This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
When we look back on Steven Spielberg’s career, we’ll likely think of his 1980s output as his defining era. Spielberg ruled the 80s, releasing 22 movies as a producer and a further seven as director (eight if you include Kick The Can in the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie). It remains his most active period (though if all goes to plan, he’ll surpass it when 2019’s Indiana Jones 5 marks his eighth film of this decade). Put simply, Spielberg is the 80s, and recent criticisms that he’s lost his magic, exacerbated after the box office struggles of The BFG, really represent a frustration that he’s no longer the film-maker we fell in love with when we were growing up.
However, while it’s certainly true that Spielberg has evolved, the 80s aren’t quite the period of undiminished adventure and wonder the popular narrative would have you believe. Sure there’s the action of the Indiana Jones series and the beauty of E.T., but peppering many of these films is a melancholy and social awareness that we typically think of as being exclusive to Spielberg’s later work. What’s more, he made his first dramas in the shape of the overlooked The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun and closed the decade out with one of his strangest films and – to date – his only remake: Always, a romantic melodrama that recalibrates Victor Fleming’s 1943 wartime drama A Guy Named Joe.
It’s worth looking first at the Indiana Jones series, at that point the only franchise Spielberg had taken on and still the only one he’s overseen from start to finish as director. The birth of the character is the stuff of Hollywood legend, with Spielberg and George Lucas holidaying in Hawaii and developing the adventurer as an answer to James Bond, which Spielberg was refused the opportunity to direct. Lucas built Indy further alongside Philip Kaufman and, ultimately, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and while Spielberg had plenty of input during the now legendary story conferences, it’s difficult to attach an authorial voice to the character. How much is Spielberg, how much is Lucas, how much is Kasdan and Kaufman?
What’s clear is that the finished film represents a full-stop on the period of bully films Spielberg made in the 70s. And a deeply personal one it is too. Even in its jokey way, Raiders Of The Lost Ark marks the first time Spielberg explicitly confronted his Jewish heritage. The search for the Ark of the Covenant is the search for respect for Judaism, a journey our hero must take too. Like all the Indy films, Raiders shows Indy’s development from arrogance to respect as he comes to understand the Ark as more than just an artefact for study, but an active totem that has a spiritual value as well as an educational one. The Nazis represent the bullies who pushed around Mann and Brody, and Indy is tasked not just with beating them, but not becoming them.
The film’s finale zeroes in on this. I’ve previously discussed how, as a young man, Spielberg came to see film as power, and Raiders’ conclusion makes that literal. Here we find Belloq, Toht, and Dietrich standing centre stage, with their Nazi henchman gathered around them lighting the Ark’s reveal and filming it for Hitler. They’re the actors and the crew respectively while Indy and Marion, positioned closest to us, are a literal captive audience, tied up and forced to watch. It’s a movie, and in this final act, Raiders becomes a moment of clarity for Spielberg. Following the over-indulgence of 1941, the director tightened his belt and realigned his priorities. He regained his respect for the power of film, just as Indy gains respect for the Ark. Film is power, he tells us with Indy’s realisation that he has to close his eyes to the power of the Ark. Respecting that power is critical.
The rest of the Indiana Jones saga heeds that lesson. Temple Of Doom may be chaotic and intense, but at the centre of it is Indy’s moral shift. Fortune and glory isn’t everything; community counts for more. Last Crusade follows a similar path, extending the idea by personifying history through Indy’s father. History is – literally – no longer a monolithic entity for study; it’s a living, breathing thing that shapes your identity in the present. Spielberg highlights this by repeatedly proving our hero wrong: X does mark the spot, in the latin alphabet Jehovah starts with an ‘I’, and maybe, just maybe, his father can still have a critical role to play in his life. Indy simply needs to adapt and evolve, forget the sure, reliable thing. He has to take a leap of faith.
By the end of the decade, Spielberg had done the same, but it was a difficult journey that delivered as much darkness as wonder and light. E.T. proves this more than any other film and is the origin point of Spielberg’s 80s evolution. We tend to remember Spielberg’s masterpiece for its lighter elements: John Williams’ magical score, Melissa Mathison’s delicate screenplay, those magnificent flying bikes. But darkness lurks on its outer edges. We begin not with wonder and hope, but fear: the screen is black, the soundtrack humming with atonal noise. E.T. journeys through the forest he and his people land in and Spielberg uses wide shots and low angles to emphasise his loneliness. E.T. is a modern fairy tale, and like all great fairy tales, it’s as fascinated by fear and sadness as it is by wonder and magic.
Speaking in the 80s, Spielberg dismissed criticisms that he created simple escapism. He wasn’t interested in letting audiences escape from reality, he said. Instead he wanted audiences to “escape with reality.” Elliot and E.T. both need to escape the world they’re in: the emptiness and the loneliness, the sense that both of them have been abandoned and don’t – and never will – fit in. The two find solace in each other, essentially escaping the world together, and Spielberg bathes these moments in magic. It’s impossible not to be seduced by the intimacy and quiet of the scenes in which Elliot introduces his new friend to his Star Wars toys, or where they hide in the closet while Mary reads Peter Pan to Gertie. This is the pure wish fulfilment of a lost boy – Elliot, E.T., Spielberg himself – looking for connection.
It reaches its peak when Elliot and E.T. fly across the face of the moon on a bike. Yet like the Star Wars and Peter Pan sequences – like almost all of Spielberg’s 80s output – there’s more to it than simple escape. Spielberg rhymes the shot during the finale, when Elliot and E.T. escape the government agents. Again, the pair take flight and again they pass across the face of a celestial object. But rather doing it alone, they do it with Elliot’s friends, and rather than the moon, it’s the sun. This is critical. Spielberg repeatedly returns to the sun and light as representations of truth and epiphany (see the end of Duel, the Map Room in Raiders, Sophie and the BFG holding hands). The moon was a fantasy, this couplet suggests; Elliot and E.T. find true happiness in the finale by connecting with others and embracing reality, rather than fleeing from it.
The Color Purple and even Kick The Can entertain similar notions, but it’s in Empire Of The Sun that Spielberg explores it in detail and with the most wrenching consequences. Released as he was approaching his 40th birthday and coming to terms with being a father for the first time, Empire Of The Sun adapts JG Ballard’s wartime autobiographical novel into a magical realist masterpiece about the conflicts between fantasy and reality. Jim, the young boy at the centre of the film, needs to descend into fantasy to cope with the film’s events, as he’s separated from his parents after the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941 and interned at a prison camp. But while escape is helpful, it also warps his view of the world, and he struggles to understand the harsh realities of his new life.
Spielberg plays with the line between fantasy and reality throughout. He has the Fagan-like anti-hero Basie visually resemble the pilot hero on a comic book Jim reads. He has the boy carry a TIME magazine reproduction of Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom from Fear’, as it represents the safe fantasy he yearns for. And most memorably he has Jim obsess over planes, bathing his moments with them in a sense of wonder before obliterating it when American planes descend on the prison camp to liberate it. This is one of Spielberg’s most significant sequences, a moment of hysteria and clarity that smashes fantasy and reality together and brings Jim to breaking point. He can no longer labour under false dreams, and even when he tries, later judging brilliant light in the Japanese sky to be a deceased person’s soul leaving her body, the illusion is quickly dashed. It was, in fact, the flash of the atomic bomb hitting Nagasaki.
The film concludes with further disenchantment as Jim, finally reunited with his parents, slowly, painfully closes his eyes while embracing his mother. He’s shifted identities throughout the film – embracing fantasy and having reality forced upon him, acting the child and then acting the adult. Now his journey’s finally at an end, he doesn’t know what he’s meant to be. An adult with a stolen childhood? A child with an adulthood he’s already experienced? A shot of his suitcase, which travelled with him throughout, floating in a dock suggests a darkness Spielberg has seldom explored. Jim is neither adult nor child. He’s barely even human at all. He’ll spend the rest of his life floating aimlessly because of the things he’s experienced and what he’s had to do to process them.
By the end of the 80s, Spielberg was at a similar crossroads. He’d won a measure of respect by receiving the Irving G. Thalberg award at the 1987 Oscars, but non-tokenistic credit still eluded him: The Color Purple was given 10 nominations at the 1986 ceremony but won none. As an entertainer he was more popular than ever, but the tension between the two sides of his personality was growing more evident. His return to the Indiana Jones franchise for Last Crusade came at the expense of his involvement in Rain Man, which he undertook extensive pre-production work on but handed over to Barry Levinson in order to honour his commitment to Lucas. Meanwhile, he was still deliberating Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally’s Holocaust book which Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder and Roman Polanski were also attached to.
Always, his final film of the 80s, epitomised this crossroads. A Guy Named Joe was a childhood favourite for Spielberg, a movie he would find comfort in as his parents’ marriage slowly crumbled. By remaking it, he was, to a degree, reverting to childhood one last time, but doing so in order to shake himself out of such retrograde habits. The film tells the story of Pete, an arrogant aerial firefighter who returns as a ghost after being killed in action to guide his former partner Dorinda towards a new lover. It’s a sentimental film, too sentimental for some, and one that never quite manages to balance its dramatic impulses with its kooky sense of humour. It was savaged by critics and largely ignored by movie-goers, but its closing shot is one of the most significant of Spielberg’s career.
His task complete, Pete watches from the sidelines as Dorinda and her new love start their new life. Bathed in the kind of blue-ish white light that E.T. and Elliot enjoyed while flying across the face of the moon, Pete turns to leave, heading into the distance alone. He’s a phantom – literally and metaphorically – a representation of the disconnect we face if we value fantasy over reality, a life of escapism over a life of responsibility. Spielberg’s message (to audiences, to himself) was clear: evolve or die. And as the 80s turned into the 90s, he emphatically chose the former, becoming not just the great entertainer he’d built his reputation on, but also one of cinema’s most significant and valuable educators.
Tomorrow, we move on to Spielberg in the 1990s…