Spielberg at 70: bullies, monsters, and the 1970s

The Sugarland Express, Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters, and the work of Steven Spielberg in the 1970s...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

To celebrate Steven Spielberg’s 70th birthday on December 18th, here’s part one of a daily series of articles working through his output, decade by decade. Beginning with the 1970s, Duel, Jaws and more..

The boy is planning something. Something big. It’s the kind of mischievous scheme he’ll fictionalise in his movies, put into the personalities of Chunk, Elliot, and young Indiana Jones. For now, however, this particular plan belongs to a young Steven Spielberg, and it’ll require a colour wheel, a white sheet, a few extension cords, a little help from his sister Anne, and a lot of the kind of theatricality he’ll eventually become famous for. It’s the height of the Christmas season in the largely gentile neighbourhood of Crystal Terrace in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and the Jewish boy is preparing to drape himself in a white sheet and strike a Crucifixion pose.

Sadly for Spielberg, the plot was only a partial success. His parents dragged him inside before he got the chance to make the kind of mark he’d hoped for, but the message was clear. Spielberg wanted – perhaps more appropriately, he needed – to fit in, to feel accepted. His Jewish heritage never kind sat well with the youngster; he was made to feel like an outsidre because of it, often bullied because of it and he wanted that to change. “Being a Jew meant that I was not normal. I was not like everybody else,” Spielberg has recalled. “I just wanted to be accepted. Not for who I was. I wanted to be accepted for who everybody else was.”

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Entertainment was Spielberg’s escape. Creating an entertainment put him at the centre of attention, made him feel part of a crowd that was accepting him simply by paying attention to him. It’s why film-making in particular appealed. He was accepted twice over: not only when an audience would be captivated by the finished film, but also when surrounded by cast and crew while making the movie. So his early childhood films were more than simple creative outputs. They were social endeavours: a lonely boy making friends, finding acceptance, and learning to understand himself through the act of creativity. Critically, they gave him something else, something he rarely felt as a minority: power.

While casting his war movie Escape To Nowhere, Spielberg was suffering at the hands of a particularly nasty bully. He didn’t know how to cope with the boy, but noticed that he had the presence and looks of Clint Eastwood. He would be perfect for a role in the movie, and so Spielberg invited him to take part. It was an inspired move, both for the film and Spielberg’s relationship with him. “Even when he was in one of my movies, I was afraid of him,” the director recalled years later. “But I was able to bring him over to a place where I felt safer: in front of my camera. I didn’t use words, I used a camera and I discovered what a tool and a weapon, what an instrument of self-expression and self-inspection it is. I had learned that film was power.”

It was a lesson Steven would never forget.

Today, five decades into one of the most significant careers in film history, we tend to think of Spielberg as an arch-sentimentalist, a grand entertainer with the naive heart of a child. But for all the wonder we see in his films, there’s also a strong sense of rage borne out of the torment he suffered as a child. Look at the bullying bigger giants in The BFG, the friends of Elliot’s brother who are nasty to the boy in E.T., or the bloodsucking lawyer in Jurassic Park, who looks to charge through the roof with only a snobbish acknowledgement that maybe there could be a “coupon day” for poorer families. Even the Third Reich is dismissed as a troublesome bully by Indiana Jones in Last Crusade. Nazis? He hates those guys.

The anger is at its fiercest in Spielberg’s 70s films. Like his fellow movie brats, who were all creating dark, politically driven films inspired by Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam, Spielberg’s 70s offerings routinely critique American values, with The Sugarland Express being arguably the most explicit example. His first film to be theatrically released in the US (Duel didn’t hit American screens until 1983), it tells the story of Lou-Jean Poplin and her convict husband Clovis’ bid to track down their son, who’s been removed from their care and is about to be adopted. A nationwide manhunt, and massive media coverage of it, ensues as Spielberg paints a dark picture of people’s obsession with tawdry scandals regardless of the real-life cost behind it.

The film is about power then: the power the Poplins are trying to take back by reclaiming their son, the power the media has to paint the pair as folk heroes, the power the public has to embrace them as such. But they’re all spiralling out of control, high off the rush of power without the responsibility that goes with it. Spielberg articulates this brilliantly in a sequence mid-way through the film where Clovis and Lou-Jean watch a Road Runner cartoon at a local drive in. As Wile E. Coyote plunges off yet another cliff, the very real dangers facing him finally dawn on Clovis. Suddenly, he realises he has no power. He’s living in a cartoon vision of the world and it can only end one way.

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Jaws and Duel explore issues of power in much more direct and much less ambiguous ways. Spielberg’s brace of 70s monster movies draw clear lines with their villains, and show both heroes as weak men struggling to show their worth. David Mann, for example, is pushed around at work, out of control at home, and now involved in a cat and mouse game with a faceless truck driver whose challenge he simply isn’t equipped to meet. He panics and descends into paranoid mind games when trying to identify the driver’s identity in the diner scene and is mocked by schoolchildren while trying to help a bus driver jump start his vehicle. Mann by name, weakling by nature.

But that’s very much Spielberg’s point; Duel is about masculine power. Throughout, Mann is portrayed in a traditionally feminine light, framed in the door of a washing machine and set against a pink wall in the diner. Yet his struggle isn’t necessarily about becoming more masculine: no doubt with those childhood bullies in mind, Spielberg portrays the hyper masculine power of the truck as an unequivocal evil. Instead, it’s to become a different kind of masculine strength, to develop a bravery to stand up and find another way to tackle the bullies. Spielberg did it with film-making; Mann does it with another kind of performance, a grand plan in which he gives the illusion of being in the car and slamming into the truck, before diving out at the last minute.

Jaws is the same, though the masculine power here isn’t just represented by the monster but by Quint. From the moment he announces his arrival by scraping his fingernails down the Town Hall’s blackboard, Quint is all about masculine power. He’s stronger, smarter, better than everyone else. He sings the dirtiest songs, has the biggest scars, and needs none of Hooper’s sophisticated equipment to kill the beast. Except he does. Jaws is about opposing forms of masculine power clashing, and just as Mann emerges triumphant from Duel, Hooper and Brody outlive Quint by being the calm, measured intellects that balance out Quint’s hyper-masculine strength.

The bullying Spielberg criticises in Quint also appears in Amity’s Mayor, Larry Vaughn. Although less of a man’s man than Quint, he’s equally obsessed with power: always keeping one eye on his public persona and chances of being re-elected. If keeping the beaches open keeps the people happy, he’ll do it, even if there’s a chance of those same people dying. Some of the best moments Jaws has to offer are those where Vaughn and Brody come face-to-face, with one in particular finding Vaughn dismissing Brody’s pleas to take precautions following the death of Chrissie. Spielberg shoots the scene in close up, Vaughn bearing down on Brody and giving him increasingly little space in Spielberg’s cramped frame. Brody’s victory comes in the hospital later on. Vaughn realises the error of his ways and now Brody is the one dominating a tight close-up.

Such cynicism towards government is unsurprising because during the 70s, Spielberg was fascinated by cover-ups, in particular of UFOs, and that informs Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Though less focused on bullies and power than Spielberg’s other 70s offerings, Close Encounters portrays a government that tries to conceal the aliens’ arrival on earth as the villains in what is otherwise a film free of antagonists. As they do, the story becomes a politically-driven chase, with Roy Neary trying to break the blockade and experience something he has a right to see. In the context of Spielberg’s childhood struggles to fit in, this seems particularly pertinent. Even when a minority has been chosen, those with the power in America refuse to let them belong.

Spielberg’s final film of the 70s brings his concerns over government authority and masculine power into one. 1941 is one of Spielberg’s few flops, a self-indulgent comedy depicting American paranoia of a post-Pearl Harbor Japanese invasion that fails almost entirely to be funny. It’s a shambling and disorganised film that stretches itself far too thin over far too many plot threads, and whose failures are driven by the conflicting authorial voices behind it (Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote the script with input from John Milius). But the moments that do work are driven mostly by Spielberg and his 70s obsessions: a ludicrous scene in which an army chief sobs during a screening of Dumbo, a riotous dancehall sequence that pre-empts the ‘Anything Goes’ opening of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.

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It’s here that Spielberg delivers his most damning critique of American power and masculinity. The focus here falls on young dishwasher Wally, who’s using the event to try and impress girl-of-his-dreams Betty. Sadly, he’s got competition in the shape of Corporal Chuck ‘Stretch’ Sitarski, and the two literally battle it out during the dancehall sequence, which comes to resemble a musical number directed by Chuck Jones (who was a consultant on the film). Fist flying, legs flailing, the sequence mocks Stretch’s hyper masculinity by having him fail to catch Wally as he jumps, dives, and swings his was across the dancefloor. It’s the Spielbergian wimpy hero once again outfoxing the bully.

Yet the sequence ends on a low note, with Stretch winning. Wally spins out of control and towards Stretch, who stands, fists at the ready, in front of a neon American flag. His power plays and bullying are framed once and for all not just as a symptom of a diseased masculinity, but as a deeply American problem: a representation of a country that will seek out the weakest and persecute them to make itself feel powerful. 1941 is chaos and confusion, mockery and malfunction. It remains a bit of an aberration in Spielberg’s career, but also a perfect representation of it. Sometimes, as Spielberg discovered all those years ago in New Jersey, as Wally finds out here, taking power isn’t easy. Sometimes the power remains with the powerful.

And so, as the 70s turned into the 80s, Spielberg turned to the ultimate bullies, the ultimate hero, and the ultimate power. There were Nazis to beat and a lost ark to be raided. Part two of this new series will be with you tomorrow…