A household name, Steven Spielberg is perhaps the most well-known and beloved filmmaker in the history of film with works such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to his name.
‘I dream for a living. I use my childhood and go back there for inspiration.’ -Steven Spielberg
Born in Cincinnati in 1946, Spielberg spent his formative years in Phoenix, Arizona where he was inspired by frequent cinema trips to begin making his own 8mm films. Unlike his ‘movie brat’ contemporaries in the 1960s – including Scorsese and Coppola – Spielberg circumvented film school, briefly studying English at Long Beach State in California before dropping out to work for Universal Studios’ TV department, using his short film Amblin’ (1968) as a calling card.
After working on different shows – including Columbo – Spielberg directed the TV movie Duel (1971), based on a short story by Richard ‘I Am Legend’ Matheson. A staggering showcase of suspense-filled cinema shot in just 14 days, Duel received a theatrical release outside the US and earned Spielberg the directorship of his first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), starring Goldie Hawn. The film also marked Spielberg’s first collaboration with John Williams, whose compositions would become as synonymous with the director’s work as Herrmann’s did with Hitchcock. Their next film would redefine the blockbuster film forever…
Despite a troubled production and spiralling costs, 1975’s Jaws was an astonishing success that created the summer ‘tent-pole’ release system we know today, but throughout Spielberg never lost sight of characterisation, thematic resonance or technical invention. A master of suspense and spectacle, he then helped reinvent the sci-fi adventure with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), repeating Jaws’ focus on familial relationships against the background of an extraordinary ‘other’.
The overwrought ‘comedy’ 1941 (1979) marked a low-point in Spielberg’s career, but together with close friend George Lucas, he returned to his childhood love of B-movie adventures in the 1980s with the Indiana Jones franchise (1981, 1984, 1989 and 2008), while producing his contemporaries’ films including Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985) and Dante’s Gremlins (1984). He also began approaching more serious subject matter, including The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), postponing his holocaust epic Schindler’s List until 1993 when he felt he had matured – although he also released his greatest family adventure, Jurassic Park, the same year.
Drawing from his Jewish heritage and identity, Schindler’s List earned Spielberg an Oscar for Best Director and, after creating Dreamworks SKG with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, he won a second for Saving Private Ryan (1998). Spielberg commented in 2003 that “I feel as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more courageous”, which is evident in his output over the past fifteen years, including Catch Me If You Can (2002), Minority Report (2002) and Lincoln (2012), as well as producing works like HBO’s Band of Brothers and JJ Abrams’ Super 8 (2011), which was itself an homage to Spielberg.
Although technically Spielberg adapts his filmmaking to the subject matter, certain motifs are recurrent. Central is the everyman protagonist, with his leads usually confronted with extraordinary, often dangerous, situation and pushed to their limits. Likewise, familial relationships are integral to the emotive resonance of his films, especially parental-child relationships, often seeing the everyman figure taking on a protective paternal role as in Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, or else regaining a child-like sense of wonder as seen in E.T and Hook (1991).
However, Spielberg’s identification with childhood experience has led to his films being criticised for being naïve, often resorting to happy endings and sentimentality. Others claim that he favours spectacle over substance, but his treatment of spectacle is often tied with characterisation, whether Grant’s boyish excitement at seeing a dinosaur or Miller’s silent horror overlooking Omaha beach. Indeed, Spielberg’s introduction of spectacle is typified by his use of reaction shots, the sense of wonder or horror reflected on the face of the character before the camera reveals what they see.
Spielberg’s films remain some of the most beloved and defining pieces of cinema ever made and his success both critically and commercially is testament to his maturation as a director while retaining his affinity with a child-like sense of wonder and adventure; something he brings out in us all.
Top 5 Steven Spielberg Films:
Duel (1971): This simple story of a businessman pursued by a truck driver across the desert highway is a master-class in suspense which erupts into tense action sequences.
Jaws (1975): A shark terrorises a popular beach-side resort. Spielberg uses inventive camera movements and positioning alongside his mastery of building tension to create the perfect mix of horror and adventure with memorable characterisation.
Jurassic Park (1993): A theme park featuring real-life dinosaurs becomes a fight for survival when the animals escape in arguably Spielberg’s greatest showcase of cinema as spectacle, while never neglecting character or emotion.
Saving Private Ryan (1998): In WWII eight men are sent to rescue a soldier after his brothers have all been killed. Although criticised for its sentimentalism and America-centric depiction of the conflict, Saving Private Ryan changed the face of war films and how combat is depicted.
Munich (2005): Focussing on the Israeli retaliation to the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, this is part historical drama, part nerve-shredding thriller, part political statement. Emotionally raw, this is Spielberg’s most mature and complex film to date.
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