To celebrate Steven Spielberg’s birthday on 18 December we’re looking at the legendary (and prolific) director’s most important and influential films.
Spanning decades and genres, these are the Spielberg films that marked an important point in his evolution as a filmmaker, or changed the cinematic landscape for us all.
Technically speaking, Duel isn’t Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut – that was 1964 sci-fi adventure, Firelight, made for $500 when he was 17 – but it is his first movie to get a worldwide theatrical release, and the one that placed him firmly on the map of upstart directors to watch.
Originally commissioned for the ABC Movie of the Week series, Duel is a lean, largely wordless action thriller based on a short story by Richard ‘I Am Legend’ Matheson that focuses on a deadly battle of wills between a hapless businessman and the mostly unseen truck driver he unintentionally offends on the road.
Shot in just 13 days (plus an additional two when the TV movie was expanded for theatrical release), Duel shows that Spielberg’s gift for honouring storytelling with every cinematic technique in his toolbox was already well in place. Through tension-ratcheting use of sound (and silence) and the almost supernatural personification of the thunderous, rusting Peterbilt 281 truck, the young director turned a simple premise into an impressively taut thriller that still delivers almost 50 years later.
The production of Spielberg’s ocean-going monster movie Jaws was anything but plain sailing. A combination of the still relatively green director’s naivety – he insisted on filming in unpredictable Mother Nature rather than in the entirely controllable environment of a studio tank – plus a host of problems with the production’s mechanical shark (nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg’s then lawyer), led to the frustrated crew dubbing the film ‘Flaws’.
And yet, despite a troubled shoot and ballooning budget, Spielberg’s perfectionism and vision won out, making this nerve-jangling story of a man-eating shark terrorising a popular beach resort the very first summer blockbuster and single-handedly changing the film business forever.
Ably assisted by a now iconic score by (soon to be regular collaborator) John Williams, Jaws remains a spectacularly visceral experience. The performances are uniformly great, the jump scares as effective as ever, and Spielberg’s creative choices – such as the infamous, stomach-swooping dolly zoom on a suddenly panicked Roy Schneider – incredibly satisfying.
After the phenomenal success of Jaws, Spielberg was free to choose any project he wanted. His pick was a film that blended the cosmic and intimate – a tale about mankind’s place in the universe inspired by a treasured personal memory of stargazing with his dad as a kid. Of the event that inspired the film Spielberg said:
“We lay down on his Army knapsack, and we looked up at the sky, and every 30 seconds or so there was a brilliant flash of light that streaked across the sky. I just remember looking at the sky, because of the influence of my father, and saying, ‘If I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace’.”
And therein lies the film’s brilliance. With a few notable exceptions, before Close Encounters, aliens were nearly always depicted on the big screen as aggressive invaders – easily tagged enemies to be resisted and destroyed. But, while Close Encounters’ early contacts with the film’s characters are shocking and spectacular, they’re also wondrous and eerily exhilarating.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Arguably the greatest action-adventure film ever made, Raiders of the Lost Ark saw the happy pairing of two of the 80s’ greatest Hollywood talents. George Lucas had been mulling over creating a rip-roaring B-movie in the style of adventure-packed serial films of the 30s and 40s for a while when he got chatting with his pal Spielberg, who expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. Lucas couldn’t help with that, but he shared his half-formed idea for ‘The Adventures of Indiana Smith’ and Spielberg was in. Sidebar: have you ever noticed how Raiders has a pre-credits sequence that’s entirely unrelated to the main story, not unlike the majority of films in a certain British spy franchise…?
Centred on Harrison Ford’s roguishly charming action-archaeologist, Raiders picks viewers up by the scruff of the neck and propels them on a thrilling chase across the globe that’s as relentless in its pace as it is breathlessly entertaining.
Spielberg’s skill in constructing flawless set-pieces has always been remarkable. The trap-ridden Peruvian prologue, the Nepalese bar firefight, the desert truck chase – most directors would give their clapperboard for one of these, but Raiders rocks these classic moments and more besides.
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
The concept for E.T. was born from memories of an imaginary childhood friend Spielberg had had after his parents divorced; memories that surfaced while filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, and blended with more recent experience. As Spielberg relates:
“I was in Tunisia, making Raiders of the Lost Ark and we were setting up a shot. I was picking up fossils in the desert… I was remembering the end of Close Encounters… I thought, ‘What if the alien had stayed behind on Earth?’”
Perhaps E.T.’s genesis in Spielberg’s bittersweet memories explains the film’s irresistible emotional power. Perhaps it’s the director’s inspired decision to shoot the film in chronological order as much as possible to help his young cast feel the flow of the events naturally (the kids’ farewell scene with E.T. really was their emotional goodbye). Whatever the reason, this uplifting and moving story of a little alien stranded on Earth is as unforgettable now as it was back in 1982. “I’ll be right here.” You’re not wrong, E.T.
The Color Purple (1985)
By 1985 Steven Spielberg’s name was synonymous with the polished, crowd-pleasing blockbusters he’d done so much to popularise. And so, to some at the time, it seemed like a surprising choice – in more ways than one – for him to tackle Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel depicting the harrowing life of a young African American girl in the American South during the early 20th century.
And, truthfully, The Color Purple is not perfect. A tendency to sentimentality and happy endings – the director’s Achilles heel as well as one of his greatest strengths as a storyteller – means that, in places, The Color Purple looks prettier and glossier than its unflinching source warrants.
That being said, Spielberg draws characteristically outstanding performances from his cast – including a phenomenal turn by Whoopi Goldberg as Celie. Also, at a time when thoughtful representation was the exception on the big screen, Spielberg’s reputation and flair for visual storytelling helped to give the film of The Color Purple the global audience it clearly deserved.
Empire of the Sun (1987)
As we’ve already mentioned, thanks to mega-hits like Raiders and (particularly) E.T. the late-80s saw Steven Spielberg reigning as the king of the wide-eyed-with-wonder blockbuster. But, as The Color Purple had hinted at, the director was ready to evolve, even if it meant confounding expectations of what a Spielberg film could (or should) be:
“I really had come to terms with what I’ve been tenaciously clinging to, which was a celebration of a kind of naiveté… But I just reached a saturation point, and I thought Empire [of the Sun] was a great way of performing an exorcism on that period.”
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard – dealing with his childhood experiences in WW2 Shanghai and a Japanese prison camp – Empire of the Sun was originally set to be directed by one of Spielberg’s great cinematic heroes, David Lean (The Bridge Over the River Kwai), with Steven producing. Happily, though, it fell to Spielberg to direct a precociously brilliant young Christian Bale in an affecting coming of age story all about survival and the loss of innocence.
From the breathtaking ‘Cadillac of the skies’ shot to young Jim mistaking the distant flash of the atomic bomb destroying Nagasaki as a woman’s soul ascending to heaven, Empire of the Sun isn’t just a different kind of Spielberg film, it’s one of his best and most underrated.
Jurassic Park (1993)
If Jaws created the summer blockbuster, Spielberg’s 1993 smash Jurassic Park stamped his authority on the genre all over again (while simultaneously ushering in the era of photo-realistic CGI for good measure). Jurassic Park is vintage, multiplex-friendly Spielberg – an adventure full of wonder, visual spectacle, frame-perfect set-pieces, and a cast of youngsters and adults giving it 110% in service of a terrific story.
Whereas lesser directors would have crammed every available frame with CG velociraptors, Spielberg roots Jurassic Park in his human cast, amplifying our emotions with theirs in the face of incredible beauty (at the outset) and nerve-shredding peril (when things inevitably go wrong). The result is a fantastical adventure whose stakes feel utterly real. Not at all bad when you consider that the two-hour film contains only 15 minutes of dinosaur VFX.
Jurassic Park spawned a global franchise, hordes of imitators and the modern era of the CG-enhanced blockbuster. The fact that this 1993 film remains one of the finest examples to this day says all you need to know about Spielberg’s genius as a storyteller.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Not content with releasing one undisputed classic in 1993 (Jurassic Park), Spielberg also gave the world the black and white brilliance of Schindler’s List. The film was inspired by the exploits of the real Oskar Schindler, fictionalised in Thomas Keneally’s historical novel, Schindler’s Ark (which, incidentally, was later renamed thanks to the popularity of the film). Despite having had the rights to the novel since 1982, Spielberg felt for a long time that he wasn’t ready to make the film. He even tried to interest other directors in tackling it, but eventually events around him helped to change his mind:
“My primary purpose in making Schindler’s List was for education. The Holocaust had been treated as just a footnote in so many textbooks or not mentioned at all. Millions knew little if anything about it. Others tried to deny it happened at all.”
Working to a modest budget of $22million (Jurassic Park’s was $63million by contrast), filming in black and white, and taking an uncharacteristically documentary approach to filming – 40% of footage was shot with handheld cameras – Spielberg ensured Schindler’s List would be an uncompromising representation of the indiscriminate horrors of the Holocaust while honouring the human stories at its heart. It’s said that Spielberg initially believed the film would be a flop. Schindler’s List went on to be a cultural phenomenon, winning 7 Oscars as well as countless other awards around the globe.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Viewers don’t just watch the first 25 minutes of this monumentally epic war film, they endure them. Spielberg, finally liberated from a misguided reputation for being overly sentimental perhaps, pulled out all the stops in the pursuit of unflinching realism, and the results speak for themselves. Chaotic, terrifying and brutal, Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day landing sequence took 25 days to film and stands as a testament to the bravery of the young men who stormed the heavily fortified Normandy beaches early in the morning on 6 June 1944.
That’s not to say that the film exhausts its own brilliance in the first half hour alone. Led by Tom Hanks, the all-star ensemble cast is uniformly stellar, rooting the abstract themes of sacrifice and the value of a single life in the characters of Captain Miller’s squad. And, from the tense sniper standoff to the defence of the Ramelle bridge, the film is brimming with flawlessly constructed sequences that are pure Spielberg at his best.
Some consider the memorial framing device that bookends the film to be a bit schmaltzy, but it works and the contemplative moment that it leaves viewers with is 100% earned by everything that’s come before.