Hi folks and welcome to the second blog of my looking back at the films of Steven Spielberg during the 5 decades that he has been directing motion pictures. In the previous blog, we looked at the 1970s, which provided a gentle, low key start to his career with the nerve-jangling TV movie Duel and the more sedate family drama Sugarland Express. Spielberg was then propelled into the stratosphere of movie stardom with the unexpected and unparalleled, at that point, the success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The 70s ended however with the inauspicious 1941, a failure on so many levels, it had brought Spielberg down to earth with a considerable thud.
It is to his enormous credit that he was able to bounce back.
The 1980s was a period of big money, big shoulder pads and in the cinematic world big pectorals and biceps. The 1980s made movie stars out of beefcake action men such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whilst the introduction of MTV in 1982 led to films constantly throwing in baffling montages to appear to be completely up with the times, see for example the quite bizarre dance sequence three quarters of the way into the otherwise brilliant The Breakfast Club. Partly due to the success of Star Wars, and to a lesser extent, Close Encounters, there was a slurry of Sci-Fi and fantasy films that now sit firmly in the nostalgia folder, remembered with fondness but generally just further illustrated how brilliant Star Wars 4, 5 and 6, and Close Encounters were, examples include Willow, The NeverEnding Story, The Explorers, The Last Starfighter and to a certain extent Ghostbusters (ducks bullets here).
Fortunately, Spielberg’s output has managed somewhat to stay clear of unnecessary aging, with the odd exception, relying heavily on practical effects and more human stories to give the majority of his 1980s output an ageless quality. It wasn’t without his disappointing films, the 80s was a fairly traumatic time for Spielberg both professionally and personally. There was the introduction of one of Cinemas most iconic heroes and a conscious move towards bolder and more grown-up films in what was seen by some as a desperate attempt to be accepted by the industry who saw Spielberg as nothing more than a glorified popcorn seller.
First things first, however, Spielberg needed to bounce back from the professional whooping he’d received regarding 1941, and a close personal friend was on hand to assist him with getting back on track.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
“Snakes, why did have to be snakes?”
So as legend has it Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were sat on a beach in Hawaii, building sandcastles escaping from the media glare that was engulfing both of them after Star Wars and Close Encounters, when Spielberg mentioned to Lucas his long held desire to direct a James Bond film. Lucas replied by stating he had something that was better than James Bond and was a throw back to the Saturday morning adventure series that were broadcast on the fledgling media that was television in the early 1950s. Lucas’s story was of an archaeologist adventurer called Indiana Smith who battled evil forces around the world chasing priceless artifacts. Spielberg was hooked on the idea straightaway and moved this to the top of his directing pile once he had completed 1941.
Spielberg finally got the chance to recover from the battering he received from the aforementioned 1941 in 1980 when he began filming his new film Raiders. With Lucas acting as Executive Producer and the lead protagonist now known as Indiana Jones, Spielberg went for the first time in his career for box office gold in his casting, bringing in Harrison Ford, riding a crest of stardom following Star Wars. Lucas was initially reluctant to work with Ford on what was potentially another franchise and pursued Tom Selleck for the role. Selleck was tied down to a TV contract to make Magnum PI and had to pass on the role. Ford stepped in and the rest is movie history.
Conscious of the mistakes and the loss of control he endured during 1941, Spielberg was determined to be better prepared this time. Each scene was meticulously story-boarded down to the finite detail. Spielberg has claimed that he had never been so prepared before a shoot as he was on Raiders, desperate to come in on schedule and on budget……he achieved both.
So to the finished product, again similar to Jaws it is difficult for me to write too much about Raiders that hasn’t already been written or talked about many times before, so I will stick to what I personally feel about the film and see where I go from there.
Firstly I think it is Spielbergs most re-watchable film. If Close Encounters has the greatest final 30 mins of his films, Raiders surely has the greatest opening 10 minutes, maybe of any film. It sets the tone perfectly for what is to follow, however, what appeals to me most when I watch it now, is that the personality traits of Indy are there for us all to see from the very beginning. A man who will put everything on the line to retrieve the treasure he craves, but also the fact that he is just an ordinary man in extraordinary situations, now where have we heard that before. This is never better illustrated when Indy has been abandoned by the treacherous Satipo (played by a young Alfred Molina) and the temple is beginning to collapse around him. Indy jumps across the cavern and grabs hold of a stray branch to help him pull up onto the other side, the look on Indy’s face as the branch then slips is not only perfect comic timing but also lets us know that this is no superhero. In the opening salvo, this is further enhanced when he uses a vine to swing out to the boat-plane that he hopes will assist his escape from the Hovitos who are in hot pursuit. There is no twist and pike somersault here there is a swing that ends with a clumsy comical splash. From this moment on, despite his dubious morals and motives (let’s be fair Indy is always after the fortune and glory at pretty much any cost), we are on this guys side.
This vulnerable side to him is further illustrated as the Mercedes truck symbol crumbles in his hand during the legendary truck chase, a scene that demonstrates Spielberg at his most prepared. A scene that was planned to an inch of its life with the use of storyboards and practical stunt effects. Personally its the highlight of the film for me and is the sort of scene that is sadly missing in today’s CGI fuelled blockbuster fodder. It’s beautifully choreographed and enhanced by Michael Kahn’s respectful editing, (here’s a thought why not let the audience actually see what is happening here rather than throwing in hundreds of quick cuts that make it impossible to see who is who).
The breakneck pace of Raiders never lets up and from the rolling boulder opening to the face-melting ending (which terrified me as a kid) the set pieces still stand up almost 40 years on. There are minor quibbles, such as the transformation of Marion from a hard drinking, tough as nails female character, to a somewhat shrieking damsel in distress by the end of the film, but overall this is Spielberg at his wildest, having the time of his life and recovering perfectly from the 1941 debacle.
I think Raiders is perfect Friday night fun, after a few beers I have been known to watch it similar to a football game, shouting out at times of peril, and on occasions recreating the odd scene in my living room. It truly is the “they don’t make it like this anymore” movie in the Spielberg canon, which was never more evident when watching the 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Raiders is filmmaking at it’s most simple but effective and Spielberg now realised more than ever where his comfort zone lay. He was once again on a roll, a roll that commercially at least was about to hit even greater heights.
Why should you watch it?
Nearly 40 years old and as fresh today as it was then. The use of practical effects and brilliantly choreographed stunt work still stand up today. Yes, some of the Supernatural effects look a tad dated now but still pack a terrifying punch. Above all,and through fear of stating the obvious, we are introduced to Indiana Jones
E.T the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
“You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.”
It is difficult to quantify in 2017 the cultural impact that E.T has had on the public consciousness. 35 years on since its release it still has the overwhelming power to amaze, to thrill, to frighten and cause such unbridled emotion as to make a grown man openly weep with joy and wonder. Of all the films that Spielberg made in the 70s and 80s, this is the one that could quite conceivably have been made in the last 5 years, it still looks incredibly fresh. It could be seen as a companion piece to Close Encounters, Spielberg himself has stated that he got the idea after becoming fascinated by the spindly alien that emerges from the mother ship at the end of Close Encounters and wanted to write a story about an alien that comes to Earth but somehow stays behind and integrates with humans.
All the hallmarks for classic Spielberg are here, the sense of wonder, the shooting stars, the soaring John Williams score, the absent father, the childlike innocence, the suburban setting, if there was anyone out there who wanted to know what Spielberg was all about then E.T would be my suggestion as the perfect starting point. It’s been said that this is Spielberg’s personal favourite of his own films and has publicly declared that it is his perfect love story and that a sequel will never be made.
However, for all its startling beauty and pearls of magic, the film would be nothing if it wasn’t for the staggering performances of the three young leads. Spielberg has always appealed to the younger viewer but here he manages to elicit some of the finest performances given by children on film. Never once do we descend into sentimental mawkishness, the film is told entirely from their point of view, Spielberg famously filmed 80% of the film from the children’s height to emphasize the point, with the exception of Mary (played with an endearing level of understatement by Dee Wallace) we do not see the face of an adult until 30 minutes from the end of the film.
Henry Thomas as lonely Elliot is as strong a lead performance as you will find in a Spielberg film, and yes that includes Mr. Day Lewis in Lincoln. Thomas is in nearly every scene and as viewers, we never grow tired of him, he’s a young boy yet he manages to hold the attention of every adult watching this film as an equal. Drew Barrymore pre- Hollywood wild child is the cute, without being sacharine, tomboyish Gertie. She gives a performance so real that she never appears to be acting, its as if she didn’t know she was in a film and was living and breathing every scene. It’s perfect. Finally, there’s Robert MacNaughton, who plays Michael the older brother the whole world wishes they had. (Spoiler alert) at the films operatic finale, E.T says a simple “thank you” to Michael and for reasons that I have never been fully able to explain to myself, that moment in a film filled with enough emotional wallop to make the Tin Man cry always hits me the hardest. MacNaughton is so understated in this film and vastly underrated when discussing the great Spielberg perfomances.
Adored by the general public and majority of the critics, its longevity far outstays those of its perceived critical superiors…..does anyone other than Ben Kingsley’s mum own a copy of Gandhi on DVD?
E.T does have its critics, some say its over sentimental, others have questioned the religious symbolism that dominates the final act, but I have to say if you do not loudly applaud and punch the air in delight when E.T and Elliot first take flight in the forest and soar past the moon, as Williams’ score exalts the audience……..then I would question whether you like the world of Cinema at all.
Why should you watch it?
Mainly because it is perfect story telling, taking the simplest of ideas, lonely boy befriends lonely alien, and makes it engagingly believable. It is Spielberg’s perfect love story mixed with plenty of magic and wonder that like Raiders has an ageless quality to it. Yes, its sentimental, but it is a film packed with such breathtaking beauty. This is landmark cinema that continuously rewards generations who visit it for the first time.
Poltergeist, Twilight, and pesky Jedi rumours
There are Spielberg devotees who reading this blog would be expecting to see Poltergeist as the next entry in his directorial list but officially he didn’t direct it despite constant rumours that as executive producer he spent more time on set than actual credited director Tobe Hooper. I quite enjoy Poltergeist, and there are definite Spielberg influences, not least the spooky prologue, dissolving into an “everything is not that bad American suburban setting” (see Gremlins for a further reference), however, I do find that Poltergeist relies too much on aged-poorly special effects that don’t seem to sit too comfortably in the Spielberg filmography, the previous mentioned Raiders and E.T are better examples of less is more effects that have stood the test of time far greater than Poltergeist.
In 1983 Spielberg directed the middle section of the Twilight Zone Movie. The film was beset by problems throughout production which culminated in the disastrous helicopter crash that claimed the lives of actor Vic Morrow and 2 young Vietnamese actors, who it turned out, were hired illegally in the segment directed by John Landis. The film never recovered and was a commercial disaster. The onset deaths led to high profile court cases that seriously effected Landis’s career. Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” segment of the movie was anchored by a charming performance by Scatman Crothers but the segment itself is, like the film as a whole, unremarkable and lives only in the memory for the wrong reasons.
Along with his publicly declared desire to direct a James Bond film, Spielberg never hid the fact that he would quite like a crack at a Star Wars film, however, due to friend George Lucas dropping his Directors Guild membership which Spielberg was a member of it never happened. Return of the Jedi was ultimately directed Richard Marquand, but pesky rumours have claimed that Spielberg may have had a hand in the directing of certain scenes, in particular, the battle of Endor. I would suggest that this is an unlikely turn of events but it makes for interesting copy.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
“Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory”
Following the monumental success of Jaws and Close Encounters, there came 1941, a professional low point that a young Spielberg struggled to come to terms with. On that occasion, Spielberg’s friend and collaborator George Lucas had pulled him out of the directorial chasm by providing him with the opportunity to direct Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg had his mojo back and then followed this up with even greater commercial success with E.T. He was once again on top of his game, the man who could do no wrong. However, the tables turned once again with the second professional mauling in 10 years he received on his involvement with the tragic Twilight Zone Movie. Spielberg himself was going through a messy break up with long time girlfriend Amy Irving, he was in somewhat of a rut. Fortunately, his friend was on hand yet again, giving Spielberg some safe familiar ground to attempt to get back on track by returning to Indiana Jones.
The duo decided that they wanted two things, one to make the film a prequel and the second to go darker, as is the tradition for the 2nd part of a projected trilogy. However, how much darker were they willing to go? Lucas himself was also going through a divorce and the final film seems to reflect a director and producer who perhaps personally were not in a particularly friendly place.
I have to say that on reflection, I find Temple of Doom to be at times a quite nasty film. If you put aside for the time being the casual racism that at the time probably wasn’t deemed so, then you still have a main protagonist who is only really interested in the fortune and glory. Indy may well be a victim of circumstance in this film to a certain extent but he is played by Ford in this film as someone who really doesn’t give a damn about anyone other than himself, with the exception of his young companion Short Round, (another tremendous, non annoying child performance in a Spielberg film, this time from Jonathan Ke Quan). It takes Indy three-quarters of the film, when he witnesses the brutal enslavement of the village children, to demonstrate the slightest tugging of his moral barometer.
Then there is the future Mrs Spielberg herself, Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott, a character who is so far removed from Indy’s previous female companion, the spunky Marion in Raiders, that when watching Doom you have a certain longing for a happier time, like watching people’s faces melt as they open the ark of the covenant. To be fair, Capshaw shrieky in your face Willie is excellent and adds the light relief that is needed in this darkest of hours. For a film that is aimed mainly at children, it serves up a diet of repulsive feasts, human sacrifice, hearts being ripped out of chests, villains being eaten in full detail by crocodiles and the hero being drugged by being force-fed blood……Spielberg has clearly moved on from E.T.
There are things to enjoy, the opening nightclub song, dance and fight scenes are tremendous fun, the thrilling mine cart chase in the film’s finale, although never reaching the heights of Raiders truck chase, is a wild ride. There is great repartee between Indy and Short Round, (a cheeky card game is played beautifully) and in Amrish Puri’s Molaram you could argue that ‘Doom has the series’s most memorable and terrifying villain. The film, however, is crying out for a Brody or Sallah type character to add a reassuring presence for the audience. Thankfully both will make a welcomed return in part 3 of Spielberg’s most marketable hero at the end of the decade. I think this is quite a damning review which is a bit unfair as I am a fan, but more than any other Indiana Jones film (including the Alien one) it leaves me cold.
Why should you watch it?
For all its flaws, there is no denying that Temple of Doom is massively different to all of the other three Indiana Jones movies and for that alone should be of interest. Thematically, Temple of Doom has not aged well but the action set pieces from the dazzling opening to the white knuckle mine cart chase make this worth the patience that the middle segment might be testing.
The Color Purple (1985)
“I’m poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here. I’m here.”
There was a serious fall out professionally after Temple of Doom, box office wise it had performed well but not in the same league as E.T or Raiders. Critics had blasted the extreme violence and racial stereotyping that had been portrayed in what existentially was supposed to be a kids film. The lack of perceived acceptance from the cinematic world was beginning to grate as well. By 1985 Spielberg had racked up a certainly not to be sniffed at 3 Academy Award nominations for Best Director. With Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, he wasn’t expected to win but the loss for E.T had been a) a shock and b) a kick in the personal gonads for Spielberg who had developed a reputation of being a PT Barnum figure, or a glorified popcorn peddler amongst his peers. This bothered him and he longed for acceptance, he had conquered the box office but had so far not made any real dents in critical circles.
The family friendly ideas were still coming to him but in a possible attempt to be taken more seriously he decided to don his producer hat and leave the directors chair alone. In 1985 the power of Spielberg was apparent to everyone, despite the setbacks with Doom and the Twilight Zone Movie, monster, cultural hits such as Back to the Future, The Goonies and the previously mentioned Gremlins meant that Spielberg had a hand on the majority of films that my generation grew up with and still look back on fondly. But he wanted to be accepted artisticly as well as commercially.
In a move that was seen as some as an act of desperation, Spielberg decided on his next directorial effort as the big screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, a story about the trials and tribulations of a young African American woman as she lives in early 20th Century suffering domestic violence, incest, poverty, racism, and sexism. This was as far away from Spielberg’s previous Cinematic output as was deemed possible at the time.
The film is an interesting entry into the Spielberg portfolio, he never truly seems to get a grip on the material at hand. I have never read the novel but my understanding is that Spielberg left out some of the more hard-hitting themes. What he produced is what Brits would now refer to as Sunday afternoon Channel 5 melodrama that never truly seems to address the issues that appear to be put on the directorial plate. Maybe if Spielberg had made the movie in the 1990s or beyond we would have had a more involved, deeper film, but at the time critics and audiences alike questioned what Spielberg would know about black African American culture/history and how he, a white Jewish man could translate his vision to the screen.
I re-visited the Color Purple in order to write this blog and I was surprised by how much I got from it. Terrific performance from debutant Whoppi Goldberg, ably supported by a buffoonish and occasionally frightening performance from an as then relatively unknown Danny Glover. There is also an early career turn from Oprah Winfrey but the star of the show is the electrifying Margaret Avery who plays the third part in the Shug, Celie and Mister love triangle. The film itself looks sumptuous, the Spielberg sunsets are there again and Allen Daviau’s gorgeous cinematography gives the film a warm feeling that perhaps the subject matter doesn’t warrant. Michael Jackson producer Quincy Jones stepped into providing the score, one of only 2 Spielberg directed films (so far)* not to feature John Williams and the score just makes you wish that Williams would come back and quickly. But overall Spielberg never fully addresses the issues that faced African Americans in the first part of the 20th Century, he paints a community, quite rightly, that depicts good black people and bad black people. There is little attention to the segregation and the torment that befell these communities at the time, there is a not a burning cross anywhere to be seen, the only white characters of substance, the mayor, and his wife are depicted as pompous fools as opposed to racist bigots. If anything it’s all a bit too nice. Its as if Spielberg, fresh from accusations of stereotyping entire nations in Temple of Doom, didn’t want to address these issues and stuck to a more crowd-pleasing path.
In Celie, Spielberg has only his second bona fide female lead, following on from Lou Jean Poplin in The Sugarland Express. It’s interesting that 32 years on there hasn’t been another especially when you look at the strong female characters that the likes of James Cameron and the Star Wars universe have produced in recent years.** Yes, you can only work with the material available to you but this is the only Spielberg where female characters are front and centre with the film built around them. For that alone, it is an essential watch for Spielberg fans.
So did this more grown up, serious affair work for the peer recognition hungry Spielberg? The film was applauded by critics, garnering an extremely impressive 11 Academy Award nominations, including one for Goldberg, Avery, and Winfrey. Yes, thats right 11 Academy Awards nominations but what must have felt like a mischievous bout of pure mockery from the Academy Gods, not one for Spielberg. Yes, Mr Spielberg, your film is worthy of multiple nominations as we recognise the work of all of your colleagues and team……but not you. The teasing didn’t stop on nomination day as the Color Purple won no Academy Awards and still to this day remains the highest “losing” film on Oscar night. The main winner in 1985…….Out of Africa, a film about white people in Africa.
* 2018’s Ready Player One became the third Spielberg film not to be scored by John Williams, with Back to the Future alumni Alan Silvestri providing the nostalgia-based music
** 2017’s The Post is led by an astonishing turn by the always overrated*** Meryl Streep
*** Only idiots, with small hands, would ever think this.
Why should you watch it?
It is the biggest left field choice of Spielberg’s career and its a bloody good one at that. Spielberg showed that if you reveal the man behind the curtain, it wasn’t always an elaborate con, Spielberg showed that he was capable of stepping away from endless caper induced magical works, to showcase that he could deliver on adult orientated drama. This was clearly just the start in more mature themes but is the prelude to even greater achievements in the coming decades.
Empire of the Sun (1987)
“It’s at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out. In between, it’s like a country club”
Empire of the Sun is an adaptation of J.G Ballards semi-autobiographical novel of a British boy played by a young Christian Bale, who gets separated from his affluent family during the evacuation of Shanghai and becomes a prisoner of war in a Japanese Internment Camp. Spielberg initially was set to produce Empire for his cinematic hero David Lean to direct, Lean stepped aside after assessing the material and deciding that it was too similar to a diary and handed the directorial reigns to an eager Spielberg.
Spielberg had always been obsessed with the Second World War and had previously explored it in comedic fashion in 1941, but here was his first serious look at the 20th Century’s most harrowing global conflict. If the perception is that Spielberg had pussy-footed around more adult themes with The Color Purple, the same criticisms couldn’t be aimed at Empire of the Sun. The opening shot of wooden coffins floating in the Huangpu River sets the tone for a more serious piece. This film is more than just a prelude to upcoming epics but it is fair to say that Schindlers List and Saving Private Ryan would have been very different films, if made at all, if it wasn’t for Empire of the Sun.
Here Spielberg demonstrates his ability to shoot human scenes on an epic scale, utilising hundreds of extras in a very impressive Japanese occupation scene in the centre of Shanghai. The panic of Jim’s separation from his parents is intense stuff and demonstrates that Spielberg can produce moments of human madness without the reliance on props or special effects. This is a human drama of the highest order and is a precursor to the more hellish scenes in future films around the subject.
Once the film relocates to the prisoner of war camp we get further character development that was somewhat lacking in the first third of the film. Jim, in true Spielberg tradition, establishes awkward and non-compliant father/son relationships with two fellow prisoners. Firstly there Jim’s good conscience in the form of Dr. Rawlings played with a true British stiff upper lip by TV star Nigel Havers. Secondly, we have the more dubious conscience/influence/father figure of Basie played with a surprising amount of restraint by John Malkovich. Both have a positive effect on Jim, with Dr. Rawlings reminding Jim of the moralistic life he had before the camp and Basie teaching Jim that to survive, one must know how to play the game of chance, inadvertently turning Jim into the camps “go-to” person.
The films stand out set piece is the “Cadillac of the skies” sequence as a set of American P-51 bombers launches a spectacular airstrike on the camp. Jim climbs to the top of one of the buildings to get a better view of the attack and it’s here that we witness Spielberg at his sharpest. A stunning mixture of pyrotechnics and aerobatics, all happening with Jim front and centre in the frame. One for the audience to ponder “how did he film that” as planes shoot across the centre of the screen close enough for the actors to be able to high five the pilots whilst enormous explosions erupt in the back and foreground. Pivotal scenes in Saving Private Ryan, in particular, will have shook the audience to the core and if you haven’t seen Empire of the Sun you may think you have seen all this before, but this is where it started.
As for the film itself, it does generally stand up today, it’s beautifully shot but I always feel it is more a collection of great parts without necessarily being the all round great story that it could have been. The performances, on the whole, are very good, however, I surprisingly take issue with Christian Bale. His performance is good and for one so young you could argue very good, but it holds none of the subtlety of say Henry Thomas’s Elliot in E.T. Where with Thomas you felt he was actually there unaware of his surroundings, definitely not interested in the camera, Bale I feel knows there is an audience watching and acts his way through every scene, witness the scene where he devours the rice as a particular example. Maybe this is down to Spielberg’s direction as much as Bale’s performance and he should have reigned him somewhat.
Empire was once again nominated for Academy Awards in the technical categories, still nothing for Spielberg. Cinematographer Allen Daviau who was nominated as Cinematographer, publicly complained, “I can’t second-guess the Academy, but I feel very sorry that I get nominations and Steven doesn’t. It’s his vision that makes it all come together, and if Steven wasn’t making these films, none of us would be here.” (1)
Why should you watch it?
Put quite simply, without Empire of the Sun there would probably have been no Schindlers List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich etc. A film that shows his ability to portray real life epic storytelling. This film opened more opportunities for Spielberg than it is ever given true credit for.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
“And in this sort of race, there’s no silver medal for finishing second.”
1989 was a busy year for Spielberg, it was the first time he officially released two Cinematic releases in the same year. Following up, after the relative critical disappointment of the Color Purple and the disappointing box office return of Empire of the Sun, it was felt that Spielberg had to get back to what he was perceived to do best. His first offering of 1989 was a return to familiar territory and an opportunity to make up for perceived wrong doings in the last outing of one of the 1980s most iconic characters.
With Last Crusade, Spielberg and Lucas went back to basics. Gone was the black magic and extreme violence of Temple of Doom and there was a return to the more light-hearted adventure tale of Raiders with a more comedic approach. The Nazi’s were back as the villains and dark underground temples were replaced with brighter, desert settings. However the biggest coup that Spielberg pulled was convincing screen legend and former James Bond, Sean Connery to sign up to play Indiana’s grail lore, obsessed father. The casting of Connery is a masterstroke and the chemistry between him and the already brilliantly cast Ford is as good an onscreen partnership as Spielberg has ever delivered. The buddy movie as a concept was in full swing in the late 1980s, and the Ford/Connery partnership is right up there with the very best. The partnership also makes this by far the most sentimental entry into the Indiana Jones saga, amongst the ping pong repartee between the 2 leads, there are moments of tenderness that leaves the hardest of hearts with a lump in their throats. See Exhibit A – when Henry thinks that Indy has plummeted to his death over the cliff edge with the German tank, only to discover moments later that Indy has survived, we see the most moving of moments from Connery – “I thought I’d looossshhhhhtttt you boy”.
Away from the sentimentality, there is no doubt that Last Crusade is an absolute riot. Does it reach the heights of Raiders? No, not quite but it is probably the easiest of the Indiana Jones films to watch. There are welcome returns from Raiders of Salah and Brody (more in a moment on him) and of course every teenage boy’s wet dream with Alison Doody’s sexy, conniving, Nazi spy Elsa, giddy as a schoolboy indeed.
If anything the film lacks a truly great villain, with the always able Julian Glover being no more than a poor mans Belloq. There is also a lack of set piece to rival Raiders opening and the Truck Chase or Doom’s mine cart chase. Yes, the tank battle is functional and very entertaining but doesn’t quite hit the heights. The other problem has stuck with me since I first saw Last Crusade at the cinema, and that is the characterisation of the aforementioned Brody. As much as I really enjoy the late Denholm Elliots performance of Marcus, there is a scene in the Castle of Brunwald where Indy describes Marcus to Donovan as the following: “He’s got a two-day head start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again. With any luck, he’s got the grail already.” (2) I remember distinctly thinking in the cinema at the time, that is very cool, Brody is a badass…………as we all know it couldn’t have been more different, he gets lost in his own museum.
Last Crusade is one of those films that can’t help make you smile. Fantastic action, wonderful scripting, spot-on performances, arguably the best of the Indiana Jones scores and a ride off into the sunset that harks back to a more golden period of Hollywood that the Last Crusade embraces fully. Connery, in particular, is having a whale of a time and this is matched by his director, who hasn’t had this much fun for since 1982.
Why should you watch it?
It was return to safer, lighter ground after the darkness of Doom. Armed with one of Spielberg’s zingiest scripts and chemistry by the whole ensemble so strong you would think it was concocted in the finest lab, this was Spielberg at his most playful. Whilst not quite reaching the heights of Raiders, it is impossible not to enjoy Last Crusade. Pure entertainment.
“I know now, that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here.”
In my 1970s blog I mentioned that there is one film in each decade that passes somewhat under the radar when talking about Spielberg films, a film for whatever reason, nobody mentions, or seems to remember. Always is the entry in the 1980s that fits this category and that is quite unfortunate as there is lots to like in this gentle tale about lost love and future romance. It’s an unusual entry for Spielberg as romance has never really been his strong suit and the film borders on the saccharin on more than one occasion. However it is beautifully shot and has some spectacular scenes that are straight from the dictionary definition of Spielbergian, in particular the forest fire scenes and perhaps one of the most underrated opening shots of any Spielberg film.
Based loosely on the 1943 Spencer Tracey Film A Guy Named Joe, Always sees forest fire fighter Pete die whilst tending to a fire. Pete returns to Earth as a guardian to help Dorinda find peace and serenity without him. The problem with Always is that Pete is a bit of an ass and watching it again recently I wondered whether this was because the film was made in the 80s, when over the top and rubbish jokes were the norm, as opposed to Dreyfuss’s performance. The real star of Always is Holly Hunter who plays the cute as a button Dorinda. Hunter is purely magnetic from start to finish in a role which on paper doesn’t actually give her very much to do, but she finds the balance between mournful girlfriend and determined mover-on.
Ably supported by John Goodman who plays the cuddly wisecracking sidekick with ease the film is light and frothy and never over challenges the audience. Look out also for a spot of stunt casting with Audrey Hepburn in her final screen role playing the heavenly Hap.
If you have never seen Always then it is worth a look. For me, it loses its way in the last 20 minutes but you will not find anything to offend and you will have an easy straight-forward two hours if you give it a chance.
Always was a rather unspectacular ending to a decade that had started with such fanfare and wonder. Spielberg had personally had a tough decade, with the break up and divorce of his first marriage to Amy Irving. Professionally it was an odd decade in many ways. I find it his least interesting decade creatively. It started impressively with Raiders and the phenomenal E.T, but his desire to be accepted by his peers led him to projects that he didn’t seem too comfortable with and possibly did for the wrong reasons. The Last Crusade was a return to the confident filmmaking of the late 70s early 80s, and he was about to embark on a decade of commercial success and finally…….critical acceptance.
Why should you watch it?
Because you probably haven’t……………..and you really should.
- All photos and quotes taken from http://www.imdb.com
5 thoughts on “Spielberg the 1980s”