somewhat of a dick move designed to assert his talents better on the next project, Spielberg would never again collaborate with Fields.
Spielberg’s collaboration with John Williams on the score continues, this time resulting in the first of many films together to boast a universally recognized theme. I don’t even have to describe the JAWS theme to you, because you’re playing it in your head right now.
Williams’ Oscar-winning theme has become the archetypical cue for looming danger, imitated and parodied countless times throughout pop culture. Spielberg initially thought Williams was playing a joke on him when he played him the two-note theme; he didn’t realize that he was the first one to be hearing what is arguably the most iconic film theme of all time.
JAWS was one of the most difficult shoots of Spielberg’s career, owing primarily to his insistence that the film be shot in the choppy waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard. Between various instances of the shark animatronic malfunctioning, the cast and crew getting seasick, or even the Orca boat set sinking in the ocean, the production was literally a baptism by fire for the young director.
What was initially scheduled to be a 55-day shoot ballooned to 159, and Spielberg feared that he’d never work again because no one had ever fallen that behind on a schedule before.
Despite the hardships, however, fortune was smiling on Spielberg and his beleaguered crew. Much like the accidental capturing on film of a gorgeous shooting star (which remains in the final edit), there was a magical quality to JAWS that fundamentally connected with audiences.
When he was 18, Spielberg made a $1 profit from his film FIRELIGHT (1964). Ten years later, he found himself the director of JAWS: the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. If that’s not encouraging to aspiring filmmakers than I don’t know what it is.
All that success at such an early age has its drawbacks. JAWS gave Spielberg the freedom to pursue any film he desired, with final cut privileges to boot. Critical acclaim was pouring in alongside the box office receipts, and Spielberg began to believe that JAWS was not only bound for Oscar glory, but would sweep the whole damn thing.
There exists a fascinating home video of Spielberg, literally drunk off of his own confidence, watching the Oscar nominations come in on live TV—only for him to grow increasingly dejected as reality set in. Spielberg was so confident that he’d net a Best Director nomination that it’s almost disgusting to watch his hubris try to compensate for the subsequent deflation.
I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to be so unenthused about scoring a Best Picture nomination at that age. JAWS eventually won for Best Editing, Score and Sound, and Spielberg would go on to personal Oscar glory for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but I like to think this early disappointment was a learning experience for the young director, and turned him away from the entitled, bratty persona he was dangerously flirting with.
Ultimately, JAWS got something even better than the Best Picture Oscar when it was inducted into the National Film Registry as an important artifact of American culture by the Library of Congress in 2001. Even with its massive success, the rippling wake of JAWS’ release proved farther-reaching than anyone thought.
Before JAWS, the summer season was a cinematic dumping ground, a clearinghouse of sorts to make way for the big studio releases in winter. JAWS proved that summer could be an extremely lucrative season for profits, and thus the summer blockbuster phenomenon was born and an entire way of organizing the release calendar was fundamentally altered.
As the “first” blockbuster, JAWS became the benchmark against which all others were, and still are, measured. It reigned supreme as the highest grossing film of all time until two years later, when it was unseated by Spielberg’s friend, George Lucas, and his humble little space opera.
JAWS itself would go on to get three sequels, but with each one bringing in exponentially diminishing returns, the original remains the only entry that still enjoys relevancy today. While the rise of the summer blockbuster has resulted in several decades’ worth of cinematic memories, the coming of JAWS could be likened to letting the Trojan Horse inside the city walls.
JAWS’ Trojan Horse hid a battalion of studio executives, who used the film’ unprecedented success to leverage more power for themselves and ring in the age of high-concept spectacle films at the expense of thoughtful, auteur-oriented cinema. Spielberg is often regarded as an auteur in the same breath as Kubrick or Fellini (and rightfully so), but he is one of the few auteurs whose work has the unintended effect of displacing auteurs altogether.
When one entity rises, another must fall, and as JAWS gave rise to the modern spectacle film, it did so at great detriment to the adult, auteur-oriented cinema of the 1960’s and 70’s—ironically, the very kind of films that influenced Spielberg’s style in the first place. JAWS transformed Spielberg from a French New Wave fringe-kid into an establishment director, and it earned him just as many detractors as it did admirers.
All told, the effect of JAWS on Spielberg’s career cannot be understated. The little boy who had grown up in the Arizona desert with dreams of making movies was now the biggest filmmaker of them all. In doing so, he had—for better or worse– fundamentally changed Hollywood for decades, if not forever.
“CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND” (1977)
After the breakout success of 1975’s JAWS, director Steven Spielberg earned the privilege to pursue any project he desired. Instead of attaching himself to whatever high-profile project was currently circulating around town, he chose to go back to his roots.
He updated the central idea behind his 1964 amateur feature, FIRELIGHT, a story about aliens descending on earth as told from the point of view of regular folks on the ground. Now with a big studio backing him—in this case, Columbia Pictures—Spielberg wanted to expand the story out on a grand scale.
After having already completed what is essentially the rough draft of the film in his youth, Spielberg’s third professional feature—CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)—is widely considered in several film circles to be his first master work.
Spielberg’s story begins in rural Indiana, when an electrical engineer named Roy sees (and subsequently chases after) a fleet of mysterious, blindingly-bright aircraft zipping through the night sky. He soon grows obsessed with seeing them again, and is consumed by visions of an ambiguous mountain shape.
Meanwhile, a woman named Jillian Guiler is having unexplained experiences of her own and seeks out Roy’s assistance after her son is abducted in the middle of the night. And on the other side of the globe, French scientist Claude Lacombe and his aides have come to the conclusion that a string of recent, mysterious phenomena are alien in nature.
These story threads converge at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where an elaborate facility has been constructed out of the geological formation’s bedrock in a bid to establish contact with the extraterrestrials. And once they do, their understanding of the universe is fundamentally altered.
Richard Dreyfuss, who had first appeared for Spielberg in JAWS previous, plays the protagonist, Roy Neary. In stark contrast to JAWS’ Hooper, Neary is a clean-cut family man, and something of a brute. His obsession with his mountainous visions spirals out of control, as does his grasp on his own family, who increasingly fear for his sanity.
This is easily one of Dreyfuss’ best performances, definitely his strongest one for Spielberg, who has come to use Dreyfuss as something like an avatar when the director decides to inject some of his own psyche into a character. Famed French New Wave director Francois Truffaut—helmer of the groundbreaking 400 BLOWS (1959)—was Spielberg’s first choice for the scientist Lacombe, and an unconventional one at that.
The nouvelle vague style (that Truffaut helped to invent) greatly influenced a younger Spielberg, who was elated to be working with one of his heroes. Truffaut plays Lacombe as a sophisticated, urbane academic, and holds his own mightily against Dreyfuss.
The inclusion of the acclaimed director to the cast lent a great deal of prestige to the picture, and even though one might reasonably expect two directors on one production would butt heads, Truffaut was gracious enough to submit himself entirely to Spielberg’s direction. Class act.
Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perhaps the biggest names involved in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, although they can’t help but be eclipsed by the celebrity of Spielberg himself. The supporting cast doesn’t fare any better, but they turn in solid, effective performances.
As Roy’s wife, Ronnie, Teri Garr gives a good turn as a beleaguered woman who runs out of patience with her husband. However, the character itself is underwritten, and she ultimately fails to transcend the trappings of the archetype.
Melinda Dillon, as fellow believer Jillian Guiler, proves a better companion for Roy, but Spielberg forces a romantic angle between the two that feels forced. Veteran character actors Carl Weathers and Lance Henricksen– albeit before the “veteran” part– appear in brief cameos here, but their presence is more amusing than notable.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND finds Spielberg re-teaming with his director of photography from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, the venerable Vilmos Zsigmond. The film’s visual language deals predominantly in beams of light, so Zsigmond adopts a high-key approach that accentuates the bright blue lights of the alien craft.
Once again, Spielberg shows little regard for lens flares leaking into his shot, which is suitable for the blinding wonder of the film’s starships. His embrace of lens flares has become massively influential in modern filmmaking, especially in the sci-fi genre.
One very striking aspect of the film’s cinematography is the numerous panoramic vista shots, complemented by the wider field of view afford by the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Many of them are notable for the sheer number of stars visible in the night sky, which is next to impossible to capture using natural methods.
Instead, these shots were accomplished using the tried-and-true matte painting technique. While it can’t quite compete with the realism that CGI-based methods have to offer, matte painting has a charm all its own that adds to the timelessness of the story.
Spielberg’s camerawork in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND marks a shift away from the experimental, nouvelle vague techniques that peppered his television and early film work, and towards a formalist, locked-off aesthetic (necessitated by the heavy use of pre-motion-control/in-camera effects shots like the aforementioned matte painting joins, etc.).
Another classic Spielberg technique finds its first concrete use here: the dolly-in “wonder/awe” shot. By this I mean: a character looks up in wonder/awe at something past the camera as it dollies in on the subject. This could be seen as an evolution of the low-angle compositions that Spielberg frequently uses, and has become a staple of his spectacle-based work.
For instance, look at the compositions in the big “Devil’s Tower” reveal sequence in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND compared to its counterpart, the brachiosaurus reveal in JURASSIC PARK (1993). They are essentially the same shot, with a colossal object slowly revealed from the point of view of the subjects as the camera cranes up and the score swells.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND also sees the solidifying of Spielberg’s core team of collaborators. Joe Alves, production designer for JAWS and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), returns to give CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND a lived-in, every-man reality to the production.
After dumping Verna Fields, who won an Oscar for her work on JAWS, Spielberg hired Michael Kahn as his editor. Much like John Williams, Kahn has since become an integral part of Spielberg’s team, cutting nearly every film the director has made to this day.
Doug Trumbull, who created the groundbreaking effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), lends his expertise to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well, giving a wondrous believability and tangible weight to the UFO sequences that still comes across as realistically as they did over thirty years ago.
John Williams once again returns to Spielberg’s fold, making for their third consecutive collaboration. Williams crafts a grand, romantic score that gives a sense of wonder to the unfathomable reaches of the cosmos. In the 1980 Special Edition, he even riffs on this further by playing a new arrangement of “When You Wish Upon A Star” when Dreyfuss’ character enters the starship.
Much like the iconic two-note theme of JAWS, Williams is able to construct an equally-recognizable theme for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND using five notes. This fragment has a diagetic purpose within the narrative, whereby music is used as a form of communication between the scientists and the aliens.
Because of music’s mathematical properties, it is truly a universal language that can be understood across cultures, so why not use it to communicate with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization? Regardless, William’s five-note theme instantly became part of pop culture, and has been parodied and referenced countless times since.
Due to Spielberg having complete creative control, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is perhaps one of the most “Spielberg-ian” of his early films. It introduces many of the hallmarks that would become his aesthetic: the suburban/ Americana setting, WW2-era imagery (the opening sequence with the lost fighter planes), and the sense of childlike wonder and innocence inherent in Spielberg’s awed approach to the story (rather than taking a fearful tack).
There’s even a guy who runs to hide from the aliens in the bathroom, much like the lawyer in JURASSIC PARK hides from the T-Rex. The most prominent Spielberg-ian conceit is the estranged father trope, which is given focus as one of the main storylines of the film.
As Roy descends deeper into his obsession, he drives his wife and kids to the point of fleeing from him out of neglect. Once they’re gone and he gets to Devil’s Tower, he proceeds to forget all about them, even going so far as to kiss another woman and leave Earth behind indefinitely to travel with the aliens across the stars.
It’s a peculiar choice on Spielberg’s behalf for the character to indulge in behavior that, while probably justified in his own mind, is inherently misguided in the audience’s perspective. If anything, it suggests a sympathetic exploration of Spielberg’s own father’s reasons for dissolving their family.
In other words: trying to put himself in his father’s shoes. Of course, Spielberg made CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND while he was thirty and single, so he had yet to experience a family of his own. He has admitted in later years that were he to re-make the film now that he’s got seven kids, he would never have Roy get on that ship and abandon his family.
There’s a few other various observations I made while watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. One is the presence of some strangely blatant branding; the conspicuous inclusion of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola imagery seems like a half-baked attempt at product placement.
I remember seeing in a making-of featurette that this was due to an idea whereby the aliens would attempt to establish contact using imagery familiar to the population (hence huge corporate logos), but a coherent follow-through is never applied towards this end.
There’s also the notable presence of a TV playing LOONEY TUNES in the background of a scene, which doesn’t say much on its own but is a subtle foreshadowing of Spielberg’s eventual involvement with Warner Brothers’ 90’s-era re-launch cartoon, TINY TOONS.
A true labor of love, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was released to great financial and critical success. Spielberg’s optimistic approach made for one of the first Hollywood films to portray aliens as benevolent ambassadors, and not destructive invaders.
The financial windfall from the film secured Spielberg’s reputation as a dependable filmmaker of blockbuster spectacles, and even led directly to his first directing nomination at the Academy Awards. He didn’t win it, but his film did take away two other Oscars: one for Sound Editing and the other for Zsigmond’s striking cinematography.
Like JAWS before it, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2007. It is widely recognized as the definitive film about UFOs, and has been an inspiration to countless of filmmakers who aspire to follow in Spielberg’s footsteps.
In the years since its release, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has been released in no fewer than three separate cuts. Spielberg was initially unsatisfied with his first cut, which he had to rush out to meet a December deadline imposed by a financially-struggling Columbia Pictures.
So in 1980, he obtained permission to re-cut the film to his satisfaction, but with the stipulation that he shoot new footage showing the inside of the ship so that the studio would have something to hinge a marketing campaign on. Spielberg complied, but quickly realized that the interior of the alien craft should have never been shown.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Spielberg was able to go back and create a third cut, dubbed The Director’s Cut, whereby he condensed the best parts of both prior cuts and restored the original ending. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to what is the definitive, superior cut of the film, but logic would appear to dictate that honor probably would go to The Director’s Cut.
For his third professional feature film (and his first done outside Universal, his home base studio), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND shows a full realization of Spielberg’s unique vision and promise. The freedom he earned from the success of JAWS manifested itself in creative control and final cut privileges on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, arguably making it his first true auteur work.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has endured for over thirty years against a yearly onslaught of new films by continuing to capture our imaginations and cast our eyes up towards the stars. And as long as we wonder about our place in the heavens, Spielberg’s vision will continue to dazzle us.
Director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 feature, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, was the culmination of many years of personal development. It was a passion project wrought from the skeleton of an amateur feature (his first) that he had shot in his teens: FIRELIGHT (1964).
Once CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was completed and became another hit for the young director, he found himself with no immediate plans for his next project. At this same time, a couple of interns named Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were being groomed as Spielberg’s protégés.
They were working on a zany WW2 comedy about the hysteria in America following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which piqued Spielberg’s curiosity enough to attach him to the script as a director. Spielberg initially saw an opportunity to create a lavish WW2-era musical, but he ultimately chose to pursue the black comedy/slapstick satire approach that his idol Stanley Kubrick had previously employed with DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964).
In the end, however, Spielberg wasn’t Kubrick, and his comedic talents weren’t as well-honed as his dramatic ones. The film as it came to be known, 1941, debuted in 1979 debuted with a lackluster thud at the box-office and was deemed Spielberg’s first high-profile failure.
Watching the film, it’s easy to see why people didn’t exactly cotton to the idea in 1979. While the story becomes more rewarding towards the end, the picture as a whole feels off-tone and obtuse. 1941 sheds a humorous light on the wave of hysteria and paranoia that swept over America in the days following Pearl Harbor.
A regiment headed by Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd) is arming the coastline while Captain “Wild Bill” Kelso flies like a bat out of hell towards the west coast. Meanwhile, a Japanese sub has surfaced off the coast, their sights set on destroying Hollywood.
Their geographically-inept soldiers accidentally kidnap a redneck Christmas tree farmer named Hollis Wood instead, and set about interrogating him to “hilarious” results. The whole thing culminates in a massive, confused air battle over Hollywood and a standoff in Santa Monica.
If you didn’t know 1941 was a comedy by reading the script, then you’d know once you saw the cast, which is headlined by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE stars John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd, as well as popular comedian John Candy. The late Belushi gives a great performance as the wild-eyed lunatic Bill Kelso, giving him a kamikaze-like obsession with finding and defeating the Japanese.
Aykroyd makes his film debut in 1941, finding the goofiness inherent in a bumbling salesman persona transposed to the rigid protocol of the military. As Private Foley, Candy isn’t given a lot to do, but he is nonetheless a welcome, friendly presence.
Spielberg’s supporting cast is equally off-kilter and eccentric. Treat Williams plays Stretch, a young, handsome corporal with anger problems and entitlement issues. Veteran horror icon Christopher Lee plays Captain Wolfgang Kleinschmidt– a great casting choice on Spielberg’s part that allows Lee to eschew his Hammer Dracula image and indulge in some Nazi goofery.
A regular of films by Akira Kurosawa (another huge influence on Spielberg), Toshiro Mifune gives one of his very few performances in an English-language film as Commander Mitamora, the gruff Japanese officer leading the charge against Hollywood. In a quasi-reprisal of his role in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, Slim Pickens serves as a great foil to the would-be Japanese invaders as the redneck Christmas tree farmer named Hollis Wood.
And apparently Mickey Rourke makes his film debut in 1941 as well, but I never saw him anywhere. Maybe that was the part of the film I missed when I dozed off on my couch. Nancy Allen and Lorraine Gary provide a small measure of femininity to balance out the machismo of 1941’s narrative, but for the most part their characters are fairly over-looked and under-developed.
The youthful Nancy Allen is there to fulfill the “ingénue love interest” archetype, while JAWS’ (1975) Lorraine Gary doesn’t fare much better as the “shrill harpy wife” character, even if it’s a marked improvement on her prior performance. It could’ve been the shitty transfer of the DVD I viewed, but cinematographer William A. Fraker’s work on 1941 is far less impressive than that of Vilmos Zsigmond or even Bill Butler’s work previous (it also might account for why Fraker was fired midway through the film).
The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is consistent within Spielberg’s filmography, but Fraker seems to have muddled the image with a middling contrast and diffused light that blights exterior daylight sequences. Sweeping crane shots add to an imaginative mix of matte paintings and miniature work, resulting in an epic sense of scale.
Say what you want about Spielberg’s technical proficiency, but the man truly knows how to move a camera. Overall, he cultivates a hyper-comedic vibe with strangely racist undertones. I’ll admit that the race humor was appropriate given the story’s midcentury setting, but watching it in 2013, it still felt like it was in poor taste.
Along with editor Michael Kahn, John Williams is one of only two of Spielberg’s regular collaborators to return for 1941. Williams crafts a serviceable score that’s appropriately patriotic to match the heroic, bombastic comedy on display.
Spielberg has gone on record to state that Williams’ march theme for 1941 is one of his personal favorites from the acclaimed musician, but I personally found it nowhere near as iconic as the bulk of their work together. 1941 occupies a strange place within Spielberg’s canon, as it is very self-aware of the fact that it is a Spielberg film.
Obviously, the film deals heavily in WW2 imagery, which Spielberg has trafficked in from his early childhood films all the way to present day. But this same familiarity is also used for laughs that poke fun at the director himself. The humor is surprisingly sexual for Spielberg, who has built a bonafide institution around his family-friendly brand of filmmaking.
There’s also the parody of JAWS that opens the film, which replicates the earlier film’s cold open right down to the naked blonde girl and Williams’ ominous two-note theme. As a native Oregonian, I should also take this opportunity to note that this sequence was shot in Cannon Beach, a very iconic landmark on Oregon’s coastline.
Like I mentioned before, 1941 went down in history as Spielberg’s first big flop. It wasn’t necessarily a financial failure, but critics were aching for some blood in the water after the one-two strike of JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND—so when they smelled it, they pounced.
By experiencing this kind of disappointment, Spielberg learned a very valuable lesson: even the world’s most successful filmmaker had a ceiling that his talent could not surmount. The stillbirth of 1941 showed Spielberg what he was best at– and comedy was not one of those things.
To this day, Spielberg has never made another film that could be considered a full-on comedy. Even the lighthearted, freewheeling nature of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) was counterbalanced by the pathos of serious adult problems.
Every filmmaker will experience a dud at some point in his/her career; it’s inevitable. 1941 isn’t a particularly good film, but it’s not terrible either. Despite a sluggish opening, the investment in Spielberg’s 150-minute epic farce pays off towards the end with a relatively enjoyable battle sequence over the low-slung buildings of Hollywood and the darkened boardwalks of Santa Monica.
1941 hasn’t been given much respect in the years since its release, and as long the current DVD (with its terrible transfer struck during the format’s early days) remains in print, it’s not likely to gain further appreciation anytime soon. It may wallow in obscurity and mediocrity, but there are far worse fates awaiting films out there.
Those who do give 1941 the time of day will, at the very least, find a curious look into Spielberg’s career at one of its humbling moments.
“RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” (1981)
Indiana Jones. Few names have such cultural cache, fewer characters are so instantly iconic. Indiana Jones and his adventures have tapped into an inherently American psyche, channeling a Theodore Roosevelt-esque masculinity in its attitude towards danger and mystery.
He is a mythic character that was given breath by an inspired Harrison Ford, a performance that defies the ravages of time (even as it acknowledges their inevitability like it does in the fourth installment of the series). As long as movies are around, there will always be Indiana Jones.
The failure of 1979’s 1941 was a sobering experience for director Steven Spielberg. Thinking he was untouchable because of JAWS’ (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND’s (1977) mega-success, his indulgent approach to 1941’s making led to its shaming at the box office.
Shaken by his sudden mortality, Spielberg knew that he needed to bring his best to the next project, lest it be his last. Spielberg turned his attention to an idea he had first heard about from his filmmaking pal, George Lucas. It was the summer of 1977, and the two were vacationing in Hawaii to escape the hullabaloo over STAR WARS’ record opening.
As they built sandcastles on the beach, Spielberg mentioned his dream of making a James Bond film. Lucas replied that he had something better: a callback to the cliffhanger serials of Hollywood’s Golden Age featuring a rugged character named Indiana Smith.
Spielberg suggested the Jones surname might be better, and a cinematic institution was subsequently born. Despite Lucas’ STAR WARS clout backing their collaboration, the duo’s idea was rejected by every studio in town until it finally found a home in Paramount. The result? 1981’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK—one of the biggest, most-cherished films of all time.
As depicted in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indiana Jones is a mild-mannered archaeology professor by day, and an adventurous, death-defying tomb raider by night. He serves as an independent contractor, recovering priceless relics from the bowels of antiquity for museums and academic preservation.
His latest assignment has him tracking down the Ark of the Covenant, the chest built by the Israelites said to contain the remnants of the Ten Commandments. To accomplish this, Indy will need to team up with his feisty ex-lover and the daughter of his mentor, Marion Ravenwood, while racing against the efforts of the Nazis– who plan on recovering the Ark for their own nefarious purposes.
The action is sprawling, taking Indy to such far-flung places as Nepal and Egypt in pursuit of the lost Ark. By 1981, Harrison Ford was already internationally famous for playing the role of Han Solo in STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).
Lucas initially didn’t want Ford to play Indy for fear of overexposure, but Spielberg won out. In taking on the role of Indiana Jones, Ford escaped the STAR WARS typecasting curse that afflicted his co-stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer.
Not only that, he arguably created a performance in Indiana Jones that would define his career. He inhabits the role so naturally that no other actor could ever replace him. The fact that Ford’s rugged, gruff characterization is still a model of masculinity for millions of men is a testament to the character’s enduring quality.
For all his skill and wit, Indiana could never make do without the help of his friends and the challenges of his enemies. Karen Allen, then a stage actress from New York, plays Marion Ravenwood with a tough, yet feminine air. She can hold her own, often proving to be every bit Indiana’s equal (out of all the women Indiana is shown to be romantically involved, there’s a reason that Marion is the only one he actually has children with).
Spielberg’s career up to this point had been littered with lackluster female characters, so Marion Ravenwood is easily his most-fully realized yet. Paul Freeman plays Dr. Rene Belloq, a sophisticated rival archeologist in the Nazi’s employ.
Freeman’s performance is charming but deceitful, and his dedication to his craft is palpable—at one point, he swallows a fly that randomly lands on his lips without blinking or breaking character. Jonathan Rhys-Davies finds an iconic role for himself in Sallah, Indiana’s Egyptian ally. Rhys-Davies plays the character as jovial and boisterous, giving the film some inspired comic relief.
Furthermore, Alfred Molina makes his film debut as Satipo, a colleague of Indiana’s in the prologue who dies after betraying our hero. Always interesting to see the humble beginnings of such a seasoned character actor as Molina.
In shooting RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg turns to a new cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe. Slocombe crafts an appropriately epic feel using the panoramic 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio and warm, natural colors that evoke a romantic, swashbuckling tone.
Spielberg’s camerawork matches the impressive scope, infusing an exhilarating sense of energy and scale through the unrelenting use of dolly and crane movements. Production designer Leslie Dilley brings an authentic, dusty air of mystery to the set design, while returning editor Michael Kahn blends it all together, in the process managing to create an entirely new visual language for the adventure genre.
John Williams is back on scoring duties, creating his single most recognizable theme outside of STAR WARS. The “Raiders March”, as it was known on the cue sheets, is heroic and appropriately adventurous while infusing hints of Old-World, biblical mystery.
It’s the kind of theme that most composers will struggle their entire lives to create just one of, but Williams churns these iconic cues out with an almost-superhuman ease. William’s contribution to the Indiana Jones series is incalculable—without its rousing music, the series would not be nearly as effective and memorable as it is.
With Spielberg’s fifth professional feature, his style has coalesced into something imminently recognizable. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK represents Spielberg’s aesthetic operating at its best, an ironic fact given that the schedule was so tight that the director barely had time to consider aesthetic.
The film appropriates a gritty edginess, eschewing the glossy indulgence that sank 1941. Spielberg also employs direct lens flares to amplify the scorching sun of the Egyptian desert. I had seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK several times previously (who hasn’t?), but on this particular viewing, I was uncharacteristically sensitive to the amount of violence on display.
For a Spielberg film, it is surprisingly graphic, what with the on-screen bullet wounds and exploding heads. There’s a tone at play here that skirts the line between PG and R, and it would eventually lead directly to the creation of the PG-13 rating with the series’ second installment, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984).
A combination of a great character, unparalleled talent, and a strong vision, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK finds Spielberg at the peak of his powers. He knew that he had to create something truly great in order to come back from the failure of 1941and reinforce his reputation as a blockbuster director.
In the undertaking of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg demonstrates his mastery of that time-honored staple of the spectacle genre: “the setpiece”. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is littered with several, distinctive and memorable set pieces: the boulder-rolling opening, the bazaar chase, getting trapped in the Well of Souls, the truck chase, etc.
And of course, who can forget that infamous ending shot of the Ark all boxed up and stowed away in a warehouse that seems to stretch on towards infinity? It’s the perfect note to end the film on, with each mysterious crate suggested an endless universe of adventures that lay in store for Doctor Jones.
Each sequence is given an incredible attention to detail, and Spielberg’s thorough preparation leads to well-structured sequences where character isn’t lost among the action. Spielberg’s natural ability to deliver well-executed setpieces is arguably his most valuable asset as a filmmaker, allowing him to turn in iconic film after iconic film.
As such, his films feel like full-bodied experiences that invite the audience to actively participate. As we all know, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a box office hit upon its release, restoring Spielberg to critical and financial glory.
It won several technical Oscars, but also netted Spielberg his third and second Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director, respectively. It also established the Indiana Jones franchise, which has generated untold millions in revenue in the form of sequels, TV shows, action figures, Disneyland rides, etc.
It endures today as one of the most-cherished and loved films of all time, and despite its age, feels truly timeless. The film’s future was secured in 1999, when it was deemed culturally significant and worthy of preservation by its induction into the National Film Registry.
By this point in his career, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was easily the biggest production Spielberg had ever mounted, and he pulled it off with grace and style. Having atoned for the disaster that was 1941, Spielberg was back on top of his game, and proved to the world that he was here to stay.
“E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL” (1982)
1982’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL holds a special place in my heart, as it does for a whole lot of people. It was the first film I ever saw, and as a filmmaker myself, this was understandably a watershed moment in my life. Despite only being two or three years old, I remember every little detail like it happened yesterday.
My mother plunked me down in front of the TV and popped in this bright green VHS cassette to entertain me while she cooked dinner. My eyes didn’t move from the screen for the ensuing two hours, transfixed by what I was seeing. By the end, I was a blubbering mess, and when my mom asked me why I was crying, I responded: “it’s just so saaaad!”.
Something about E.T. connected with me on a primal level. I didn’t get this kind of visceral response when I watched TV, or even with the next-earliest film I remember seeing (Disney’s PETER PAN (1953)). I was living in the suburbs of Tualatin outside of Portland at the time, so I felt that the suburban-based events of the film were happening right out in my backyard.
As far as first films go, E.T. is probably a perfect choice, as it truly captures the magic inherent in cinema. Oddly enough, I can’t remember watching it another time since then, but after re-watching it the other day, I zeroed in on crazy little details that captivated me when I was 2, such as the rainbow blinds in Elliott’s room.
It all came rushing back to me, transporting me to an innocent state of mind, untainted by the cynicism of adulthood. For director Steven Spielberg, E.T. was also a transformative experience. It’s the film that convinced him he was ready for a family of his own.
Even though he wouldn’t be married for another three years, the acknowledgement of “readiness” is still an unfathomably huge ideological shift in a man’s life. As such, E.T. shows a marked change in attitude towards family and responsibility.
After the success of 1981’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg turned his attention to a long-gestating alien invasion idea called NIGHT SKIES. After careful consideration, he decided it was better to create a friendly alien, so that the film could be told from a child’s point of view.
He reached deep back into his own childhood, calling on an imaginary friend he had created to cope with his alienation in school and his parents’ growing marital discord. The lonely child archetype is seen a lot in Spielberg’s films, but E.T. places it front and center. And in the process, it becomes one of the most personal stories that Spielberg has ever told.
The film is set in a generic, geographically-unspecified suburban town, where an alien (affectionately known to us as E.T.) has been accidentally left behind by his spaceship. A young, lonely boy named Elliott discovers E.T. has taken refuge in his backyard shed, and they form an instant bond.
Elliott takes the creature in, revealing its existence only to his siblings. Meanwhile, a group of scientists and government bureaucrats are searching for E.T., whom they witnessed getting left behind. As they converge on Elliott’s home, and E.T. begins to weaken from an Earth ecosystem that can’t biologically support him, Elliott and his siblings have to find a way for E.T. to reconnect with his spaceship before the government finds them.
There’s a common saying in the film business: “never work with children or animals”. You can’t direct an animal, you can only manipulate it into doing the desired action. Children are a little easier to direct, but they lack discipline and the level of skill that comes with years of experience.
Spielberg had his work cut out for him by fashioning a story where a group of kids were the focus, but incredibly, E.T’s child performers are pitch-perfect. Henry Thomas plays Elliott, the misunderstood and lonely boy at the center of the story.
He’s somewhat of an avatar for Spielberg as a child, dealing in the same marginalized existence that the director experienced in his school days. Thomas anchors the film with an authentic, engrossing performance, and it’s strange that he never went on to a larger career in film after this.
By contrast, Drew Barrymore obviously did go on to bigger fame as an actress, so it’s incredibly striking to see her as Elliott’s little sister, Gertie. Even as a girl barely out of toddler-hood, she displays the same kind of spunkiness that is so evident in her adult persona.
Knowing her problems with drug abuse later in life, it’s somewhat tough to watch this pristine, innocent version of her—a version completely unaware of the rough years that will lie ahead. Thankfully, she came through it all okay and avoided the typical Hollywood overdose tragedy.
Seeing as the film is told form a child’s perspective, Spielberg wisely chooses to portray the adults from the waist down for the majority, save for Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote. Wallace plays Mary, Elliott’s mother who has been left to raise a family of three rambunctious children all by herself.
She whirls through the film in a breathless huff, always on her way to the multiple jobs I assume she has. The whereabouts of the father are left enigmatic, but Wallace’s stressed, courageous performance goes a long way towards filling in the gaps. The great thing about her character is that she’s not the “cynical nonbeliever” that adults are so commonly portrayed as.
While she’s initially terrified of E.T. when she discovers it, she becomes supportive of her kid’s attempts to return the creature to his spaceship. Coyote is the only other adult who’s given considerable attention by the camera. He plays a man known only as “Keys”, evidenced by the dangling keys that hang from his belt.
For the bulk of the film, it’s implied that he’s this ominous force relentlessly tracking E.T. down—a directorial decision further enhanced by the fact that Spielberg holds off on showing his face until well into the second act. Keys is ultimately revealed as a benevolent character who is trying to help them after encountering these aliens himself in his own childhood.
Strangely, I found the character to bear a striking resemblance to Elliott, right down to the huge ears shared between both actors. It’s a far-fetched theory with no further evidence to support it, but I had the distinct thought that perhaps Keys is the adult Elliott, who travelled back in time to save his alien friend.
In terms of Spielberg’s collaborators, E.T. marks the rise of one his closest and most trusted: producer Kathleen Kennedy. Having first served as a production assistant under screenwriter John Milius on 1941 (1979), she rose through the ranks from Spielberg’s secretary to executive quite quickly, thanks to her ability to distinguish a good story.
She co-founded Amblin with producer (and eventual husband) Frank Marshall and Spielberg in 1981, and since then has become Spielberg’s key producer. She recently became president of Lucasfilm in 2012, so it’s uncertain how future collaborations with Spielberg will pan out.
One thing I will not be surprised of, however, is if she eventually goes on to be the head of Disney– and the company will be all the better for it. To accomplish E.T.’s iconic visuals, Spielberg recruits a new cinematographer, Allen Daviau.
While the general look of the film is signature Spielberg, there’s one glaring difference: the 1.85:1 Academy aspect ratio. Until E.T., all of Spielberg’s feature films had been shot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so why does he change up here? My guess is that Spielberg felt the family genre had no need for panoramic vistas, choosing instead to emphasize character over spectacle.
There is no doubt, however, that E.T. is one of Spielberg’s most gorgeously realized films (despite the blandness of the suburban setting). The colors are bright and strong, with the predominantly earth-toned palette giving a natural feel to the visuals. Spielberg favors wide compositions as well as evocative silhouettes, which creates an inspired hybrid of Rockwell/Americana imagery and intrigue.
In the days before CGI, Spielberg relied on a mix of special effects disciplines to realize his vision, from landscape matte paintings, to spaceship miniatures, to the complicated animatronics of the E.T. puppet. The camerawork, while classical in nature, is actively telling the story through elaborate dolly movements and swooping aerial shots.
All of these visual elements blended together result in some of the most iconic shots in cinematic history. Composer John Williams returns, winning his second Oscar from his collaboration with Spielberg. The E.T. theme is arguably cinema’s most iconic—it’s a sweeping, magical piece of music that’s full of heart-bursting wonder.
They simply don’t make film music like this anymore; you’d be hard-pressed to find a theme so earnest and uplifting today, much less anything so instantly memorable. Williams’ work adds a substantial degree of magic and emotion to the film, and while Spielberg’s story would be effective without it, it’s Williams’ score that puts the film over the top and captures our imaginations.
If you had to choose only one film that would serve as the complete reference of Spielberg’s style as a director, E.T. would most likely be it. The film contains all of Spielberg’s trademark visual conceits: lens flares, the low angle “awe/wonder” shot of characters looking off-camera in amazement, the suburban setting, the Hitchcock-pioneered vertigo zoom, jump cuts, city lights laid out in a flat vista, etc.
His recurring thematic conceits are all present as well: the use of aliens as part of the storyline, the broken family with a neglectful/absent father, an innocent/childlike perspective, and the upbeat/optimistic tone. In many ways, it is the ultimate Spielberg film.
E.T. is easily the most self-referential of all of Spielberg’s films, chock full of little in-jokes to his past films and to those of his RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK collaborator George Lucas. As such, E.T. is Spielberg’s first movie to openly acknowledge an awareness of his direct impact on pop culture.
For instance, Spielberg indirectly references his work on Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY when one of the characters sings the TWILIGHT ZONE theme (the series that made Serling a household name). Of course, Spielberg would go on to contribute a segment to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) as his next project.
There’s a John Ford movie playing on the television in one scene, which is an instance of Spielberg acknowledging one of the filmmakers that influenced him. The open referencing of elder directors and the recycling of their style is a tradition that largely began with the Film Brat generation, populated by the likes of Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola.
Lucas’ STAR WARS (1977) and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) are also heavily referenced, from the inclusion of Greedo and Boba Fett action figures to a Yoda costume during the Halloween sequence (complete with a musical flourish of the Yoda theme by Williams).
Ironically enough, E.T. would go on to secure its own distinct merchandising empire that rivaled Lucas’ creations. Spielberg’s future involvement with HOOK (1991) is foreshadowed when Mary reads “Peter Pan” to Gertie, but this can also be read as an apt metaphor for Spielberg’s child-like approach to storytelling in general.
And of course, there’s the much-publicized depiction of Reese’s Pieces, the inclusion of which not only ignited sales of the candy but kick-started the practice of product placement in mainstream studio film making.
Still riding high off of the flyaway success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg found yet another massive hit in E.T. Box office receipts surpassed even Lucas’ STAR WARS to become the highest-grossing film of all time (an honor that held until Spielberg broke his own record with 1993’s JURASSIC PARK).
E.T. went on to win a slew of technical Oscars, and critical praise was so near-unanimous that Spielberg was invited to a private screening and reception with President Ronald Reagan at the White House. Not many directors get to meet the leader of the free world, let alone watch one of their creations alongside him.
This development marks Spielberg transcending his the station of his occupation, becoming recognized as a genuine voice in American culture.
When E.T. was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1994, the film became a cornerstone of Spielberg’s cinematic legacy. The director acknowledged the profound effect E.T. had on his career by incorporating the iconic “bicycle across the moon” shot into the logo for Amblin. Simply put, E.T. is the kind of film that only comes around once in a lifetime.
Many have tried to imitate it or emulate it, but none have come close to capturing the same sense of magic and wonder as Spielberg so effortlessly did. My mother didn’t know it at the time, but she was giving me a profound gift when she popped in that cassette tape on that fateful day: a lifelong love of film and its many wonders.
I fully intend on showing E.T. to my own kids, and I suspect many others will do the same. As it is passed down from generation to generation, it will achieve what eludes 99% of other films: true timelessness.
“TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE” SEGMENT: “KICK THE CAN” (1983)
With the one-two punch of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), director Steven Spielberg was in a position to tackle any project he wanted. His choice on a follow-up was a surprising one: contributing a segment to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), an anthology feature that updated four of the seminal show’s most popular episodes— each one under the direction of a different filmmaker.
The film also boasts the work of fellow directors John Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller, with Spielberg and Landis serving as the producers shepherding the project to completion. Spielberg’s segment, an adaptation of KICK THE CAN, occurs after Landis’ opening film, and tells the story of Sunnyvale retirement home, where the kindly old Mr. Bloom has arrived to stay.
After an interaction with his crabby houseguests, Mr. Bloom announces that he can help them recapture their past youth, and all they have to do is play kick the can with him at midnight. He convinces the houseguests to join him, and sure enough, as they play they find themselves physically transformed back into children.
This soon causes a mix of emotions, with the joy of youth countered by the anxiety of having to grow up all over again. Scatman Crothers anchors the film, who Spielberg no doubt cast after seeing his memorable performance in THE SHINING (1980), directed by his friend and mentor Stanley Kubrick.
Crothers’ performance as Mr. Bloom is pitch-perfect in conveying the necessary warmth and friendliness of the character, but it still comes off too much like the “magical Negro” stereotype most of the time. It does help that Crothers is so damn charismatic—that dude could talk me into happily jumping off a bridge.
Cinematographer Allen Daviau returns, showcasing the same talent for nostalgic, golden-tinged images that gave E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL its magic. Spielberg and Daviau adopt the 1.85:1 aspect ratio once again, and fill the frame with a warm color palette favoring brown and orange.
The camerawork, utilizing primarily classical dolly movements, is very reserved and makes for a conservative visual presentation (much like its subjects). In terms of other key collaborators, producing partner Kathleen Kennedy and editor Michael Kamen also return, with the latter back after sitting out cutting duties on E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. KICK THE CAN is one of the only Spielberg films not scored by John Williams; instead, Jerry Goldsmith fills those shoes with a generic, romantic score. The E.T. theme, this ain’t.
Due to its existence as a short film within a larger anthology feature, KICK THE CAN feels like an exercise in amusement on Spielberg’s part instead of genuine artistic expression. In that regard, he shows no noticeable growth in his craft here—despite turning in top-quality work.
KICK THE CAN is integrated into the larger TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE narrative, and doesn’t blatantly announce itself as a Spielberg piece. However, most would be able to easily tell based off Spielberg’s signature directorial style: the low angle compositions, the upbeat/optimistic tone, and even a moment where Crothers breaks the fourth wall (much like John Belushi did in 1941 (1979).
One curious aspect to Spielberg’s approach, however, is the openly Jewish comedy on display, which gives off a little insight into an area of Spielberg’s personality that he had previously omitted from his work. While it’s a source for comedy here, it reads to me as Spielberg beginning to reckon with his Jewish heritage via artistic expression, which as we all know, would ultimately manifest itself in his de facto masterpiece, SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).
Initially, Spielberg was going to adapt the arguably higher profile TWILIGHT ZONE episode “THE MONSTERS ARE DUE ON MAPLE STREET”, a factoid that caught my attention because it’s my own personal favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episode and I’ve wanted to make my own adaptation of it for several years now. For whatever reason, Spielberg chose to film KICK THE CAN instead, which ultimately ended up as one of the weaker segments of the anthology feature.
TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE encountered middling success when it was released; it wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t a hit either. If anything, it only proved that anthology films aren’t a big draw for modern audiences. The film is largely forgotten about today, eclipsed by the very television series it was trying to modernize.
If it’s remembered for anything, it’s the horrible tragedy that engulfed the film when actor Vic Morrow was killed by a helicopter crashing on top of him during the shooting of Landis’ segment. Ultimately TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE is a nice callback to past forms of cinematic storytelling, but its legacy stands today as more of a curiosity than anything.
“INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM” (1984)
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) was a massive commercial and critical hit, with the adventures of Indiana Jones captivating audiences around the world. Naturally, fans were clamoring for a sequel– something Spielberg had never actually attempted before.
Indiana Jones’ co-creator, George Lucas, persuaded Spielberg to return, citing the need for a consistent vision across multiple films. Confident in the knowledge that they had a sure hit on their hands before shooting even a single frame of film, Spielberg and Lucas went about assembling their team.
Spielberg recruited producing partners Kathleen Kenned and Frank Marshall, while Lucas passed off a story treatment to writers Willard Huyk and Gloria Katz, who were chosen due to their extensive experience with Indian culture. The film that resulted, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), is generally considered to be the darkest entry in the series.
While Lucas attributes this to replicating the template set by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’s (1980) darker tone, it was also fueled by a dark phase in Lucas’ personal life caused by his divorce from his wife following the completion of RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). He used the story as a forum to express said darkness, manifesting in ritualistic sacrifices, child slavery, and demonic entities—not to mention people getting their hearts ripped out of their chests (in a poorly-veiled metaphor for Lucas’ own internal state).
It’s 1935, a year before Indiana Jones’ encounter with the lost Ark of the Covenant, and our intrepid hero is in Shanghai dealing with a dangerous crime lord. A business deal between the two at a swanky nightclub goes south, and Indiana (Harrison Ford) barely escapes with his life.
Making the escape with him is his trusty child sidekick, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), and a hysterical showgirl named Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). They board a plane out of China, which is subsequently sabotaged by the crime lord’s underlings and crash lands over India.
After seeking directions to Nepal in a rural village, Indiana and company are corralled into recovering the tribe’s precious lost stones, as well as their missing children—abducted into slavery by an evil religious cult operating a temple deep underground. What Indiana doesn’t expect, however, is that his attempts to recover the children and the artifacts will take him on a pitch-black journey into his own heart of darkness.
Harrison Ford, operating at his prime, effortlessly slips back into the fedora and whip. However, he also expands upon the character by creating a version that’s appropriately younger and less experienced (given the fact that the film is technically a prequel).
Ford endured excruciating pain throughout most of the production after a back injury, so most of his action scenes had to be completed by a stunt double. Thankfully though, it doesn’t detract from the film at all—Indiana Jones ably delivers on all fronts.
Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott is the very antithesis of both Jones and RAIDERS’ Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Willie is a blonde, ditzy showgirl with an insufferable vain streak and a tendency to complain about everything. Capshaw, who is naturally very likeable, does a brilliant job depicting someone so inherently unlikeable.
However, her performance is overshadowed by the happy fact that her collaboration with Spielberg eventually resulted in their marriage in 1991. As the film was shot in 1984, Spielberg was still a year away from his first marriage to actress Amy Irving, but seeing behind the scenes footage of the Spielberg and Capshaw interacting, it’s clear that they’re totally smitten with each other.
Jonathan Ke Quan makes his mark as Short Round, easily one of the most enjoyable characters in the series. In the wrong hands (aka: Lucas’), Short Round could be a supremely annoying Jar Jar Binks-style character, but Quan succeeds with a winning mix of rakish charm and mischievous innocence. I wish he was my sidekick!
To recapture the warm, exotic look of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg brings back its cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM also marks Spielberg’s return to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio format, which helps things look consistent and appropriately epic.
Red is used as dominant color throughout, hammering home the fire & brimstone aesthetic of the story. Spielberg also finds several instances to incorporate his signature visual flourishes, like lens flares or an on-screen shooting star.
Despite a substantial increase in production resources, the filmmakers had difficulty in securing location permits from the Indian government—which combined with a series of other mishaps, translated into much of the film being shot on soundstages. This has an adverse effect on the film, whereby the look is contained and distinctively stage-y, not gritty and expansive like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was.
In other words, TEMPLE OF DOOM looks a little too polished. Editor Michael Kahn does an admirable job sewing it all together, utilizing a swift pace that balances the darkness with lighter, comedic elements peppered throughout. Despite all the doom and gloom, this is a film that doesn’t forget how to have fun.
Just as Spielberg and Slocombe slip right back into the style of INDIANA JONES, so does John Williams effortlessly return to form, expanding on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’s iconic, adventurous theme with ethnic flourishes and dissonant choral chants. Some of these flourishes—especially in the Shanghai and India sequences—lean heavily on stereotypical conceptions of those cultures’ music.
While it goes a long way towards establishing a geographically-convincing musical palette, it hasn’t aged as well in the context of today’s politically-correct society. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM finds Spielberg operating at the peak of his powers as a spectacle director—a peak he still sustains today.
Several of the film’s setpieces—the monkey brain dinner scene, the minecart chase, and the rope bridge finale—stand out as some of the best moments in the entire 4-film saga. Not only that, they have become classic, enduring moments in cinema at large; a benchmark that most contemporary action films struggle to meet and rarely achieve.
As far as action direction goes, THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is chock full of reference-grade moments. The success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK also allows for some indulgences on Spielberg’s part, as well.
The Shanghai nightclub sequence that opens the film provides him with the opportunity to combine two types of films that he’s always wanted to make: the Old Hollywood/Busby Berkeley musical, and the James Bond spy film. Sure enough, TEMPLE OF DOOM starts off with a musical dance number led by Capshaw, which must have surely surprised anyone expecting the same kind of Roosevelt-esque rough rider opening that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK provided.
Likewise, Indiana channels Sean Connery when he appears in a white dinner jacket and tuxedo while dealing with crime bosses in a cool, collected manner. Complete with hidden guns and shifting power dynamics, the sequence would not be out of place in a Bond film.
Like E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, Spielberg includes several references to his past work, as well as those of his collaborators and influences. The instance of the Shanghai nightclub being named Club Obi-Wan (after Lucas’ seminal STAR WARS character) is well known, but often overlooked is 1941 star Dan Aykroyd, who makes a brief cameo in the Shanghai sequence.
And just like Spielberg cast THE SHINING’s Scatman Crothers for his KICK THE CAN segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), here he casts frequent Kubrick character actor Philip Stone (THE SHINING’s ghostly bartender) as a British military officer who comes to Indiana’s aide in the climax.
As expected, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM was a smash hit when it debuted, but it received decidedly mixed reviews. Some found the darkness of the story to be off-putting and overwhelming, while others simply found it not as enjoyable as its predecessor.
For a long time, TEMPLE OF DOOM was generally considered to be the worst film in the INDIANA JONES series— that is, until INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL came about in 2008. Today, TEMPLE OF DOOM simply stands as a solid, albeit flawed entry in the Indiana Jones saga, with an Oscar for visual effects as its strongest selling point.
For all its efforts, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM did manage to make cinema history. Together with Joe Dante’s GREMLINS (1984), THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is credited with inspiring the creation of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating.
Families with young children lured into the theatre criticized it for its pervading darkness and violence, which was graphic but not enough to warrant an R rating. As such, it was deemed that a middle rating was necessary, and Spielberg himself suggested the term “PG-13”.
The rise of the PG-13 rating soon became a boon to both Spielberg and the studios, which were able to counter-act years of flagging sales wrought by a growing cynicism among audiences and a wariness of “family-friendly” films. The rating is still extremely relevant today, with many studio tentpole films going to great pains in achieving it and maximizing earning potential for mature subject matter.
INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, while far from Spielberg’s best film, is highly notable in the context of both his career and his personal life. It was his first full-fledged sequel, and turned Indiana Jones into a bonafide franchise.
But more importantly, it was the film where Spielberg met the woman he’d later marry. He had given us the gift of magic and child-like wonder for over ten years now, so it was high time that he finally got to experience some of that for himself.
“AMAZING STORIES” EPISODES: “GHOST TRAIN” & “THE MISSION” (1985)
In the mid-80’s, director Steven Spielberg had begun to hit his stride as a feature filmmaker. After the expected success of 1984’s second installment of the Indiana Jones saga, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, Spielberg surprised his fans with a return to the medium that created him: television.
In 1985, he joined up with his Amblin producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall to create AMAZING STORIES, an anthology-format show that would run on NBC until 1987. AMAZING STORIES takes its title from the science fiction magazine of the same name, and is notable (to me at least) for its hilarious opening credits, which feature terrible CGI in its earliest incarnation. Spielberg himself developed a substantial number of the episode stories, yet only directed two of them: GHOST TRAIN and THE MISSION.
GHOST TRAIN begins in typical Spielberg fashion—an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-esque family moves to a new house in the suburbs, with the frail patriarch/grandpa Opa Globe in tow. Just as soon as they arrive, Opa begins to ramble about a train whose track used to run right through where their house currently stands.
The train derailed one night back when he was a child, and he’s been obsessed with it ever since. He soon becomes convinced that the train is returning to pick him up, despite there no longer being a train in those parts. Only his grandson Brian believes him, with his grown son Fenton and his wife Joleen convinced that he’s gone senile.
However, one night the train does arrive, just as Opa said it would: right through the middle of their living room. Spielberg uses a cast of mostly unknowns for GHOST TRAIN, with Robert Blossom being the most recognizable face as Opa Globe (people my age will remember him fondly as the creepy shovel guy from HOME ALONE (1990).
In GHOST TRAIN, Blossom is basically playing the same character, only less creepy. Scott Paulin plays Fenton, Opa’s disbelieving son and father to Brian, while Gail Edwards plays Fenton’s equally-cynical wife Joleen. Lukas Haas– only a child here– plays wide-eyed and optimistic Brian, fitting well into the frustrated, innocent child archetype that Spielberg is fond of.
Haas had yet to hit puberty when he shot GHOST TRAIN, but the natural talent that would lead him to working under the likes of Gus Van Sant and Christopher Nolan is already evident here. Cinematographer Allen Daviau returns, which results in a piece that feels very much like E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL(1982) in presentation.
While Spielberg’s composition suffers from the confining 4:3 aspect ratio dictated by the television medium, his tone still feels distinctly familiar. Naturalistic, muted colors fill the frame, while a pop of ethereal green lighting creates a mystical, magical aura to the climatic train arrival sequence.
Rick Carter, who would go on to become Spielberg’s regular production designer, finds his first collaboration with the director here. John Williams is once again on music duties, crafting a score that’s not exactly memorable, but unmistakably his.
Several of Spielberg’s key directorial conceits are present in GHOST TRAIN. Most notable is the presence of kids, which justifies Spielberg’s adoption of their innocent, untarnished perspective. As a result, the tone feels whimsical and sentimental.
The absent father trope is also present, manifested in the strained relationship that both sets of sons have with their respective fathers. Train imagery also runs throughout Spielberg’s work, oftentimes in the form of a toy train set chugging through the living room as it did in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), as well as GHOST TRAIN.
Spielberg’s other episode, THE MISSION, is far more affecting and better crafted than GHOST TRAIN. Set during World War 2, THE MISSION is about an Air Force squadron sent up on their 24th mission into enemy territory to drop some big bombs.
Along the way, they encounter heavy bombardment and take heavy damage to the plane, but come through victorious. Unfortunately, the gunner in the turret underneath the craft is trapped by debris spewed forth from the enemy plane’s explosion, and to make matters worse, their landing gear won’t deploy.
Tension and emotions flare as the plane limps back to home base and their efforts to free the gunner from his claustrophobic prison fail. As the situation becomes more dire, the men have to reckon with internal conflicts and decide whether they can salvage the situation, or give their friend the blessing of a mercy killing before he’s crushed to death upon landing.
THE MISSION boasts some high-profile cast members, albeit they’re high profile only in hindsight as THE MISSION was filmed before their careers took off. Kevin Costner plays the Captain—the superstitious, paternal pilot and leader to the men.
He’s not given the kind of attention on-screen that you would expect for someone of his stature, but keep in mind he wasn’t universally-known at this point in his career. Keifer Sutherland plays Static, an aspiring engineer and the brains of the ship.
It’s a sensitive turn for Sutherland, who is better known for his knack for cracking skulls on 24. Relative unknown Casey Siemaszko gives the most captivating performance as Jonathan, the gunner trapped underneath the plane. His increasing hopelessness and despair is palpable, making for some extremely moving movement as the story approaches its climax.
To shoot THE MISSION, Spielberg hires cinematographer John McPherson—his first collaboration with this particular DP. THE MISSION differs drastically in visuals to GHOST TRAIN, featuring a mostly-gray, smoky color palette and handheld camerawork that amplifies the cramped nature of the aircraft set.
THE MISSION also sees Spielberg working for the first time with the nascent tool of CGI, which is deployed in service to the cartoonish, yellow landing gear that miraculously saves the day. This being the early days of CGI and all, it absolutely does not fit in with the realism of the other visuals.
Rick Carter and John Williams return as Production Designer and Composer, respectively- with the latter adapting the Air Force anthem (“Into The Wild Blue Yonder”) as a recurring musical motif. Spielberg’s hand in directing THE MISSION is quite evident.
The WW2 imagery and setting allows him to indulge in the trappings of his favorite time period and the romanticized iconography of flight (no doubt inspired by the stories his WW2 vet father told him upon returning from the war). The tone is sentimental, with a moving dramatic arc that hammers home despite being a little overwrought in some instances.
THE MISSION is frankly one of Spielberg’s best narratives, and would adapt well into the feature-length format. In terms of his television work, it’s easily his best (to date).
Spielberg’s work with AMAZING STORIES is indicative of his embracing the role of producer/developer, whereby he’s creating a television series and shepherding it through several seasons. Much of Spielberg’s current success and wealth derives from his participation as a producer or executive producer in dozens of films, almost as if he was diversifying his portfolio in the business/investment sense.
AMAZING STORIES is one of Spielberg’s less-successful projects, ending its run after only two seasons and quietly immigrating into the syndication market for a few years thereafter. But as his grand return to the television medium, Spielberg is able to channel his experience in directing features and apply its sensibilities into markedly improved TV work.
“THE COLOR PURPLE” (1985)
After several features completed in the Hollywood studio system, director Steven Spielberg had built up quite the reputation as a maker of spectacle-based “event films”. Due to this success, he had friends in high places—President Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones to name a few.
And it was Mr. Jones who approached Spielberg after the completion of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) with the idea of adapting author Alice Walker’s seminal novel, “The Color Purple” into a feature film. The plan was simple: Jones would produce, and Spielberg would direct.
In a rare display of humility that’s uncommon among most directors today, Spielberg was initially reluctant about helming the project, citing his existence as a white man disqualifying him from taking on an inherently African-American story. Jones disagreed with Spielberg’s assessment, and shot back with some clever logic of his own: he wasn’t an alien when he made E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), so why should that kind of thinking prevent him from taking this job?
Jones made a pretty good argument, and as such, Spielberg took the helm. It can be argued that he also came aboard because he wanted to expand his reputation; no doubt he felt he had more to offer than just big-budget spectacle; this was his opportunity to make a film in the interest of social good.
As such, THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) became Spielberg’s first “serious” film- a streak that would eventually deliver him to the Oscar glory that long eluded him in 1993 with SCHINDLER’S LIST. THE COLOR PURPLE is set in rural Georgia, and spans the years 1909-1937.
A poor woman from a poor family, Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg) is given away by her father to marry an abusive farmer named Albert (Danny Glover). She endures a lonely, miserable life in which Albert drives Celie’s own sister away from her, while also making a cuckold of her each time he heads into the city to meet a glamorous singer named Shug Avery (Margarety Avery).
One day, Shug comes to stay with Albert and Celie, and the two women soon become friends. They develop a deep love for each other, whereby Celie’s self-esteem is strengthened—and after a lifetime of being beaten down and humiliated by her tyrannical husband, she finally gains the strength of conviction to stand up to him and assert herself.
Actress Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for an Oscar for her debut in THE COLOR PURPLE by fully embodying the low self-esteem brought about by a lifetime of mental and physical abuse, rape, incest, and the like. Her Celie is meek, with a latent intelligence brought about by her sister teaching her how to read.
While Goldberg is now known primarily as a comedic actress, her performance here packs a real dramatic punch—and is easily her best. Danny Glover plays her husband Albert, a sophisticated yet vindictive force of nature. He plays the unfaithful, abusive bastard quite well. T
hen there’s daytime TV mega-personality Oprah Winfrey, who also makes an Oscar-nominated film debut in THE COLOR PURPLE as Sofia, Albert’s son’s sassy, tempestuous wife. Her character is subject to humiliation and scorn by white people who use her stubborn feistiness as an excuse to put her in jail. By the end of the movie, she’s a broken shell of her former self.
The Big O isn’t really an actress by trade, but whenever she does go before the camera, she tends to be excellent. Spielberg’s supporting cast also turns in notable performances, especially Margaret Avery and Laurence Fishburne.
As the beautiful songstress Shug, Avery adds a bit of glamor to the film as well as supplies it with a compelling lesbian subplot that’s never fully explored. Fishburne plays the bit role of Swain, a friend to Albert’s son and a musician at the rickety dive bar they build together.
He doesn’t get to do a whole lot, but his inclusion is a reminder of his general association with the Film Brat generation of directors (as readers of this series will remember, he was frequently cast by Spielberg’s friend and filmmaking contemporary Francis Ford Coppola).
With the exception of Douglas Slocombe working on the INDIANA JONES films, Allen Daviau was shaping up to become Spielberg’s regular cinematographer. Like E.T., Spielberg and Daviau decided that the 1.85:1 aspect ratio was the best format to tell their story in (which is a little bit at odds with the scale Spielberg was pursuing).
Bold colors (especially purple) punctuate the frame, with golden sunlight and the pastoral setting rendered with a subtle tobacco-sepa tint. Despite being somewhat of an intimate character drama, Spielberg employs sweeping crane and dolly movements to exaggerate the sense of scale.
This approach gives THE COLOR PURPLE the vibe of an old Hollywood musical in some instances, but the effect is more maudlin than romantic. The earnestness of Spielberg’s tone and execution also works against him when the narrative gets dark, with the true horror of Celie’s plight swept under the rug and obscured by sunflowers peacefully swaying in the breeze.
THE COLOR PURPLE is the only theatrical feature film in which Spielberg does not retain the services of composer John Williams. This is easily explained, however, because with Jones—easily more famous for his music—acting as the producer, it’s only logical that he’d want to do the score as well. Jones proves adept at creating a sweeping, cinematic score.
Lush, romantic strings evoke Williams’ work to the best of their ability, but Jones’ mimicry of the maestro’s style only reminds us that the maestro himself is absent. Jones’ score is complemented by a small selection of ragtime source cues, Billy Holiday tracks, and even some seasonal Christmas music.
The subject matter of the film allows Spielberg to indulge in both of his most-used thematic conceits. His fascination with the 1930’s/pre-WW2 time period (most easily seen in 1941 (1979) and the INDIANA JONES films) gets the opportunity to explore a different, understated side of that era: America’s rural south.
His continuing exploration of the absent/negligent father dynamic is manifested in Albert’s character. While Albert is a prominent figure within the narrative, we don’t really ever see him being a father to his kids.
They’re simply human presences in the house that he has little interaction with, let alone any sort of paternal relationship with. Several of Spielberg’s technical signatures, like low angle compositions and lens flares, are all present and accounted for.
THE COLOR PURPLE is firmly ensconced in Spielberg’s expansive, earnest style—sometimes to the detriment of what the narrative requires. This is illustrated in the homosexual subplot between Celie and Shug, which Spielberg shies away from at the last second and never comes back to for the remainder of the film.
Essentially, it’s a wimp-out; a caving to mainstream aesthetics and values. It would have been much bolder and courageous to flesh out and explore Celie’s lesbian relationship, and most certainly would have created a better legacy for the film than the modest one it currently enjoys.
The film was well-received upon its release, securing no less than eleven Oscar nominations—albeit with the curious absence of Spielberg on the Best Director shortlist (a repeat of what happened with JAWS (1974)). Objectively speaking, it’s impossible to know why this happened, but we can speculate.
Maybe there was a general notion among Academy voters that Spielberg wasn’t a “prestige” director? That the success of his spectacle films boxed him in? If so, it would definitely lend support to Spielberg’s motivations for taking the job in the first place. THE COLOR PURPLE, to my eyes, hasn’t aged terribly well—its overwrought sense of melodrama is the very definition of an “Oscar bait” film.
Regardless, THE COLOR PURPLE is a very important film within Spielberg’s body of work. It marks the moment when Spielberg proved that he was capable of making films that were more substantial and serious than his already-emotionally-effecting spectacle work.
In many ways, it began the era of Mature Spielberg, brought about by his ascension to the head of his own family (his first son was born during production of THE COLOR PURPLE). He had bigger responsibilities now, and as such his responsibility to his art demanded a refined, mature touch.
In shooting his first serious social issues film, he proved he didn’t simply want to be a great filmmaker—he wanted to be an important one.
“EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (1987)
The warm reception of 1985’s THE COLOR PURPLE emboldened director Steven Spielberg to continue down the path of creating serious prestige films instead of his usual blockbuster fare. Meanwhile, an adaption of J.G. Ballard’s novel Empire Of The Sun had been kicking around Hollywood with one of Spielberg’s key influences, David Lean, attached to direct.
Lean eventually left the project, which opened the slot up for Spielberg (who had been wanting to direct the property himself). Well-respected playwright Tom Stoppard had written the script, and when Spielberg came aboard, the project was infused with a great deal of prestige.
Two years later, EMPIRE OF THE SUN was released, but despite Spielberg’s passion and optimistic expectations, the film was met by an indifferent audience response, disappointing box office returns, and confused critics who found the story muddled and unsure of its message. Appreciation for the film has only grown over time, and the general consensus today is that EMPIRE OF THE SUN is an underappreciated, overlooked masterwork within Spielberg’s oeuvre.
Our story begins in 1941, in Shanghai shortly before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is a young boy, a British ex-pat born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a deep fascination with airplanes and flying. He lives with his parents in a big house outside Shanghai, oblivious to his parents’ growing unease with events on the world stage.
His idyllic life is suddenly upended when the Japanese march on Shanghai, and he’s separated from his parents in the ensuing chaos. While he searches for them, he joins up with a pair of American con-men: Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), only for the three to be swept up into a Japanese internment camp next to an airfield.
As he languishes in the camp for several years, Jamie learns to survive and forgets all about his past life. He becomes a contributing member of the makeshift society constructed by the prisoners. As the events of the Pacific Theater of World War 2 play out beyond the confines of the camp, Jamie experiences an awakening to the wonders of the natural and industrial world, with the cost being his childhood and innocence.
Christian Bale makes his film debut as Jamie, proving his skill in playing rich brats extends all the way back to his boyhood. He captures that unmitigated sense of wonder and fascination that all boys concentrate onto a singular object- in Jamie’s case, airplanes.
He’s always carrying around a toy plane, which becomes the catalyst for him getting separated from his parents. Even at such an early age, Bale is a striking actor, turning in one of the most convincing child performances I’ve ever seen.
It’s also interesting to watch his performance in light of his later success as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY; the early mansion scenes in Shanghai could have been lifted directly out of the flashbacks of Bruce Wayne’s childhood in BATMAN BEGINS (2005). Veteran character actor John Malkovich brings a great presence to the film as the cool, collected con-man Basie.
He’s rakish, and almost paternal in away, despite a general untrustworthiness and an “every man for himself” kind of mentality. Pantoliano plays Frank, Basie’s volatile counterpart. Its surprising to see Pantoliano so wiry and with a full head of hair, having previously been exposed to the characteristic stockiness and baldness that defined his roles in The Wachowski Brothers’ THE MATRIX (1999).
A young Ben Stiller plays the bit role of Dainty, one of Basie’s wild-eyed, buck-teethed goons, with a grungy appearance and awkward body language that belies his future stardom. Spielberg brings back cinematographer Allen Daviau, who retains the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, big-budget filmic look that defined most of Spielberg’s 80’s output.
The color palette is warm and natural, with strong reds and oppressive greys. Spielberg uses bold camera movements like cranes and dollies to give an impressive sense of scale. While this same approach didn’t necessarily work for his previous THE COLOR PURPLE, it works quite well in EMPIRE OF THE SUN—an appropriate choice since the film was originally supposed to directed by David Lean, king of the sweeping epic genre.
Norman Reynolds serves as the production designer, creating a compelling aesthetic that uses artifacts of wealth and privilege as ironic commentary on the rich’s inability to comprehend the struggle of true daily survival. Expensive furniture, automobiles, statues, etc. gather dust in a large stadium, unattended to and forgotten about.
They take on the form of clutter and junk, their value summarily dismissed in the chaos and anarchy of war. Even commerce is rendered useless, symbolized by a battered mural advertising the release of the film GONE WITH THE WIND—sticking out of the ruins of Shanghai like a haunting reminder of our collective innocence after having been ripped away by the ravages of World War 2.
Norman Rockwell has a significant influence on Spielberg’s visual aesthetic, arguably more so in EMPIRE OF THE SUN than his other films. The early sequences in Shanghai before the invasion are almost blatantly Rockwell-ian, with many frames ripped straight from the artist’s paintings.
This serves to amplify Jamie’s removal from that way of life later on in the film, when he posts Rockwell paintings next to his bunk—yet another haunting reminder of innocence lost. After a brief absence for THE COLOR PURPLE, John Williams returns to score Spielberg’s films, crafting a moving suite of cues for EMPIRE OF THE SUN.
The music is not as memorable as their most iconic collaborations, but it is affecting and cinematic. Williams uses a Welsh hymnal as Jamie’s musical motif to great effect, giving the film one of its most poetically sublime moments when he juxtaposes it over a dawn prayer ritual for Japanese kamikaze pilots before their departure.
The effect is an inspired blend of eastern and western ideas of honor and reverence, and makes for one of the best moments in the film. Perhaps it’s best that Lean didn’t direct the film, since so many aspects of the story are so inherently within Spielberg’s wheelhouse.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN is one of the best instances of Spielberg using the earnest, awe-filled perspective of a child as his way into the story. While E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL’s Elliott is probably the de facto symbolic avatar of Spielberg’s own childhood, EMPIRE OF THE SUN’s Jamie shows another side of the director as a young boy—the adventurous one fascinated by his father’s stories of air combat from World War 2.
A preoccupation with World War 2 imagery and aviation is a staple of Spielberg’s style, but it all blends together so naturally in EMPIRE OF THE SUN that it becomes his most potent, concise statement on the idea. His signature awe/wonder shots don’t come from a manufactured obligation to story, but rather from a genuine amazement at the modern miracle of flight that translates organically into the story.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN also contains the first instances of several images that Spielberg would explore later on his career to effects both potent (concentration camps and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and insipid (nuclear bombs and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008). Spielberg’s continuing on-screen exploration of his strained relationship to his father is somewhat inverted in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which features an involved, loving father who is only absent because he is physically, unwillingly separated from his son.
As I wrote before, critics saw a muddled message in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, befuddled by what they assumed was a simple-minded or naïve narrative. Twelve years later, a writer named Ernest Rister came up with an interpretation of the film that reconciled many of the problems critics faulted the film with in an insightful essay.
His piece claimed that EMPIRE OF THE SUN was Spielberg’s overlooked masterpiece, and argued that critics simply missed the point of the film. The general gist of his essay was that Spielberg, for the first time in his career, chose to use a subjective point of view rather than an objective one.
We’re seeing reality through Jamie’s eyes as an unreliable narrator that looks back on his time in the internment camp with rose-tinted glasses, his innocence blinding him to the suffering going on around him. Rister obviously can explain it better than I can, so I’ll simply direct you here to his thoughtful article.
If this was indeed what Spielberg was trying to capture in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, it’s an uncharacteristically subtle, mature move on his part. Regardless of what Spielberg was trying to do, the film flew directly over the critics’ and the audience’s heads.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN wasn’t a flop, but it was most definitely a disappointment for a filmmaker whose body of work boasted several of the highest-grossing films of all time. More importantly, it was a blow to Spielberg’s artistic sensibilities, as his attempts at branching out and becoming a serious filmmaker were met with scorn and indifference.
This began a relatively dark period for him, in which he retreated into the safety of his usual blockbuster work, but his flirtations with greatness now only made him bored and uninspired. Much like EMPIRE OF THE SUN’s young protagonist, he was feeling grounded—but it was only a matter of time until he took flight again, and when he did, he would soar.
“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989)
By 1989, Steven Spielberg was in need of a career pick-me-up. When he made the commitment to direct RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), he did so under the assumption that series creator/producer George Lucas would mandate that he direct an eventual trilogy.
The second Indiana Jones outing, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) was a perceived disappointment, and he’d been burned by an indifferent audience reception to his attempts in making serious dramatic works. As such, Spielberg decided to finish his Indiana Jones trilogy and retreat into the blockbuster genre he knew he was good at.
The story wasn’t easy to crack- several drafts saw iterations as different as Indy exploring a haunted castle, or searching for the fountain of youth in Africa. Finally, Spielberg and Lucas settled on something far more epic: the search for the Holy Grail, the legendary chalice that Jesus purportedly drank from during The Last Supper.
The result? INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), generally considered to be the best film of the Indiana Jones series and a return to glory for Spielberg and Lucas.
The film begins with a prologue that shows a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) in his boy scout days. We see his early love for archaeology, while also seeing how several of his iconic character traits came about: the whip, the hat, the fear of snakes, etc.
Decades later, Indiana (Harrison Ford) receives a battered diary in the mail that belonged to his father, Henry Jones Sr (Sean Connery), and which documents his lifelong quest to find the Holy Grail. Not long after, Indiana discovers that his father has been abducted and decides to venture to Europe to recover him by retracing his father’s latest steps as outlined in the diary.
Accompanying him on the journey are his university confidante Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and a blonde doctor named Elsa Schnieder (Allison Doody); opposing him are the Nazis, who have kidnapped Henry and are after the Grail for their own nefarious purposes. Once Indiana frees Henry and Elsa is discovered to be a Nazi spy, father and son must race to recover the Grail before the Nazis do and subsequently change the course of history.
Harrison Ford reprises his most iconic role once again, now looking noticeably older as flecks of grey are beginning to pepper into his hair. Whereas Ford’s Indy was busy establishing himself in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and more or less treading water in TEMPLE OF DOOM, THE LAST CRUSADE allows ample opportunity for Indy to grow in a nuanced way.
The father/son exploration of the film (more on that later) gives us much greater insight into Indiana’s own behavior and conduct, ultimately endearing himself to us in a more intimate way than the cold, aloof archetype he was originally sketched from: James Bond. Appropriately enough, James Bond himself makes for the perfect father figure to Indy.
Sean Connery was an easy choice to play Henry Jones Sr, but thankfully they subverted his classically suave, sophisticated persona in favor of an esteemed, bookish scholar who was something of a wimp in the physical department. Connery is responsible for the film’s biggest laughs and lends a tremendous deal of heart to the film in what has become a performance whose legacy rivals even that of a certain British secret agent.
Allison Doody does a fair job as Elsa Schneider, the love interest who stands out mainly because she’s a bad guy. Other than that, there’s nothing terribly interesting or groundbreaking about the character.
Having previously appeared in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody character is significantly expanded for THE LAST CRUSADE. Elliott plays Marcus as casually inept, and a secondary source of comedic relief. Jonathan Rhys-Davies also reprises his role from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the jovial ally Sallah.
And then there’s River Phoenix, one of the most notable additions to the cast, who nails Ford’s mannerisms while bringing a headstrong, inquisitive, and slightly awkward physicality that’s believable as the younger form of our favorite hero. The strength of Phoenix’s section (the opening prologue) eventually led to the creation of THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES TV show—even though Phoenix didn’t reprise the role himself.
Spielberg re-enlists the talents of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who has shot both previous installments of the Indiana Jones series. THE LAST CRUSADE adheres to the established Indiana Jones template: 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, high contrast, warm-exotic tones, a swashbuckling scale created by expansive crane and dolly camera movements, etc.
It also has somewhat of a Medieval vibe to it, due to the nature of their quest and the locations, which are both very Europe-centric. Naturally, John Williams also returns to score the film, with that iconic Indiana Jones theme throwing us right back into the fray like we never left.
By 1989, the theme had become such a part of the American cultural fabric that audiences felt like they had been been cheering on the adventures of Indiana Jones for half a century already. Much like he did for the Ark of the Covenant in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Williams also adds a special theme for the Grail itself that is appropriately drenched in Old-World/Medieval intrigue.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE contains some of the most overt references to Spielberg’s influences and idols of any of his films. The opening train chase and Monument Valley vistas are highly reminiscent of John Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939).
Another early moment finds Spielberg using Indy’s signature hat as the basis for a match cut spanning a vast amount of time and space, much like Stanley Kubrick had stitched together a bone and a spaceship for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). And yet another instance finds Spielberg re-employing the VERTIGO (1958) lens zoom technique that Alfred Hitchcock invented and Spielberg himself popularized with JAWS (1974).
As to be expected with the Indiana Jones series, World War 2 imagery is highly prominent, with the setting allowing for the use of Nazis again as the main villains— a visual conceit that reaches its arguable apex when Indiana literally runs into Adolf Hitler in one of the film’s most clever moments. Planes and the phenomenon of flight are recurring staples of both Spielberg’s work and the Indiana Jones series, and THE LAST CRUSADE is no different.
Interestingly enough, Spielberg is able to fuse this fascination with another—his ongoing exploration of the distant father dynamic—into a compelling character setpiece set aboard a zeppelin. One could argue that Spielberg’ s veiled exploration of his issues with his own estranged father reaches it apex during this sequence, with a literal reckoning between father and son.
They sit down at a table and take a time out from the narrative at hand to address their beef with each other, with Indiana complaining how Henry was always into his work and never had time for him. In real life, it was around this time that Spielberg’s estrangement with his father began to wind down.
It’s more literal than metaphor (one can imagine Spielberg’s real-life sitdown with his dad playing out exactly in this fashion), but it still offers remarkable insight into the slow paradigm shift Spielberg was undergoing in his personal life—further compounded by his own entrance into fatherhood with the birth of his first son.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE was warmly received upon its release, and is generally considered to be the superior Indiana Jones film. This is attributed to Spielberg and company placing the emphasis on character instead of action, and the exploration of deep character dynamics that shed further light on Indiana Jones and allowed him to grow instead of becoming stagnant.
An Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing further reinforced the public’s embrace of the film. While most consider RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to be the quintessential Indiana Jones film, THE LAST CRUSADE arguably has it beat in almost every way. It’s really saying something about the quality of your franchise when the third film is just as valid a choice for best entry as the first one.
There was also the bittersweet assumption that THE LAST CRUSADE was the last film in the series, and for the better part of twenty years it appeared it was going to stay that way. That is, until 2008’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL– but that’s a story for another day.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE is as fine as film as Spielberg has ever made. It’s definitely the best within the series, and maybe even breaks the top five of Spielberg’s overall filmography—albeit that’s an admittedly tough call to make considering so many other films in his body of work can make just as strong a case.
After his brief excursion into the prestige/awards film arena, THE LAST CRUSADE marks Spielberg’s return to the spectacle genre that made his name. More importantly, the lessons he learned on THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) and EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) were applied here to great effect—in other words, his “popcorn” work suddenly became much more nourishing and substantial.
In 1943, an unassuming melodrama known as A GUY NAMED JOE was written by legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and released in cinemas. The film concerned a fighter pilot who is killed in combat, only to return as a spirit and help his love move on with her life.
It came and went without much of a ripple in the grand scheme of things, but it made a world of an impression on a young boy named Steven Spielberg. Some distance away, it also profoundly affected another young boy named Richard Dreyfuss.
As these two grew up, met, and began collaborating with each other out of a shared love for the cinematic medium, A GUY NAMED JOE always remained at the back of their thoughts, subtly influencing their art. What began as casual references tossed back and forth between the two men on the set of JAWS (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) soon grew into a strong desire to re-make the film with a modern spin.
In the same year that INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE debuted, Spielberg and Dreyfuss joined forces for the first time in over a decade to create their take: a romantic drama called ALWAYS (1989). Pete Sanditch (Dreyfuss) is a daredevil pilot who extinguishes forest fires for a living.
He’s one of the best at what he does, but he’s a reckless flier- much to the chagrin of his lover, Dorinda Durson (Holly Hunter). Just as she convinces him to finally hang up his hat and go to Colorado and teach firefighting techniques to aspiring pilots, he gets the call to execute one last job.
As any dutiful moviegoer might predict, this “one last job” is the one that kills Pete, sending him to a fiery grave after rescuing his buddy Al Yackey (John Goodman) from a similar fate. To his surprise, Pete wakes up seemingly alive and well in the middle of a burnt-out forest.
He stumbles upon Hap, an ethereal barber who tells him he is indeed dead and he must go watch over a young pilot before he can enter into heaven. That person is Ted Baker (Brad Johnson), a rugged dreamer with eyes towards the skies and a heart for Dorinda, the girl that Pete left behind.
Pete must now struggle with the conflict of carrying out his heavenly duties against the heartbreak that comes with seeing Dorinda move on and find happiness without him. Dreyfuss anchors his third Spielberg film in ALWAYS, and has aged quite a deal in the intervening years since CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.
He’s good at exemplifying a rakish, jovial personality– somewhat reminiscent of a favorite uncle. Holly Hunter is every bit his equal as the feisty Dorinda. She’s a salt-of-the-earth tomboy and a convincing love interest for Dreyfuss that also fits well within the man’s world that Spielberg has established here.
As Pete’s kindly, oafish buddy Al Yackey, John Goodman is basically playing…John Goodman. Brad Johnson’s Ted Baker is the handsome young hotshot pilot vying for Dorinda’s affections, but he’s so impossibly-good-looking that he’s boring. Audrey Hepburn (making her last film appearance ever) plays the God-like character of Hap.
It was shocking for me to see her as an old woman, considering she’s much better known for her youthful pixie appearance in films like BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) or ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953). Hepburn’s casting is an inspired one, however, and makes for a great secular substitute for God.
Finally, Roberts Blossom—who previously worked with Spielberg on his AMAZING STORIESepisode “GHOST TRAIN”– has a small cameo that plays to his strengths as the hobo that helps Pete communicate with Ted.In accomplishing ALWAYS’ look, Spielberg works for the first time with Director of Photography Mikael Salomon.
The 1.85:1 aspect ratio makes for a large, expansive frame that, when combined with a mix of dolly, crane, and aerial shots, creates a surprisingly dynamic presentation for a romantic drama. Spielberg’s color palette is mostly muted and naturalistic, save for a heightened blue light for night sequences and a bright orange/red color when sunsets or fires are present.
This treatment also extends to Spielberg’s non-secular presentation of the afterlife. Heaven is depicted as a circle of untouched pastoral beauty surrounded by trees scorched black by wildfire. And later in the film, Pete’s attempts to steer Dorinda to safety as she flies through the center of a wildfire is akin to a descent into hell.
John Williams, as expected, scores the film—but his execution is anything but routine here. Surprisingly, Williams opts for a subdued, low-key score that’s more tonal than melodic. It’s peculiar for a Williams score in that it doesn’t really call attention to itself. Instead, the musicality of ALWAYS relies more on source cues from R&B and doo-wop crooners.
While Williams is to be commended for branching out and trying something new, I can’t help but wonder if the inclusion of the type of iconic theme that Williams is so good at might’ve helped elevate the film into more of an emotional and resonant space. Like EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), ALWAYS takes Spielberg’s love for planes and aviation and puts them front and center in the narrative.
This approach allows for the natural incorporation of his aesthetic quirks: lens flares, low-angle compositions, star fields, and his trademark awe/wonder shot. Although the film takes place in the 80’s (present day then), Spielberg’s and Production Designer James Bissell’s hearts are firmly rooted in the 1940’s.
When the firefighter pilots aren’t dressed in a manner reminiscent of old WW2 air aces, they’re blatantly expressing their desire to be like them. Even Dreyfuss gets in on the act by wearing a WW2-era leather bomber jacket for most of the film (a look that Spielberg himself has employed frequently in public).
Eagle-eared audience members will also catch a very sly reference to Spielberg’s friend and collaborator George Lucas when Dorinda’s proclamation of “I love you” to Pete is met with a snarky “I know”.
ALWAYS was a modest flop at the box office, met with an indifferent critical and audience reception. The lack of love given to the film is apparent in its treatment on home video, which hasn’t seen a decent re-release since the dawn of DVD when films were formatted for obsolete 4:3 displays.
The result is a tiny picture surrounded by a sea of black when watched on a modern HD TV. Hardly the engrossing experience that Spielberg intended.**Edit 12/13/16** ALWAYS has since been released on high definition Blu Ray disc, recapturing its former glory.
Most can agree that Spielberg’s lofty romance, while interesting in its non-secular exploration of the afterlife, never really takes flight. This might be because his attention was divided by the simultaneous post-production of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE.
This exercise in attention-splitting soon became a regular occurrence for Spielberg, serving as a neat personality division that enabled him to effectively make a big blockbuster and a thought-provoking drama simultaneously. The combination of ALWAYS and THE LAST CRUSADE isn’t a great case example towards this end, but it was great practice for the one-two punches to follow: JURASSIC PARK and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), THE LOST WORLD and AMISTAD (1977), WAR OF THE WORLDS and MUNICH (2005), etc.
To speak of ALWAYS’ legacy is to make a short and (bitter) sweet statement. Within Spielberg’s larger filmography, its existence is severely overlooked and hasn’t presented much of a case for reappraisal in recent years. Despite its surface demerits, however, those who give ALWAYS the time of day will find it to be at least an entertaining, if not absorbing, experience.
Peter Pan is one of those cultural touchstones which tends to have a profound effect in people’s lives. For many, it’s one of the earliest stories told to them, and the details stick because a child’s mind—untainted by the lifetime of experiences that await it– is like a sponge soaking up every little nuance. This was certainly the case for me.
The memory of watching Disney’s PETER PAN (1953) on VHS during my fifth birthday party is seared into my brain, not to mention an even earlier memory of seeing the film during my first trip to the movie theatre. I was six when director Steven Spielberg’s HOOK came out in 1991, and it was the first instance where I became cognizant of movies as a big, commercial thing.
I remember all the merchandising and tie-ins that was released in the wake of the film, especially the Lost Boys gear. Much like re-watching E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) the other day, watching HOOK again for the first time in nearly twenty years was a visceral experience for me.
I’ve accumulated a lifetime of other memories since then, but watching it again was like returning to that innocent, primal mindset. It’s a testament to Spielberg’s pure, visceral power as a storyteller that he regularly makes such profound marks on the minds of young children.
Given the subject matter of HOOK, written by James V. Hart, it’s clear that nobody else could’ve made this story. But over twenty years later, the question still remains: was this a story worth telling? People my age love HOOK, united by the rose-tinted glasses of childhood and the common refrain of “Rufio! Rufio! Ru-fee-oooooh!”.
But in the cynical adult world, HOOK was a very different beast altogether. It was considered an indulgent, sloppy affair with little redeeming value. Spielberg himself had been long perceived as the live-action Walt Disney due to the whimsical sentimentality he brought to his films, so when it was announced he would tackle the ultimate childhood tale that was Peter Pan, nobody was surprised.
His involvement with the project began with its gestation in 1983, back when Michael Jackson was attached to play Peter Pan (which makes a perverted kind of sense).
Peter Banning (Robin Williams) is a high-powered attorney and a (increasingly absent) father of two children. One Christmas, he and his family travel to London to visit an old friend of his: Wendy Darling. While he, his wife, and Wendy are away at a benefit gala in Wendy’s honor, Peter’s two children are abducted from their beds.
Left alone to his grief and at a loss for what to do, Peter is visited by the feisty fairy Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) who transports Peter against his will to the magical world of Neverland. Once he arrives, he learns that not only are the stories of Peter Pan true, but that he is Peter Pan—and all grown-up.
He’s been away for so long that he’s forgotten how to fly, fight, and crow. He soon encounters Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), who is shocked at the sight of the flabby, middle-aged Pan before him.
Peter narrowly escapes with his life and joins up with the Lost Boys, who whip him into shape and help him discover his past and his destiny—just in time to challenge Hook to one last fight to the finish and save his abducted children. In the process of re-awakening the dormant child inside of him, he also learns to become a better father.’
Admittedly, Robin Williams is an eccentric choice for a grown Peter Pan, but I can’t imagine anyone else who could’ve done it better. He’s convincing both as the workaholic attorney with bad parental skills, as well as the childish, wide-eyed Pan.
It’s a performance reminiscent of his starring turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s JACK (1996)—except inherently more watchable. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his normal appearance, but Dustin Hoffman is spot-on casting for Captain James Hook.
He absolutely owns the role– so much that friends to this day still use it as a nickname. Hoffman infuses Hook with the requisite sophistication and gentlemanly airs that the animated Disney incarnation established. Quite simply, Hoffman is responsible for any joy felt in watching the film, and he’s the best manifestation of the character that ever has been, or will be.
Julia Roberts brings a 90’s edge to Tinkerbell, as well as pint-sized attitude to the grandiose world of Neverland. Reportedly, she was nicknamed “Tinkerhell” on set due to people finding her difficult to work with (which may have been brought about by an untreated mental disorder, in her defense).
Bob Hoskins is yet another example of pitch-perfect casting as Smee, Hook’s bumbling and jovial henchman. He becomes such a perfect representation of the character that he’s since gone on to reprise the role in completely unrelated films. Dante Basco is Rufio, the punk leader of the Lost Boys, and easily the coolest thing about the movie (he still is, damnit).
For many in my generation, his death was the first major cinematic death we experienced and it TORE US APART. Maggie Smith plays the elderly Wendy Darling, bringing grace and sophistication to a frail old woman who still hasn’t lost her sense of wonder.
And somehow, Gwyneth Paltrow pops up in quick cameo as teenage Wendy, managing to be just as annoying in two seconds as she is in entire films. HOOK marks Spielberg’s return to the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which is used to convey the sweeping, magical scope of the story.
Working with cinematographer Dean Cundey for the first time, Spielberg adopts a palette of bright, bold colors that help Production Designer Norman Garwood’s strikingly imaginative sets come to life. These sets are further augmented by Spielberg’s inherent sense of sweeping, epic camera movement, which makes Neverland feel like a real, natural place (despite the picture being shot entirely on soundstages).
The stage-show legacy of Peter Pan is also paid homage in the film’s lighting scheme, which opts for a theatrical approach full of deep shadows, moody lantern lights, and even an ethereal green light during the abduction scene reminiscent of Spielberg’s GHOST TRAIN episode for AMAZING STORIES (1985).
Nowadays, Neverland would be entirely rendered in the computer, but the technology’s infancy necessitated the use of matte paintings, miniatures and other old-school techniques to achieve Spielberg’s vision—which has the added benefit of an appropriate handcrafted, childish vibe. Spielberg’s realization of Neverland is palpable and tangible, and completely captivated my imagination as a child.
John Williams’ score is one of the earliest examples of film music I can remember. It’s easily the best thing about the film, and far more transcendent than the story it’s meant to support. The theme as concocted by Williams is soaring and magical—everything that a Peter Pan adventure should be.
While it’s shamelessly manipulative in the sense that it tells us exactly how to feel at any given moment, it’s appropriate for a film like HOOK, which requires a certain degree of checking out on the audiences’ part to fully suspend our disbelief and transport us to the wonderful world that Spielberg and company have created.
To me, William’s HOOK theme is right up there with his best work for Spielberg. All my childhood daydreams and imagination-based adventures were accompanied by this very theme, and as such it holds a very special place in my heart.
Like ALWAYS (1989) before it, HOOK allows the chance for Spielberg to use the story as a focal point for his own thematic preoccupations. Even in the adult sequences, HOOK is told from a child’s point of view. I don’t know why I’m only realizing this now, but it’s clear that his preference for a child’s perspective is why he frequently places the camera at a low angle looking up: it’s how a child would see the world.
Spielberg’s continued use of this technique is appropriate for HOOK, a film whose message is that just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you have to let go of your childhood. His fascination with flight and aviation is also creatively realized in HOOK.
The film’s story begins with the ironic notion that a grown-up Peter Pan is terrified of flight, evidenced by his crippling anxiety when his plane to London encounters modest turbulence. Here, flying is depicted as a cramped, regulated and dangerous form of transport.
But later on in the film, Spielberg shows us the exhilaration of soaring, unencumbered flight as Peter takes to the skies with nothing but his own body. Flying then becomes freeing, transcendent and enlightening. It’s a physical representation of pure joy and an unburdened zeal for life and creation.
Like INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), HOOK places the father/son relationship dynamic center stage. Peter Banning is the classical absent dad of the 1990’s: a high-powered businessman attached to his cell phone, too little time for his family and too stern in his discipline. He’s forgotten how to have fun.
As such, his son Jack is alienated from him, and becomes easily swayed in Captain Hook’s favor when the treacherous villain gives him the attention he craves. The focal point of the story then becomes the inverting of Spielberg’s “absent father” trope—Peter must fight and risk his life to win his son back, and has to embrace his childhood in order to do so.
Any way you slice it, HOOK is a divisive film. While a lot of people within that perfect 5-10 age range (like me) loved the film when it was released, a huge majority of adults hated it. Spielberg himself has gone on record to express his displeasure with the finished product.
In my opinion, to cynically dismiss the film as whimsical drivel while not allowing for one’s own childhood experiences to transport him/her into the narrative is to miss the entire point of the film. Then again, the film was such a magical experience for me as a kid that maybe it’s impossible for me to judge it objectively.
Perhaps the rose-tinted glasses have been permanently welded onto my face. HOOK made a fair amount of money at the box office, but it was deemed a disappointment in the broad stroke. Even its several Oscar nominations weren’t enough to improve public perception of the film.
Twenty-two years later, HOOK is an albatross that still hangs over Spielberg’s filmography, quickly glossed over if it’s even mentioned in the first place. Despite its cheery, optimistic tone, HOOK is representative of a very dark, albeit short, period in Spielberg’s life and career.
On the home front, he was wading through a divorce from his wife Amy Irving, and at work he had retreated to the safety of his spectacle work after he wasn’t taken seriously in the dramatic film arena. The result was akin to seeing the light but then having to go back into the cave.
Spielberg knew he was capable of so much more, but the constraints and restriction of his bread-and-butter genre now left him uninspired and indifferent. This indifference is certainly tangible in ALWAYS, but much less so in HOOK.
By 1991 however, things were looking up for Spielberg despite HOOK’s public drubbing. Spielberg re-married, this time to his INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) star Kate Capshaw. He also began work on two very promising projects- one about dinosaurs and the other about the Holocaust- that would not only catapult him out of his slump, but throw him headlong into the best days of his career: days that would shake the foundations of cinema forever.
“JURASSIC PARK” (1993)
Every kid is fascinated by dinosaurs. It’s a universal given, at least in America. The idea of giant monsters stomping around a lush, primordial jungle is the stuff that fuels pint-sized imaginations, and the fact that dinosaurs don’t exist anymore gives them a mythic quality.
Understandably, a big Hollywood film purporting to feature realistic dinosaurs was always going to be a gigantic hit. So when JURASSIC PARK was released to record-breaking numbers in 1993, nobody was surprised.
I was very young in 1993, around 8 or 9 years old. I had heard stories of how scary JURASSIC PARK was, and was terrified at the prospect of seeing people eaten alive on-screen. As such, I stayed away from the theaters, and I didn’t see the film until I could watch it in the safety of my own home on VHS.
In terms of my moviegoing life and sense of participation in cinematic history, not going to see JURASSIC PARK during its initial theatrical run and experiencing it with everyone for the first jaw-dropping time remains one of my biggest regrets. For all you punks who were yet to be born in 1993, it’s hard to quantify in words how big of a cultural phenomenon JURASSIC PARK was.
It just wasn’t one of the biggest movies of all time, it was a watershed moment in our culture. The advent of computer technology that could convincingly render living, breathing animals that had been extinct for 65 million years meant we had the crossed a line– the cinematic equivalent of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to humanity.
We now had the ability to render, on film, anything we could dream up. The possibilities were endless. Unlike CGI-heavy fare nowadays, JURASSIC PARK’s effects stand the test of time due to mixing new technology with old techniques from the early days of cinema: matte paintings, miniatures, animatronics, etc.
As a result, not only is JURASSIC PARK just as visually convincing as it was twenty years, ago, but it remains the benchmark against which all other spectacle films are measured. JURASSIC PARK began with author Michael Crichton’s own fascination with dinosaurs, which he later adapted into the novel upon which the film is based.
He had casually mentioned the idea to director Steven Spielberg as they worked together on a medical procedural film that would later become the hit television show E.R. After an intense bidding war that saw four studios bid for the project with their best directors, Spielberg was bestowed the honor out of his desire to do for land what JAWS (1975) did for water.
Spielberg obviously knew he had (yet another) massive hit on his hands, but he most likely had no idea at how big the film would actually become. A billionaire entrepreneur named John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has established an amusement park on a secret island off the coast of Costa Rica.
The attraction? Real dinosaurs, cloned from the DNA discovered in prehistoric mosquitos trapped in petrified tree sap. Hammond wishes to obtain the endorsement of one of the world’s leading paleontologists, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), so he invites him and his colleague/girlfriend Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) for a weekend trip down to the island, where they would preview the park along with a few other members of Hammond’s think tank.
Also making the journey is chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the anxious lawyer Gennaro and Hammond’s own grandchildren (and target audience for the park), Tim and Lex. They are shocked and stupefied by their first encounters with the dinosaurs, but their wonder and awe is soon replaced by fear and terror when a tropical storm knocks out the park’s power grid and the dinosaurs escape their paddocks. Trapped on the island, this ragtag group must fend off Hammond’s vicious creations and restore power to the park if they are to escape with their lives.
Spielberg’s cast is notable in that, despite the film’s supersized production value, there aren’t any superstar names involved. By going with less recognizable faces, he further enhances the believability of his story and its characters. Sam Neill plays Dr. Alan Grant, the tough rugged paleontologist and our protagonist.
He’s somewhat of a technological luddite, which is perfect for a profession focused on the past. His unease about the future is also manifested in the fact that he is not fond at all of children. This was a breakout role for Neill, although he hasn’t really been able to transcend it.
In essence, he fell victim to the same curse that Mark Hamill of STAR WARS (1977) did, whereby an actor becomes so well known for a particular role that it’s difficult for them to stand out in others. As G