The case of two dusty roads

In preparation for the (at time of writing) December 2020 release of Steven Spielberg’s 33rd feature as Director, West Side Story, I have decided to attempt to put some more Spielberg blogs together. I have previously written about how Spielberg’s films, themes and styles changed thorough each of the last 5 decades, you can read some of those here if you wish.

Interestingly enough, I thought one of the few advantages of quarantine would be I could watch more films and write more about them, this hasn’t been the case so far, as looking after easily bored kids take priority when I’m not doing my day job. I am however, the newly crowned house champion at Monopoly and Uno, although I’m trailing in last place in Twister due to being the most inflexible man on Earth.

Anyway onto the blogs, I like the idea of doing a series of Top 10 blogs based around Spielberg, so that is what I will be working on, however, to get me back into the swing of things, a more standard essay on Spielberg’s first two Cinematic films (in Europe at least) Duel and The Sugarland Express.

Both films are road movies, both feature scenes of desperation, one is a no-holds barred, seat of the edge thriller, the other, based on real events, is a story of divided families, mistrust, and a reckless pursuit of potentially unattainable goals.

If we take a look at Duel first, a battle of good against evil, a tale of triumph over considerable adversity, it is the story of man versus technical beast, as Dennis Weaver’s wimpish salesman, David Mann (that’s M.A.N.N) Duel’s the unstoppable, pollution spewing oil tanker, with it’s anonymous driver, culminating with one of them succumbing to a gear crunching, metal- scraping end. That is the simple premise and Duel, originally made and released in the US as a TV movie of the week, never needs to delve any deeper than that, just hold on and with a complete lack of pretension and pointless subplot, Duel just gets on with it. Imagine if you will the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a half hour short and you get the idea

The Sugarland Express on the other hand, allows almost begrudgingly a little bit of character introduction and development. We meet Lou Jean Poplin, an almost annoying Goldie Hawn, as she helps her very slappable husband Clovis, played with particular mardiness by the always watchable and sleaze inducing William Atherton, break out of a minimum security prison to go and reclaim their baby son who has been taken into foster care due to the inept couples various indiscretions. En route they steal a car from the fantastic Mr and Mrs Nocker and kidnap and hold hostage Police Officer Maxwell Slide. The problem with the Poplins, and this is one of Sugarland’s Achilles heals, is that they are very difficult to root for, they are not very nice people and watching it now we are on the side of the authorities.

What characterises both as Spielberg films is a sense of isolation, in Sugarland’s case from Officer Slide, here the latest incarnation of the normal everyday guy caught in extraordinary situations, a staple of Spielberg films that has continued through his entire back catalogue. Both Slide and Mann are caught in situations that neither prepared for and both to a certain extent, (especially Mann) are being toyed with by protagonists and in the case of the Slide in particular, are being used as a bargaining chip to greater goals.

Mann and Slide also share a redemptive journey, they both prove to themselves that they are more than the bookish worms that they start out at the start of the film, again another trait that graces Spielberg work for generations to come, such as Brody overcoming his fear of the water, or Dr Grant embracing his responsibility of surrogate parenting. Don’t forget both Brody and Grant could have left the impending chaos to the experts but choose not to.

Early on in Duel we eavesdrop on a phone call between Mann and his wife, who is haranguing him for not standing up for her whilst being harassed at a party the previous evening, asking Mann to be more manly. Note here how Spielberg point his camera slightly away from Mann whilst he is being berated. We are embarrassed for him, in the way when you can listen into an argument on a bus or a cafe, here Spielberg utilises his favourite shape to help hide the fact that we are listening in.

The Haunted Closet: Spielberg's Duel (1971) and The Incredible ...
We eavesdrop in the hope that he doesn’t notice

So the simple question I always ask myself when watching Duel is, why does he not just turn round? Why does he continue on this path into danger? I feel the answer lies in the fact that David Mann has never stood up to any challenge in his life, this is his chance to prove himself, pass this ridiculous test of manhood.

Likewise, there are a number of opportunities where Slide could have escaped his captives, but over time he starts to bond with them and almost develops a sentimental attachment to them, even though there were numerous occasion where as driver of the car he could have changed the course of the narrative.

From a direction point of view we have Spielberg desperately trying to showcase his abilities, Duel is insanely flashy movie, with Spielberg using every camera trick that he has in his arsenal, from close up tight shots of the petrified Mann to extravagant belong shots of Mann’s car screeching to a terrified stop as viewed from the under carriage of the trucks beast like belly.

Duel (1971)
The Long shot of isolation, a tale of man against beast

Likewise Sugarland contains a wondrous moment midway through when Spielberg produces a tracking shot through two moving vehicles including dialogue between both vehicles. Its a beautiful shot that once again showcases the young directors sheer dexterity with the camera.

Sugarland Express, The - Internet Movie Firearms Database - Guns ...
The dazzling 360 degree camera shot in Sugarland

What also dominates both films, and is in fact a rarely mentioned theme that runs through Spielbergs work in the 1970s in particular, is the Director’s almost disdain for the locals. In both Duel and Sugarland the general American public are almost looked down upon as redneck hicks, who have low IQs and are less that warm and welcoming to strangers. You can also throw in the local fishermen in Jaws and the white trash hill dwellers who Roy Neary of all people, looks down upon in Close Encounters.

Imgur: The magic of the Internet
Low IQ Locals in early Spieberg films

In one of Duel’s most captivating scenes, Mann is sat in cafe trying to figure out who the mysterious driver of the truck might be. In Mann’s head everyone is a suspect, he looks down on these people, he trusts no one, he has an air of superiority to him, he spells out RYE to the waitress in the cafe to ensure she gets his very simple lunch order correct. He ends up confronting a man simply because of the way he dresses.

In Sugarland, we have the previously mentioned Nockers who are easily hoodwinked by the Poplins, who are hardly the greatest of con artists. Add to this Buster Daniels the drunkard who Slide is taking home before he is accosted by the Poplins. What follows is a stream of incompetence from the strong arm of the law to local shopkeepers and townsfolk, who are never portrayed as being too high on the social scale.

The scoring of both films follows similar traits, with John Williams’s whimsical first Spielberg score captures the isolation and open highways in Sugarland perfectly, whereas Billy Goldenberg’s Hermann esq score perfectly adds to the tension and fear of Duel. Goldenberg’s score can be found in its glory on the following link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjEcmWvcmjY

All the Spielberg hallmarks are in both of these films as he hones his craft to enable him to move onto bigger things. What happened next propelled him almost by accident into the stratosphere, but what we witness in these two fraternal films, is a young Director packed full of self belief, something that almost 50 years later is still going strong.

A long time ago in a little old cinema in Bolton

Image result for Cannon Cinema Bolton 1980s
Cannon Cinema Bolton, circa 1996

I believe I had been to the Cinema before, possibly to see some Disney re-issues such as Snow White and Bambi, I have a vague recollection of seeing the long since forgotten Disney “classic” The Spaceman and King Arthur in about 1980, but despite growing up to truly appreciate the majesty of Snow White and Bambi, as a 3-year-old, they didn’t at the time leave much of an impression. Fast forward 2 years and my life was to be changed, forever thanks to a trip to the building captured in the above photo (albeit the photo is taken many years later).

There were 2 Cinemas in Bolton back in the early 1980s, the aforementioned Canon Cinema and the imposingly impressive Odeon seen below,

Odeon Bolton
The Odeon Cinema in Bolton circa 1962 before scandalously being turned into a Bingo Hall in 1983

The Odeon shut down in 1983, and the building became a Bingo Hall later that year. I’m sure I went to the Odeon as a kid, maybe to watch Superman 2 and I remember thinking this was the Cinema to be at. Behind the doors of this strong, obstinate stone edifice, adventures and high thrills were turned from imagination to actual moving images on a screen so big it surely could be seen from some of these distant galaxies that I would be exploring inside the walls.

I started infant School, as a 4 year old, in January 1982, in those days they always had 2 intakes into the School year so as not to frighten the kids with Summer birthdays like me into having to deal with the politics that came with being in infant school when you had only just turned 4. I had settled in quite well and had made a good friend who I will refer to as Cozi. I seem to recall Cozi would often go on about a film called Star Wars and how it was an adventure set in Space and had lots of creatures in it including a giant walking bear. I probably was more concerned at the time with which disguise Mr. Benn would pick on his next trip to the costume shop near to his home on Festive Lane.

Then one day I remember my dad coming home from work and announcing that the Cinema in Bolton was showing both Star Wars and something called The Empire Strikes Back as a double bill (whatever that is) and that we were going to watch it. Ok, that sounds fun I thought and went straight back to wondering whether Mr. Benn would ever pick that Wizard costume that he was seen wearing on the opening titles.

I had almost forgotten about the trip until it actually happened, I don’t recall the journey to town, I couldn’t tell you whether it was by car or train, I couldn’t tell you what the weather was like, I can’t even recall what time of day it was, but I can tell you the disappointment I felt as we approached the Cannon Cinema and not the Odeon. The Odeon looked like it would protect you from a Nuclear Blast, it looked like the sort of place that will comfortably shield you from an apocalypse whilst you were in there. There were steps leading up to its front door for crying out loud, only important buildings had those. No, we were at the tiny Cannon cinema, that looked like a row of shops on a busy main road. So naff did it look from outside that next door to its left was a wig shop, its there on the photo above, with its blue parasol covering its window. Hmm, yes it was fair to say I was slightly underwhelmed. However this was all about to change, the lack of curb appeal was going to be instantly forgotten.

Next to the wig shop was a rectangular perspex picture frame jutting out from the wall. It had little fairy lights around its perimeter, it looked all sparkly and twinkly, my 4-year-old eyes were drawn to it like a homing beacon from a mothership sending me a signal. As I stole a glance at it, I noticed a picture, of an imposing, monstrous man in black armour with a red sword literally reaching out of the picture frame to me. Flanked on either side of him, was a collection of otherworldly characters, including what looked like the giant Bear that Cozi had been going on about. There seemed to be a lot of action going on here, people with laser guns, a man who looked like a gold robot, spaceships and in the middle of it all, large white writing of the words STAR WARS on the left and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK on the right. I remember staring at this poster and my imagination ran wild, I can remember vividly taking a step back and turning my young head, skyward all the way to the top of this no longer, tiny looking building.

Image result for Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back double Bill poster
Double bill poster similar to the one I remember from outside the Cannon Cinema in 1982.


Next to the poster was another silver frame with fairy lights around its edging. This one had the teasing words “Coming Soon” in gold lettering just above it. In this poster, less is given away as intriguingly there was a picture of a young boy’s arm reaching across a starry backdrop to touch fingers with a spindly, brown and bony finger, over two brilliant bright letters which simply read E.T.

So in we went. Into the foyer with its plush red carpets, that seemed strangely sticky, I remember having to queue whilst an usher checked tickets with my dad and then in front of them, there appeared to be a person selling sweets and OMG, Minstrels!!!!. Hey, this place is alright, they sold Minstrels. There was an odd smell in the air, one I’d never experienced before and in the corner, I could see a glass box with a bright light shining down into it. Within that box was a form of wizardry that I had never dared imagine. Hundreds of little yellow creatures were bouncing up and down at an incredible rate. It looked at first as if they were trying to escape their glass prison but on closer inspection, they appeared to be jumping on a giant trampoline.

It was at this point that the Cannon Cinema in Bolton revealed one of its wondrous, magical secrets. As stated earlier the non-descript, plain, almost boring front of the cinema, gave little to no indication of the magic that was on offer. The double bill was to be shown on Screen 2, the jewel in the Cannon Cinema’s darkened, velvet crown. To get to Screen 2 though was a journey in itself as the Cinema revealed it’s Tardis-like interior, with corridor after corridor, staircase after staircase, my four-year-old legs felt they had walked to this fabled Galaxy far far away. We had reached the bottom of the stairs that would turn out to be the final ascent.

The following 10 seconds were going to have a monumental effect on the rest of my life, I remember walking up the steps that opened out to what seemed like a landing with half a wall. On approach to this half wall I could peer over it, and there it was, bathed in warm red, a huge stage and a colossal red curtain, with furrowed pleats, being lit by uplighters that despite having the power of a 10 watt bulb managed to cast the right amount of light and shade to instantly set the heart racing. What was behind that curtain? Before this stage, but beyond this half wall there was row upon row of maroon seats all facing the red curtain, all bathed in this omnipresent red glow. As we reached the top of the stairs, my dad led us to the right and I saw that there was the same amount of seats again in the top half of this cavernous room. We headed up some more steps to the right of the main ones we had just come up and about 3 rows up found our seats.

The seats had to be pulled down to sit on, this was indeed very exciting. I did what all 4-year-old boys would do at this point and launched my bottom to the back of the seat forcing it to bow at its hinges forcing my knees up into the air, as I giddily swung back and forward, much to the chagrin no doubt of my parents and the other patrons in the row behind me. I remember seeing a short scorch mark in the armrest of the chair, probably from a cigarette from a previous showing, I glanced around and saw the dark walls capturing whatever glow they could from the red curtain, reaching into the heavens and then the ceiling filled with dozens of twinkly stars, which of course turned out to be fairy lights and not a privileged insight into the Universe that was about to start in about 10 minutes. The only other light in the room came from the soft glow green lettering of the EXIT signs at the front of the auditorium. I had been in this room for less than 2 minutes and I already wondered why anyone would want to EXIT.

Now bearing in mind this was double bill I was probably destined to sit here for the next 4/5 hours which for a 4-year-old is quite an ask, so I imagine that toilet breaks did occur, I’m sure there must have been some respite between the two films but I don’t remember that detail.

After a while, once everyone was settled into their seats, the lights started to dim, the room was already dark but now it was plunging us into a pitch black environment save for the red curtain and the green EXIT signs, it was the type of dark that when you look to the right to see your parents you can only make out the fact that they are there, but you can’t see them.

Then there was a sound I will never, ever forget. There was a whir and a distant squeak and right before my young impressionable eyes the giant red curtain started to part and the biggest TV screen I had ever laid eyes on was revealed. It was a brilliant white light that illuminated the room, I turned round to take in the whole room and saw that this brilliant light was coming in a straight line from a tiny square hole at the back of the room. Millions of tiny dust particles danced merrily in its beam as this powerful, Alien-type ray fired at the screen. Then the screen almost crackled into life with a large black circular cue mark firing into the top left-hand corner of the screen. I don’t recall exactly what happened next, but no doubt we were treated to 10 minutes of adverts for Butterkist Popcorn and a man riding a surfboard in order to sell us Old Spice aftershave.

Image result for old spice advert surfer
Old Spice…….for Old Men
Image result for butterkist advert
Butterkist, Butterkist Rah Rah Rah!!!!

There was possibly trailers but I don’t recall any, being 1982, there may have been one for that young boy who seemed to have a friend with a very bony, brown arm set against a backdrop of stars and forests. That be as it may, I do recall my mum nudging me to let me know that it was about to start. That briefest of moments of total silence as the adverts/trailers ends and the collective throng impatiently wonder, is this finally the film.

Now I don’t know if this is just me, and I sure as hell don’t wish to brag, but I have always had this uncanny ability to remember my thoughts and feelings on certain films from the first time I saw them, even if I have seen, as is the case with Star Wars, the same film hundreds of times since. I can remember even 35 years later my thoughts and imaginations of the first time I saw it. I remember clear as a bell the pale blue lettering that appeared on the black screen ” A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…..” and then……….. BANG!!!!!! As if every brass instrument in the known universe struck up in unison, I shot about 15 foot into the air as the Yellow Stenciled Star Wars logo flashed before my eyes for the very first time. For the second time in a little over 20 minutes, life changed forever.

Then followed the crawl that seemed to come from the basement and pass off into some unknown galactical heaven never to be returned. (I used to wonder as a child whether some random space probe, out for a probe, would wander past those words and nonchalantly nod and say good morning to them as they passed). I do remember my mum breaking every cinema code violation, but for good reason, by leaning over and reading the words of the crawl to me, I was only 4 so give me a break and besides what the hell was a custodian? I recall thinking that Princess Leia’s ship was called the Custodian for many a year.

Once the crawl had a bid a fond farewell to the audience, the camera scans down to reveal Tatooine in all its golden glory as John Williams swells to an imposing conclusion of his magnum opus theme tune. Then BOOM, the Tantive IV bursts across our screens, arriving without warning from behind our heads. Where are they heading? Are they being chased? Oh, you bet your ass they are being chased?

Of all the life-changing moments that I have described happening to me in this somewhat brief 20-25 minute window into my infant life, the next one is possibly the one moment in my life, if you take away all the truly important and memorable such as family, my wedding the birth of my children, that still fills me with a comforting warm glow that will stay with me forever. As the Tantive IV sets off on its doomed journey across our screen, it struck me, something was firing laser beams. If you remember earlier I talked about a square hole at the back of the room that was shooting this brilliant white beam across the auditorium, well from inside that square hole now emerged the most glorious of all sights. An Imperial Star Destroyer spread across the screen, like a giant mountain rising out of a darkened ocean. It was bigger than enormous, it was bigger than humongous, it was the size of heaven and it glided across the screen with such ominous grace that the whole cinema was caught in its tractor beam-like aura. When was it ever going to stop? Was it ever going to stop? I sure hoped not.

Now I don’t plan to go through the entire film scene by scene but as mentioned a moment earlier I will point out the distinct thoughts and feelings that I know I had when I watched Star Wars for the very first time. I remember being really nervous when Obi-Wan first scared off the Sand People as he seemed to be a Jawa and I wasn’t mad keen on them after what they had done to R2 and 3PO. I distinctly remember thinking that Dr. Evazan was going to be a nice guy the way he almost apologetically starts with “he doesn’t like you….”. I remember the whole cinema laughing when Han told Luke “that’s great kid, now don’t get cocky” and furthermore when he asked the Falcon “come on baby, hold together”. I remember feeling that Chewbacca (the big bear) was going to rip C3PO to shreds when R2 goes into a probably unassailable lead in a game of Dejarik. I remember being scared of the trash compactor monster when it popped its beady eye out from beneath the garbage for the briefest of cameos. I remember feeling sad when SPOILER ALERT Obi-Wan sacrificed himself against Vader, and strangely even sadder when SPOILER ALERT Biggs gets taken out by Vader whilst he was hanging back, just far enough, to cover Luke during their attack run on the Death Star.

What I remember the most however was a feeling of absolute euphoria as Han squealed YAHOO! as the Falcon blasts one of the two Tie-Fighters off Luke’s tale forcing the second Tie Fighter to knock Vader out of position leaving Luke all clear to blow that thing and go home. I remember distinctly Vader spinning out into Space and realising there and then that he wasn’t dead and would probably come back, that in itself was as enticing a prospect as a young usher stood at the front of the auditorium with her mobile ice cream stall suspended from her shoulders in preparation for the interval that was moments away.

Then Star Wars finished and I can only assume there was a period of say half an hour maybe between films. I do remember the ice cream seller and I do remember the similar, yet different yellow scrawl that started off the film. Here’s the thing, I was 4 and had already sat for 2 hours, was I going to make it through another 2+ hours. I still have memories of watching Empire on that occasion but they are not as vivid as Star Wars. Maybe I did fall asleep, which is unlikely, I was never a particularly good sleeper at the best of times and this was definitely the best of times. I put it down to familiarity. We were the last family on the street to own a video recorder and Star Wars was on the TV every year at Christmas, but not Empire, we had to wait until Christmas 1988 to see that one. We got a video player that year and I remember being incredibly frustrated that Empire was on ITV at the same time as BBC 1 were showing Back to the Future, you could only record one, and I was outvoted 4 to 1. Anyway, I digress.

So there was a 6-year gap between viewings of Empire Strikes Back which as a youngster obsessed with Star Wars was a lifetime. I recall the film being set on an ice planet but couldn’t tell you too much about that. I remember vividly the asteroid field I do remember being shocked that Yoda turned out to be well Yoda, I definitely remember the sequence in the cave where Luke battled Vader and Luke’s face appeared in the damaged Vader mask, probably down to the excellent design of that scene, there were times in the following years where I wondered whether I had dreamed that scene. I remember finding out that Darth Vader was bald, I remember Cloud City and meeting Lando, I remember Han being frozen in carbonite and the Luke versus Vader conflict, but in my head that all happened out on the platform where Vader cut off Luke’s hand and revealed the big twist that I shan’t spoil for anyone here who hasn’t seen the film yet.

When watching it again in 1988 I had no recollection of the space slug, the bounty hunters, the Ugnaughts or even that Obi-Wan was in the film.

The overriding memories of that day, however, were that I was sat in a truly magical place, a building so unassuming on the outside, but a purveyor of fascinating gifts on the inside. My love of Cinema was born that day and it has never left, I still get a tingle of excitement when I walk through the door into the room and see that giant screen in front of me. It is a privilege to live in a time when I am witness to such groundbreaking art that is designed primarily to entertain and make people happy. That trip to the cinema made me realise that whenever things are looking a little bit gloomy that the imaginations of the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to name just two are an invitation to relax and be thrilled in the various wonders that they put on the screen for our pleasure.

Dom

Image result for Star Wars logo

Postscript, – as is the way of things, both the Cinemas mentioned above have long since gone, the Odeon building, which has ceased to be a cinema in 1983 and turned into a Bingo Hall until 2004 was demolished in February 2007. The Cannon Cinema survived until 1998 with a special screening of Casablanca marking its last ever show. The building laid empty for years before being demolished in 2006 to be replaced by a block of flats called Picture House.

The Maestro

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 600x200

If I was to ask anyone reading this to sing or hum the first film theme that comes into their head, the chances are that they will perform one written by John Williams. It is quite possible that you do not realise that the tune you croon is by John Williams, it is also not entirely inconceivable that you may claim to have never heard of John Williams. I can guarantee however that if the name isn’t overly familiar then the work definitely will be. He is the foremost film composer in Cinematic history, whose work has transcended Cinemas, to firmly embed itself into popular culture. Nominated 51 times for an Academy Award, winning on 5 occasions, when it comes to scores for films, his is the greatest of all Greatest Hits compilations.

There is not a beach open to the public on Planet Earth that hasn’t had a person, at one time or another, stand looking at the sea/ocean going “Dur-dum” in honour of John Williams famous two-note characterisation of a terrifying ocean dwelling monster. This also applies to all swimming pools and lakes across the globe. Even those who have never seen Jaws instantly get the reference of some guy (it’s always a guy) who considers himself a bit of a character who stands on the edge of a lake going “Dur dum”. A loud, annoying laugh usually follows this as the “bit of a character” convinces himself that in the 43 years since Jaws’s release he is the first person to do this.

Dismissed initially by Spielberg who thought it was a joke, the two note masterpiece would quickly help turn Jaws from a disaster that nearly ended Spielberg’s career to becoming one of the most successful films of all time. A temperamental shark meant that Spielberg had barely enough usable footage to keep the audience on their seats, never mind on the edge of them. Enter Williams’s “Dur dum” and the stuff of seafaring nightmares is changed forever, by showing very little, Williams’s score becomes a member of the supporting cast, and a relationship with Spielberg was firmly established.

Spielberg

I am not going to write for too long on the actual Spielberg films themselves as I have covered them in great detail in my previous Spielberg through the decades blogs, instead, I will focus more on what John Williams scores have brought to those films.  Spielberg’s first feature-length cinematic release in 1974, The Sugarland Express, was a small-scale,  road movie that whilst demonstrating a capable filmmaker only gave slight hints as to the wonders that lay ahead. Williams produced an unassuming, relaxed, harmonica based score, that whilst perfectly complimenting the journey through the scorched, bare Texan landscapes, gave a little indication of the multitude of entries into popular culture that was to come, a bit like the film itself for its youthful director. The simplicity of the Sugarland score would be followed by the instantly recognisable and iconic two-note motif of Jaws and the five-note alien communication employed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

This was the start of over 40 years of collaboration that has produced not only some of the most successful films of that time period but some of the most memorable musical scores of any time period. From the  the action-packed, adventure thrill ride of his scores for the Indiana Jones films to the childlike wonder of watching E.T and Elliot cycle past the moon, (Imagine that scene if you will without Williams’s score) to the mournful, desperation of a single violin on Schindlers List or the respectful brass led orchestrations encapsulated in Saving Private Ryan, Williams’s scores not only captured perfectly the time and mood of each piece but added a different dimension to the stories being told that is often, in lesser hands, taken for granted in movies.

It could be argued that Williams’ scores have lifted even some of the more mundane, or less appreciated Spielberg films above the ordinary. Films such as Hook divided audiences but Williams’s score perfectly captured the pantomime feel of the film, whilst throwing in plenty of soaring orchestral moves to add to the magic of what is, in essence, a fairytale aimed at children. The 2000s, in particular, saw Williams demonstrate a variance in styles to suit the feel of the picture, from the jazz-based score for caper Catch Me If You Can, the jaunty clarinet led score for whimsical romcom The Terminal, to perfectly capturing the terrifying claustrophobia  for the dour and brutal War of the Worlds and Munich.

In the last decade, we have been treated to a number of styles that illustrate his mastery of genre score composition.  The Indiana Jones-inspired score to the Adventures of Tintin, the sprawling historical epicness of both War Horse and Lincoln to the playful jollity of The BFG and tension building configuration that accompanies The Post. It is clear that Spielberg and Williams understand each other, as masterful as I consider Spielberg to be, I do believe without John Williams his films would not have had the emotional and cultural impact that they had and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come, and if you don’t believe me, go stand on a beach next to the Ocean and see what tune comes into your head.

My Top 5 Spielberg related Williams pieces

Some of these are known the world over, some are just smaller pieces embedded in certain films that have always had an emotional resonance with me. The Truth is I could have quite easily picked a different 5 or even a different 500 tracks but the below 5 instantly sprung to mind.

5. Father’s Study – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The swirling central oboe piece makes way for the haunting brass section mixed with Eastern Promise in this short but vital scene close to the start of the Last Crusade. This is the scene that first questions Indy’s belief system. He questions Marcus as to whether he believes the Grail to be real, the glance of the Religious iconographic artwork in Henry’s home coupled with Marcus prophetic response about the perils that potentially lie ahead add to the mystique. For me, the score for the Last Crusade is the strongest of the Indiana Jones films, mixing just the correct amount of sentimentality with rip-roaring adventure.

4. New Beginning – Minority Report

This uplifting piece played at the redemptive finale of one of Spielberg’s more melancholic, yet thrilling movies that graced the start of the 21st Century. 90% performed by the string section, Williams dreamy opening builds up to an ending of optimism and hope that was a refreshing face wipe after a dour and dank film

3. The Face of Pan – Hook

In a film that struggles at times under the sheer weight of its sentimentality, slap bang in the middle of all the chaotic raucousness of the Lost Boys teasing the now adult Pan, there is this brief respite, of quiet reflective exploration that is as moving as this film should have been allowed to get “Oh there you are Peter”.

2. Journey to the Island – Jurassic Park

From its perky, effervescent start that buzzes with adventure and excitement, to its familiar reprise of the now famous Jurassic Park main theme, to its playful interior moments that accompany Dr. Grant’s struggle to fasten a seatbelt, Williams is throwing everything at this almost 9-minute opus. Along with the thrills and spills, there is enough lower tone brass to ensure that we don’t get too comfy and that there is a need to approach carefully. It all culminates in one of the most breathtaking shots in Cinematic history, the introduction of the Brachiosaurus to Drs’ Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm. The music perfectly matches the moment of sheer exhilaration that the audience is feeling and the bewilderment experienced by the characters. The track once again continues as the troop of explorers heads back to the visitor centre, and there is a brief reminder from Williams, that no matter how excited we are feeling about seeing these dinosaurs, assisted by a ferocious looking T-Rex skeleton in the Centre, we must as an audience exercise caution.

1. Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye – E.T

Spielberg recently said, “without John Williams, E.T wouldn’t have been able to fly”. This piece of music is pure childhood. I’ve already talked about exhilaration and adventure in this blog, how can you not when writing about John Williams, but here we have the ultimate musical accessory. Split into 3 parts starting with Elliott and Michael escaping the home with E.T to rendezvous with their friends at the local park. This first segment is filled with peril and tension aided by Michael’s erratic driving and Elliot’s nailbiting tunnel peg removal from the back of the stolen van. As soon as we get on the bikes the second part kicks in with the frenetic strings that elicit pure childhood. The money shot moment kicks in 6:58 as the reprise of the flying theme launches, E.T, Elliot, Michael and their friends across the sunset. The final act of the piece, the emotional goodbye as Elliot and E.T part ways, is never allowed to descend into total mawkishness, but lets be clear here, it is not the intention of either Spielberg or Williams to have any dry eyes in the audience at this point, you cry at this, or else may I suggest you go audition for the role of the Tin Man in the Wizard of OZ as there is clearly a heart needed.

The Star Wars Universe

Away from his work with Steven Spielberg, Williams is perhaps most noted for his work on the Star Wars saga. Recommended to Star Wars creator George Lucas by Spielberg after Williams’ work on Jaws, Williams, and Lucas began yet another one of Hollywood’s great collaborative relationships. I will start by showing the original 1976 trailer for Star Wars to illustrate my point. The trailer conjures an almost unrecognisable atmosphere of the film to the one we know and love. Watching the trailer, you would have no idea that the film would be released in the UK with U certificate, but what is perhaps most intriguing is the lack of John Williams’ imperious classical score. Without the music, Star Wars is marketed as a suspenseful action thriller, almost a horror movie set in space. It is impossible for anyone in my generation to imagine a world before or even without Star Wars but the trailer below demonstrates that without John Williams we are watching a very different film.

Over the 40+ years since Star Wars was unleashed on the popular culture zeitgeist, each installment has been met with either Universal acclaim (Episode 5) to Univeral panning (Episode 2 anyone?) but what has never been in doubt in any Star Wars film has been the scores produced by John Williams. Even Episode 2 has the melodramatic but majestic Across the Stars, which proved that even when dialogue is written and delivered with the poise and guile of a drunk man being tasered whilst carrying a tray of marbles, that form may well be temporary but class is permanent. The music of the Star Wars saga is as much of an importance to our auditory functions as the collection of alien lifeforms or the fantastical worlds are to our visual appeals.

George Lucas created the Star Wars universe but I think John Williams created his own unique world with the variety, dynamism and pure out emotion that accompanies the visuals better than any other film series I can think of.  Fans of the films can listen to the scores from any Star Wars film and instantly be able to pinpoint the part of the film it applies too. Those slightly less devoted can listen to the score and have an entirely different experience as they are taken on a journey through their own imagination that holds no barriers. Here are my 5 favourite pieces from the Star Wars saga, in no particular order.

The Asteroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back

Recently adapted by John Powell for the Score of 2018’s Solo, this piece takes me back to my 4-year-old self who sat in the flea pit, cigarette stained, overflowing toilets and sticky carpet Canon Cinema in Bolton where I was watching a double bill of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. I don’t remember a great deal about Empire from that showing but I do remember this bit. Leaving all the damp, festering stench of the numerous discarded packs of Peter Stuyvesant Reds behind I was suddenly transported into the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon as we twisted and turned through the Asteroid Field to escape the pursuing Empire. I remember ducking and yelping in a C3PO style voice as the rocks (and occasional potato) flew past the screen. It was pure cinema, pure exhilaration and was the greatest thing this 4-year-old had ever experienced. Adding to this unbridled joy was John Williams who perfectly captured the excitement of this daring race through the stars. After the first 2 minutes of cat and mouse banter between the brass and woodwind section, with Han furiously searching for his Hydro spanners, we finally get to the precipice of the rollercoaster hill climb to be plunged at 2 mins 18 headfirst into ripping cornets and frantic strings. One of the finest demonstrations of film music dropping you right into the action.

Luke Vs Vader – Return of the Jedi

Due to my family being a bit late to the VHS party and not being regular cinema-goers I had to wait an eternal 5 years to finally get to see Return of the Jedi. On the night my dad brought home our first video recorder he had managed to obtain a copy of Jedi from the local video shop and that was me done for the weekend. Food was not necessary, I ran upstairs got my pyjamas on and waited impatiently for the rest of the selfish oafs to finish their Friday night chippy tea. Eventually, they sat with me and we pressed play and my mind was blown. I had read the storybook version of Jedi having received the St Michaels annual for a previous Christmas (see image below) cover to cover dozens of times but never seen the film. This was the one I had waited for, my whole life had led to this moment. I won’t bore you with the time we were told we were to watch it at school as part of our patron saints feast day only to find that the kid who organised it brought The NeverEnding Story instead, counseling did not help.

Image result for St Michaels Return of the Jedi

So finally Jedi, it was everything I’d wanted and more. None more so than Vader’s redemption which occurs just after the piece above. I don’t think it’s the saga’s greatest lightsaber duel but it is the most important to me and that is partly down to John William’s music, which captures the moment where Luke really does get the upper hand for the first time. The main hero and the main “villain” battling possibly to the death. The original trilogy to me was building up to this moment and it is hauntingly beautiful as a result.

Princess Leia theme – Star Wars a New Hope

It is often taken for granted just how much of an emotional punch John Williams brings to the Star Wars saga with his scores. Similar to the Yoda theme, the Princess Leia theme is instantly recognisable to the character that it accompanies. From the “Help me Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope” hologram of a New Hope, to the heartbreaking reprise 2 mins 40 into the Finale from The Last Jedi, as Williams remembers the late, great Carrie Fisher, we know we are in the presence of nobility, a courageous warrior and indefatigable leader. Princess Leia was in so many ways ahead of her time as a character, a shrieking damsel in distress she most certainly wasn’t. From the moment she meets and basically ridicules both Luke and Han at their lame rescue attempts, we have a hero with more than her fair share of guts and steely determination. Watch how she verbally spars with both Vader and Tarkin and how she ruthlessly dispatches stormtroopers whilst Luke faffs around with his makeshift cord/vine that will enable them to swing to safety and that’s just the first film. Williams score, although gentle and melancholic in places also demonstrates that this is no shrinking violet, this is a Force to be reckoned with.

Rey’s Theme – The Force Awakens

There are people on Planet Earth who like pineapple on pizza, who think Cristiano Ronaldo is a better football player than Lionel Messi, who think Queen never made a decent album after News of the World, and those who think that the latest Star Wars films are childhood destroyers and a slight on all of humanity…………..these people are all wrong. The one thing that they will no doubt all agree on, however, is that the music John Williams has produced for the most recent entries into the Star Wars universe is of an unflappable quality that captures the essence of the original and prequel trilogies. Joking aside, regardless of what your tastes of the visual action on screen maybe (and if you hate Episodes VII and VIII, you are and always will be wrong :)), you would be a deemed a pineapple pizza eating monster if you did not revel in William’s scores. Capturing elements from the original scores and mixing in new themes like a master alchemist. This is perhaps none more so illustrated by Rey’s theme, which starts with a solo clarinet which reflects Rey’s solitude before moving onto percussion with the rising strings as the audience surveys Rey’s barren surroundings whilst hinting at the adventure yet to come. Thematically it recalls Luke being called across by Aunt Beru to check that any translator that Uncle Owen may buy can speak Bocce. Packed with nostalgic nods to a Universe we are so comfortable in, here Williams’ score for Episode VII grants us a time to reminisce, whilst embracing new thrills and terrors that will mean just as much to a new generation as the Imperial March did to mine.

Duel of the Fates – The Phantom Menace

Ah, the Phantom Menace, the most eagerly awaited film of all time and possibly the biggest anti-climax. However, I watched it again recently with my kids, and although far from any kind of classic, it isn’t as bad as some would have you believe. In fact, I would go so far as to say compared to Episode II it’s a veritable masterpiece. As I have mentioned already, whatever the artistic merits of the films, one area that has never been questioned are John Williams’s scores for the prequel trilogy. Duel of the Fates was instantly iconic and has become firmly embedded into pop culture history. The piece also accompanies the standout scene of the prequel trilogy as Jedi’s Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn battle against the devilish Darth Maul (2nd best thing in the prequel trilogy after Williams’ scores), in a literal fight to the death. It’s easy to forget how perfectly choreographed this sequence actually is, and to coin a cliche, is worth the entrance fee alone. The music is a balletic partner to the ferocious battle on screen and is simply brilliant.

Other film work

Of course, there is more to John Williams than Star Wars and Spielberg films. Oscar-nominated 51 times, starting in 1968 for his score in Mark Robson’s The Valley of the Dolls till Brian Percival’s 2014’s The Book Thief, Williams has notched nominations for his work with 23 different directors including the likes of Oliver Stone, Norman Jewison, and Alan Parker. Before his Star Wars and Spielberg, Williams made an impact in a slew of disaster movies that were all the rage in the early 1970s, providing scores for major ensemble works such as the Poseidon Adventure (1973) and the Towering Inferno (1974), both scores were nominated. Following on from his double hitter of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Williams hit big again in 1978 with Superman, yet another score to firmly lodge itself into popular culture psyche for decades to come. The love theme from Superman the Movie (below) is near on perfect and once again is an example of perfect mood and moment capture.

Williams would continue to mix serious politically inspired scores most notably for Oliver Stone’s bruising Vietnam nightmare Born on the 4th of July and his conspiracy theory led JFK, both of which were Oscar nominated, with iconic festive fayre like the theme for Home Alone (see below)

Working with director Christopher Columbus, Williams’ score perfectly captured the magic of Christmas and the childhood wonder of that time of year,  and the menace of the films two main miscreants. There is more of that magic incorporated in the Harry Potter scores that he also produced for Christopher Columbus. Once again Williams was able to produce an instantly recognisable score for a new generation of literary, movie and music fans, best encapsulated perhaps by Hedwig’s theme (see below)

Influences

Not only has John Williams had a profound effect on the lives of audiences the world over, but he has also left indelible impressions on some of the finest film composers working today. All brilliant in their unique way the following have all produced scores of the most exacting beauty of raucous bravado that lends more than just a hint of the John Williams Approval Shadow looming above them.

Thomas Newman

It’s quite unfair to suggest that Thomas Newman lives in the shadow of John Williams as he is a composer of such exceptional quality that I could write a blog about the 14 times Oscar nominated musician in his own right. The reason I mention him here is that I feel he is the closest to Williams of any of his contemporaries. Specialising in large scale percussion led pieces, Newman captures that sense of Americana that has become so familiar to Williams fans. When for only the 2nd time in 40 years, Williams was unable to work on a Spielberg cinematic release with 2015s Bridge of Spies, Newman was the natural choice to take up the reigns and in doing so produced my favourite of this decades Spielberg scores. Never is this more prevalent than the 10:51 epic composed for the Glienicke Bridge sequence, where Newman mixes the orchestral swells of Williams with the almost dainty, dreamlike, piano-led mistiness that had served Newman so well in previous classic scores for the likes of Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.

A regular in capturing the playfulness whimsy of a Pixar movie and more recently the urgency of a Bond score, Newman is one of those composers that conjures up imagery of warm cup of coffee in front of a log fire on a cold day.

James Horner

The late, great James Horner who’s life was cut tragically short in a plane crash in June 2015, was a master of musical story telling. A regular collaborator with James Cameron, Horner again had the ability to create other worlds through his music to such a degree that it could be argued in some cases the visuals were matched to his music as opposed to the other way round. A fan of including angelic voices alongside perceived native beats, whether that be the tragedy of the ending of Titanic to the illustration of rusticness in Braveheart to the battle-hardened otherworldly experience of Avatar, Horner rose to prominence providing scores to fantasy films of the 1980s for the likes of Willow, Cocoon, and Krull, so the comparisons with Williams were clear to see.

Michael Giacchino

A fellow Pixar regular, Giacchino cut his composer teeth by providing scores for video games in the 1990s before becoming a regular collaborator with J.J Abrams with 2005 Mission Impossible III. He then went onto score the rebooted Star Trek film series in 2008, and the majestic Spielberg inspired Super 8 in 2011. He made his Pixar debut in 2004 with The Incredibles . A now staple of Pixar, Giacchino has also dipped his conductor’s baton into the Marvel Universe with his 1970s nostalgia inspired Dr. Strange score, which if you haven’t listened to then stop what you are doing right now and listen. Giacchino’s John Williams connection saw him enter the Star Wars universe in 2016 when handed the task of composing the score for the first standalone Star Wars movie, the impressive Rogue One. Filling the sizable Williams shoes in a World that only Williams had previously trod was no doubt a daunting experience, but was handled with a deft touch that perfectly encapsulated the mood of a movie that devotees will know the emotional outcome before it even starts. The piece below could have been written by John Williams himself in one of the earlier Star Wars. I think if I’m still able to string coherent sentences together in 40 years time I may decide to write a blog on Michael Giacchino in the same gushing tones that I am currently doing for John Williams

John Powell

Talking of composers who took the leap into the Star Wars universe I give you John Powell. It could be argued that John Powell’s score for 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars story is the most impressive element of the film, which is a back handed compliment if ever I heard one. I actually really enjoyed the film and think it will be thought of more highly when time becomes the most useful judge. However, there is no denying that Powell’s score is near on perfect. Similar to Giacchino, Powell really came to the fore with a series of action-packed scores for animated hits such as Shrek and the massively underrated, both from a film and score point of view, How to Train Your Dragon series. Powell had demonstrated that he could work music into action set pieces, whilst not being afraid to throw in some curve balls to the listening audience. See below for the rip-roaring and nail-biting Marauders Arrive from the Solo soundtrack, which mixes John Williams’ cues with tribal chants and breakneck pace. John Powell, like Michael Giacchino, will hopefully continue to dazzle us over the next decades as they are the closest I have heard to the mass appeal of John Williams.

The future

With John Williams close to becoming a Nonagenarian it is fair to assume that we are currently witnessing the twilight of his career. However, with Episode IX of Star Wars currently being worked on and a fifth Indiana Jones movie slated for early next decade, there is no sign of him wishing to take it easy. I leave you with the most iconic piece of any movie score and a piece that perfectly encapsulates the brilliance of the brilliant John Williams

The Spielberg Awards

Hi folks, following on from my look at Spielberg through the last 5 decades, blogs that can be found on the following links 2010s 2000s 1990s 1980s 1970s I decided to have a light-hearted look at his films and launch the first and no doubt last annual award ceremony, imaginatively titled “The Spielbergs”.

First up was the Spielberg World Cup where I asked the good people of Twitter to vote in the first round, which consisted of 8 groups of 4 with the top 2 progressing to the Quarter finals, for which the top 2 from 4 groups progressed to the semi-finals and the top 2 from each group produced a final 4 for a climactic battle. Each round was randomly drawn by my 7-year-old daughter so there was no danger of letting my own favourites gaining any advantage. Please note as creater of these polls I was not eligible to vote

Group 1 

Close Encounters 46% 
Saving Private Ryan 33%
Catch Me If You Can 17%
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - 4%
142 votes cast

Catch Me If You Can was an early casualty if drawn in a different group it may well have progressed. The fact it got 17% in such company was a testimony to its appeal. The top 2 were always going to progress here, Crystal Skull was merely making up the numbers.

Group 2

E.T - 72%
Minority Report - 17%
Bridge of Spies - 7%
The Post - 4% 
208 votes cast

A clear favourite going into this one as the result showed. These are 4 exceptional films but I think a lack of familiarity with  Bridge of Spies and The Post saw them score lowly. When the draw was made I thought this would be a tight group……..I was wrong

Group 3 – 

Jaws - 69%
Hook - 13%
Munich - 10%
The Lost World - 8%

162 votes cast
There was only going to be one winner in this group so the intrigue would be who would grab second among three of Spielberg’s more divisive films. Family panto fun triumphed over controversial revenge thriller……but only just.
Group 4
Duel - 36%
The Terminal - 32%
The Color Purple - 23%
Amistad - 9%
174 votes cast
This was a group that allowed some of the more unfancied films to shine and it turned into quite a close contest. With 23% The Color Purple would have progressed in most of the other groups.
Sorry to see Amistad doing so poorly. Very underrated. @TheLoneWolf68
Group 5 – 
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - 54%
War of the Worlds - 22%
The Adventures of Tintin - 19%
Always - 5%
170 votes cast

It was all action and adventure in Group 5. It could be argued that Temple of Doom got a lucky draw here but over 50% of the vote can’t be wrong. Good showing for Tintin here I feel.

Group 6 – 

Jurassic Park - 87%
War Horse - 6%
The BFG - 5%
Sugarland Express - 2%
149 votes cast

The biggest first-round margin of victory was hardly a surprise. A great battle for 2nd place though.

Group 7 – 

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 66%
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 27%
Empire of the Sun - 6%
1941 - 1%
166 votes cast

Tough draw for Empire here, it surely would have done better in a different group. The battle of the Jones’s would be an indicator of how the tournament would progress. Also worth acknowledging the one person who voted for 1941, good for you, whoever you are 🙂

People need to give Empire some love!, it’s one of his best! @smurfman75

Group 8 – 

Schindler's List - 64%
Ready Player One - 18%
Lincoln - 10%
A.I - 8%
148 votes cast

Whereas Schindler’s List’s progression to the quarter-finals was always likely, Ready Player One’s 2nd place ahead of Lincoln was perhaps the surprise of the first round.

QUARTER-FINALS

Group 1 –  

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 53%
E.T - 38%
War of the Worlds - 6%
Ready Player One - 3%
104 votes cast

The top 2 were never really in doubt from the get-go but what might be a surprise to some is how far ahead of E.T Raiders was.

Ready Player One is Spielberg’s worst film!, and he hasn’t had many. @smurfman75

Group 2 –

Jaws - 57%
Schindlers List - 23%
Saving Private Ryan - 18%
Duel - 2%
115 votes cast

This is the dictionary definition of the “Group of Death”. Blame the 7-year-old, not me. Saving Private Ryan is the most high-profile exit of the quarterfinals and surely would have progressed in less prestigious company. Even Duel would have fancied its chances of at least as second place in the next group.

This is why polls are inherently fraught with unintentional bias. You really cannot compare any film with Schindler’s List. @CinemaPhileTX

Group 3

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 67%
Hook - 13%
War Horse - 11%
The Terminal - 9%
97 votes cast

Hook will have annoyed some Spielberg aficionados making it to the semi-finals ahead of films such as Saving Private Ryan, but to coin a famous sporting cliche, you can only beat what is in front of you.

 

Group 4

Jurassic Park - 49%
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - 28%
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - 15%
Minority Report - 8%
123 votes cast

Similar to the first round another strong Jurassic performance, this time in much more esteemed company, Close Encounters in its second tough draw continues to hold its own, whilst Temple of Doom and Minority Report had to settle for making up the numbers here.

Argh! Toughest one. How can anyone choose between temple of doom and close encounters? @patrickdeudon

Close Encounters every time…For me of course – Rob @thebeardedtrio

SEMI-FINALS

At this stage of the competition I had in my mind the 4 films that would progress to the final, regardless of the draw, I was wrong and quite shocked if honest.

Group 1

E.T - 31%
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 30%
Schindler's List - 21%
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - 18%
311 votes cast

You could argue that Indiana Jones has a larger fanbase than Schindler’s List but with over 300 votes cast, you would have thought that Schindler’s, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of modern cinema would have pulled through. At this stage, though we really are splitting hairs, as all 4 are wondrous pieces of filmmaking

That was tough between close encounters and last crusade but I have to give it to last crusade. By far the best Indy movie and even though I love close encounters… Connery+Ford=gold. @RoadRaider3

How can you separate these…its the Sophies Choice of the movie world @filmbuffbaker

Look forward to the second group. If Jaws, Jurassic Park and Raiders are in the final, there’s no way I can choose. May have to close my eyes and just blind tap. @BoxOfficeBeyond

Group 2

Jaws - 41%
Raiders of the Lost Ark - 29%
Jurassic Park - 25%
Hook - 5%
367 votes cast

The battle of the franchises saw Jurassic Park fall at the last hurdle. Jaw’s margin of victory coupled with a potential split vote for Indiana Jones fans in the final, surely meant that Jaws went into the final as the clear favourite. Hook’s fun ride to the semi’s predictably ended there.

Where did you get the nerve to ask such impossible questions???@OakAyling

Raiders-not only his best, but THE best. In. Tha. World. @BossyToo

THE FINAL

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 35%
Jaws - 32%
E.T - 22%
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 11%
313 votes cast

So the winner is…….Raiders of the Lost Ark. The final four demonstrated what I have always suspected that Spielberg fans have tremendous taste. The split vote didn’t happen and Raiders just pipped Jaws to the grand prize.

Arrrghh!!! This is so hard. Jaws….No! Raiders….No….Yes…No…Arrghhh! Voted for Jaws in the end. It gets my vote, just. Don’t put me through that again. I feel like I’ve cheated on the other three now. – Rob @thebeardedtrio 

My decision for ‘Raiders’ is in part totally subjective (in the mid 1980s, I made a Super8 short film with a couple of friends and was having the time of my life). The other part is the brilliant cast & perfect Spielberg mix made of adventure, action, suspense, awe and humor. @SpielbergChron

Image result for Raiders of  the Lost Ark

Following on from the World Cup which crowned everyone’s favourite Archaeology teacher’s first screen adventure as the Greatest Spielberg Film, I decided to run a few more polls to answer the questions about Spielberg films that quite frankly nobody had ever contemplated or felt the need to ask.

Twitter limits every poll to 4 options, which means that I had to leave some strong contenders out of some of the categories, some of them even caused me to have sleepless nights as names popped into my head that I hadn’t even considered. This was never more apparent than in this first category

Best supporting actor in a Spielberg film

Image result for Robert Shaw Jaws Robert Shaw Jaws 58%

Related image Sean Connery Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 19%

Image result for christopher walken catch me if you can Christopher Walken Catch Me If You Can 17%

Image result for tommy lee jones lincoln Tommy Lee Jones Lincoln 6%

Robert Shaw’s cantankerous old sea dog has always been a Spielberg favourite. On reflection, the four men above would have been all worthy winners, but just take a look at some of the outstanding men I left out/forgot about before the poll was launched. Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Anthony Hopkins Amistad, Robert MacNaughton E.T, Jeff Goldblum Jurassic Park, and perhaps the most glaring oversight Ralph Fiennes in Schindlers List.

This could be close.. and in this short of race, there’s no shilver medal for finishing shecond..!@_ThatFilmGeek_

Best supporting actress in a Spielberg film

 

Image result for drew barrymore e.t Drew Barrymore E.T 41%

Image result for teri garr close encounters third kind Teri Garr Close Encounters of the Third Kind 25%

Image result for samantha morton minority report Samantha Morton Minority Report 19%

Image result for margaret avery color purple Margaret Avery The Color Purple 15%

In E.T Drew Barrymore gives the impression that she doesn’t even realise she is in a film. The story is happening around her the childlike wonder she displays is reflected in the emotion that the audience goes through. Teri Garr is possibly the standout performance in Close Encounters as the doubting Thomas figure who is presumably left to explain all of this to the three children. Its great to see both Samantha Morton and Margaret Avery score reasonable percentages in two breathtaking performances.

Not the four performances I would’ve chosen to represent this category, I don’t think. But from this group I guess it’s got to be Garr. Drew comes close, though. Great performance at that age. @853_OKG

Whilst we are looking at acting performances, let’s see what you voted as best lead performances

Best Performance by a Leading Actress

Image result for whoopi goldberg color purple Whoopi Goldberg The Color Purple 48%

Related image Meryl Streep The Post 24%

Image result for goldie hawn sugarland express Goldie Hawn The Sugarland Express 14%

Image result for holly hunter always Holly Hunter Always 14%

All 4 of these women would have been a worthy winner here but what a delightful surprise to see Whoopi Goldberg’s astonishing debut get the lion’s share of the vote in this category. As for the “overrated” Meryl, she can do no wrong in my eyes, Goldie Hawn “Aw shucks” her way through Sugarland Express and Holly Hunter is beyond adorable and by quite some distance the best thing about Always.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor

Image result for daniel day lewis lincoln Daniel Day-Lewis Lincoln 52%

Image result for richard dreyfuss close encounters Richard Dreyfuss Close Encounters of the Third Kind 36%

Image result for tom hanks saving private ryan Tom Hanks Saving Private Ryan 12%

Image result for eric bana munich Eric Bana Munich 0% 😦

When putting these polls together I anticipated that Day-Lewis would win regardless of who I put him up against and I was proved correct with his powerhouse performance as America’s 16th president. Dreyfuss treads the line between excitable and maniacal in Close Encounters, whereas Hanks probably gives the most human performance out of the nominees. Spare a thought for Eric Bana who didn’t receive a single vote which is massively unfair as he is the very heart and soul of Munich, one Spielberg film that requires further reflection. Also just outside the top 4 were the likes of Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds, Hanks for The Terminal and even Henry Thomas for E.T, but more about him next.

Best performance by a child in a Spielberg film

Image result for henry thomas et Henry Thomas E.T 51%

Image result for christian bale empire of the sun Christian Bale Empire of the Sun 38%

Image result for dakota fanning war of the worlds Dakota Fanning War of the Worlds 8%

Image result for ruby barnhill the bfg Ruby Barnhill The BFG 3%

The best child performance in a Spielberg film is Haley Joel Osment (A.I.), but out of the four you chose to highlight, I’d go with Henry Thomas.  

Out of all the categories I ran, I had more comments over who I had left out than any other category. The opinion from @ViverdeCinema was just many who claimed the Haley Joel Osment should have been on this list. I could have also quite easily had had Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton from E.T, Jonathan Ke Quan from Temple of Doom, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello from Jurassic Park, or how about Carey Guffey who played Barry in Close Encounters. Spielberg’s ability to bring out very believable performances from youngsters is all too apparent. Out of the 4 I did go for, Henry Thomas is the standout. His performance, in my opinion, is right up there with the very best from any actor in a Spielberg film.

Ok, lets now take a look at the bad guys.

Best non-human villain

Image result for shark from jaws “Bruce” the Shark from Jaws 39%

Image result for t-rex from jurassic park T-Rex from Jurassic Park 23%

Image result for velociraptor from jurassic park Velociraptor from Jurassic Park 19%

Image result for truck from duel The Truck from Duel 19%

One of the more closely fought contests, with “Bruce” proving once and for all that things that don’t work quite as they should are actually terrifying. The iconic T-Rex turns in some ways, from monster to hero by the end of Jurassic Park but she wouldn’t thank you for saying that. The sinister Raptors probably scored less than the T-Rex because nobody likes clever clogs. As for the truck, well it can rest in the knowledge that without it there probably wouldn’t have been any of the others and I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog (stop cheering at the back).

Most despicable Human villain

Image result for amon goeth schindler Amon Goeth Schindler’s List 88%

Image result for captain hook hook Captain Hook Hook 6%

Image result for sorrento ready player one Sorrento Ready Player One 3%

Image result for mola ram Mola Ram Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 3%

The biggest “winner” in any category voted on, as its widely regarded as one of the biggest bastards in history was realistically portrayed in Schindler’s List. Fiennes depiction of pure evil was so accurate that when survivor Mila Pfefferberg was introduced to Ralph Fiennes on the set, she began shaking uncontrollably, as he reminded her too much of the real Amon Goeth.

as is terrible, he has no redeeming qualities at all! He’s pure evil, and unfortunately ‘s depiction is historically accurate… 

After that bunch of evildoers, I wanted to take a more light-hearted look at some of Spielberg’s characters.

Most slappable character in a Spielberg film

Image result for ray winstone crystal skull Mac Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 56%

Image result for willie scott temple of doom Willie Scott Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 32%

Image result for clovis sugarland express Clovis The Sugarland Express 8%

Image result for hollis p wood 1941 Hollis P Wood 1941 4%

Ok firstly in the case of 2 of these I am not criticising the performance, as I think Kate Capshaw is fantastic in Temple of Doom, also William Atherton in Sugarland gives an early precursor to future whiny slimeballs that we see in Ghostbusters and Die Hard, just that their characters are so frustrating as in need of a good wedgie. Ray Winstone plays the same character in EVERYTHING and the last thing Indiana Jones is a cockney gangster who one-half suspects is going to break the fourth wall and give me the latest odds on whether Indy is likely to get out of his next tight spot. As for Slim Pickens in 1941, well to say he is the loudest and most annoying person in 1941 pretty much says it all about what I think of him in that film.

Hollis P Wood? Slim Pickens? Slappable? NO! He’s one of my favorite characters in 1941.

If we want to slap the four above which of the following females makes us want to punch the air with their stunning exploits

Most kickass female character in a Spielberg film

Image result for marion raiders of the lost ark Marion Raiders of the Lost Ark 60%

Image result for dr sattler jurassic park Dr. Sattler Jurassic Park 20%

Image result for artemis ready player one Art3mis Ready Player One 10%

Image result for sarah harding jurassic Sarah Harding The Lost World 4%

Marion from Raiders has long been a fans favourite but I am still surprised how large her winning margin was against Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park who for my money is the ultimate Spielberg action hero, smart, witty with an edge of vulnerability that prevents her from requiring a cape.

No contest. Marion. Hands down. @kkcorby14

I’m now going to take a look at the moments that make Spielberg, well, Spielberg, starting with scenes that shook us to our core.

Most harrowing scene in a Spielberg film

Image result for liquidation of ghetto schindler's list Liquidation of Ghetto Schindler’s List 48%

Image result for omaha beach saving private ryan Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan 39%

Image result for monica abandons david a.i Monica abandons David A.I 13%

Image result for amistad boat scene thrown overboard Below the deck Amistad 0%

A close run thing here between the two World War Two epics. The thing with all four of the scenes listed above, the viewer wishes to turn away from the screen but we can’t. On Omaha Beach we feel that we are in amongst the battle, ducking to avoid the bullets and shrapnel heading our way. The liquidation of the Ghetto is a different type of desperation, we want to help, we want to know why the cameraman isn’t stopping to help, can’t they see what is happening, why are they filming this? Monica abandoning David perhaps hits home more to parents, especially those who have dropped a screaming child off at nursery, but in this film, there is no glass of milk and a Spot the Dog story to pacify David, and we know Monica is not coming back 4 hours later to collect. As for Amistad receiving 0%, well it’s possibly the most brutal scene of the lot but the least relatable hence the zero votes.

So the flip side to the most harrowing, what is the most wondrous scene.

Most Wondrous Scene in a Spielberg film

Image result for mothership lands close encounters Mothership lands Close Encounters 34%

Image result for raiders of the lost ark opening scene Opening scene Raiders of the Lost Ark 31%

Image result for t rex attack jurassic park T-Rex attack Jurassic Park 20%

Image result for dolly zoom scene jaws Alex Kittner beach scene Jaws 15%

So with this one, I was looking for the scene that best epitomizes Spielberg and his films and as you can see it was a very close contest. For me, the last 30 minutes of Close Encounters is the finest piece of Cinema ever put together, whereas the opening of Raiders is possibly the finest opening to any film. The T-Rex attack has Spielberg at his most terrifying and the Alex Kittner scene in Jaws is the dictionary definition of the slow build, littered with red herrings and exquisite camera work.

It’s the Kitner scene, the way he draws u in to different characters who u believe will be the sharks next victim is brilliant!. The zoom in shot on Brody, splashing of water, and the final death of Alex who so happened to be wearing red which stood out but no one noticed @smurfman75

If those scenes were breathtaking, I wanted to know if there was one particular image that stood out as the most iconic in a Spielberg film.

Most iconic image in a Spielberg film

Image result for e.t fly past moon E.T and Elliot fly past the moon E.T 75%

Image result for The Aliens arrive Close encounter The orange doorway Close Encounters of the Third Kind 10%

Image result for red coat schindler's list The girl in the red coat Schindler’s List 8%

Image result for jurassic park glasses of water The glasses of water Jurassic Park 7%

All four images are instantly recognisable and emotive for very different reasons. Nothing captures that feeling of childlike wonder and amazement, however, than E.T and Elliot flying past the moon, it’s debatable whether there is a more iconic image in the history of cinema.

I’m now going to take a look at some of the very familiar faces who have appeared in Spielberg films who have either gone on to bigger and better things or already had achieved monumental things before appearing in a Spielberg film.

Best before they were famous performance in a Spielberg film

Image result for oprah winfrey color purple Oprah Winfrey The Color Purple 54%

Related image Samuel L Jackson Jurassic Park 33%

Image result for benedict cumberbatch war horse Benedict Cumberbatch War Horse 11%

Image result for ben stiller empire of the sun Ben Stiller Empire of the Sun 2%

Samuel L Jackson was a successful actor before Jurassic Park having starred in Menace to Society, Coming to America and Goodfellas but this pre- Pulp Fiction starrer as the chain-smoking technician Arnold was the first time he really put a stamp on a film. It’s sometimes easy to forget how good a performance Oprah gives in the Color Purple. Here the majority of you seem to agree.

I love Cumberbatch in that film but I gotta go with Oprah. @kkcorby14

Best after they were famous performance in a Spielberg film

Image result for richard attenborough jurassic park Richard Attenborough Jurassic Park 51%

Related image Francois Truffaut Close Encounters 32%

Image result for audrey hepburn always Audrey Hepburn Always 15%

Image result for michael lonsdale munich Michael Lonsdale Munich 2%

Big winner here for Richard Attenborough who played the often misinterpreted genius, John Hammond. Spielberg spoke about his nervousness of working with one of his heroes in Truffaut in Close Encounters but Truffaut is the audiences representative in this film with his sense of wide-eyed wonder and excitement. The stunt casting of Audrey Hepburn pays off with a charming little cameo in Always and ex-Bond villain Michael Lonsdale add a certain gravitas to Munich

Can’t measure with existing technology how fabulous Truffaut was for CE3K. His demeanor, his sense of wonder … so essential! ~P @Sibling_Cinema

Next up I want to take a look at his possibly misunderstood or lesser known films

Most derided Spielberg film which is actually pretty good and deserves a second chance.

Related image A.I Artificial Intelligence 40%

Image result for hook poster Hook 34%

Image result for indiana jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull movie poster Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 15%

Image result for 1941 movie poster 1941 11%

There was actually quite a lot of love shown to each of these films, they all obviously have fans, but they do also have a number of critics. There is no doubt in my mind that A.I is a stunning piece of work and should be respected by a much wider audience. Hook is a lot of fun and is great family entertainment, Crystal Skull is seen by many as the biggest disappointment in Spielberg’s career but that could be down to expectation more than anything else. As for 1941, well 11% are willing to stick up for it………good for you 🙂

if anyone says AI is bad, they have zero knowledge of filmmaking. AI is immortal! @CinemaPhileTX

Hook, A.I. Crystal Skull all could easily be deserving of this vote. But A.I. is a truly incredible movie that is criminally underrated. It gets my vote. @853_OKG

Best Spielberg film that nobody has seen but really should

Image result for always movie poster Always 30%

Image result for The Terminal movie poster The Terminal 26%

Image result for Amistad movie poster Amistad 25%

Image result for Sugarland Express movie poster The Sugarland Express 19%

Another close run contest this one. I am very fond of all of these movies and they should all be seen by a wider audience as each one tells a very different story of Spielberg’s career at the particular point of which they were made. In my opinion, The Terminal, in particular, is a charming film that was a rare lighter effort from Spielberg in a post Millenium decade where he was at his darkest

I voted Always. Saw it years ago when it first came out but had forgotten much about it. Rewatched on the recommendation of a friend and it was lovely and heartwarming. Holly Hunter was terrific. @kkcorby14

All are great films but Amistad is also important. A message that resounds especially today. @aillsley3

I’m now going to take a look at the sounds that we remember from Spielberg films by giving out awards for the best one-liner and the best music score

Best One-Liner

Image result for you're gonna need a bigger boat “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” Jaws 62%

Image result for life finds a way jurassic park quote “Life uh finds a way” Jurassic Park 23%

Image result for She talks in her sleep Indiana Jones quote “She talks in her sleep” IJ and the Last Crusade 15%

Image result for would it help bridge of spies “Would it help?” Bridge of Spies 0%

The often misquoted “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” was always going to win this one and to be fair why the hell not, it’s almost as iconic as the film itself. Ian Malcolm’s realisation in Jurassic Park is the culmination of one of the finest scripted scenes in a Spielberg film. Connery’s piece of perfect improvisation is possibly my favourite line ever and as for the 0% Bridge of Spies quote, well hopefully longevity will see this line immortalised in time to come.

Best Score

Image result for jaws theme sheet music Jaws main theme 37%

Image result for welcome to jurassic park sheet music Welcome to Jurassic Park 29%

Image result for the raiders march sheet music The Raiders March 24%

Image result for e.t flying theme sheet music E.T Flying theme 10%

I have to be honest I would be lost without the music of John Williams in my life. I listen to it daily, it has got me through some tough times, I feel it is a privilege that I am able to hear such wondrous music. It truly is a part of the cinematic experience. I want all readers to imagine for a moment what Elliot and E.T flying past the moon would be like without the music. Williams’s music has almost at times become a character in some of the movies, never more so than when his two-note motif in Jaws still to this day can send a shiver up the spine of all potential ocean paddlers, more than a malfunctioning rubber shark could ever want to.

I’d say Jaws. For me personally, I was familiar with the idea of a dorsal fin above the water accompanied by “daa dum” long before I had seen Jaws and even before I knew who John Williams was! I’d know a lot of other people who’d say the same thing. @JWilliams_Fan

Personally, Jurassic Park’s main theme gives the chills everytime. Raiders theme means pure adventure, but Jaws is the most iconic simply due to how pervasive it has been. People that haven’t even seen Jaws know it. It’s been used in endless parodies etc. @BoxOfficeBeyond

My final category involves a group of people who most people who have read this far will know the name but maybe not the face.

Spielberg’s unsung hero

Image result for michael kahn editor Michael Kahn Editor 39%

Image result for kathleen kennedy Kathleen Kennedy Producer 22%

Image result for janusz kaminski Janusz Kaminski Cinematography 22%

Image result for kate capshaw Kate Capshaw Wife 17%

All 4 of the above have played an integral part in the career of Steven Spielberg. He would possibly be half the filmmaker without one or more of them offering guidance and support. I salute them all.

Kahn is the man. Being an editor it is a very hard job to make the edit invisible. That is the brilliance of a film editor. Michael Kahn has done that for decades with Spielberg. @theburbsman

A tough one, but I have to go with Michael Kahn. The work of editors is often discussed/critiqued in reviews, but the editors themselves often go unmentioned. In a way, they’re like sculptors. What they do is nothing short of amazing and Kahn certainly has his mark on that. @GoNerdYourself

So there we go that is it for my Spielberg blogs, for now at least. I hope you have all enjoyed reading them. I have certainly enjoyed writing them, especially the research side of it.

As with all good award ceremonies and quite frankly some bad ones, I have some thank yous. I want to thank in particular the following people who have retweeted and promoted my blogs over the past year, and have also on occasion helped me with certain detail. They are Paul Bullock @apaulbullock, The guys at the Bearded Trio @thebeardedtrio  , the Spielberg Chronicles @SpielbergChron and all the following who have contributed in some way. 

If you like to follow people on Twitter who have intelligent, humourous and occasionally excitable conversations about film, you could do a lot worse than to give the following fine people a follow Darren Murphy @smurfman75  , KK @kkcorby14  , Marc Uren @uren_marc , That Film Geek @_ThatFilmGeek_ , EasyRidingRagingPodcast @ERRPodcast  , The CinemaPhile @CinemaPhileTX, Music By John Williams @JWilliams_Fan, Stephen Haller @theburbsman, Jim Rockford @853_OKG, Go Nerd Yourself @GoNerdYourself, A Film Club @afilmclub Amblin Road @AmblinRoad.

Thanks mainly go to anyone who has taken the time to have a read of these blogs, you’re all excellent people, and also thank you to Mr Spielberg for continuing to produce pieces of cinema that just put a smile upon my face. Here’s to many more over the coming years.

 

Spielberg the 1990s

Hook Poster  Schindler's List Poster The Lost World: Jurassic Park Poster Amistad Poster Saving Private Ryan Poster

Following on from my previous blogs of Spielberg through the 1970s and the 1980s I now arrive at Part 3 of my journey through his career, and if push came to shove, my personal favourite, the 1990s. It was a particularly golden era of Cinema for me, it was the decade thanks to a successful driving test that allowed me off my own back to become a regular cinema goer. It was the decade that I began to earn money so could supplement the regular cinema trips by beginning to build an extensive VHS collection. It was also the decade of Cool Britannia, the launch of the Premier League and my University years.

Pretty much every Friday night my friends and I would head across to the Warner Brothers multiplex cinema in Pilsworth Bury, (Bolton didn’t have a multiplex at that time so we had to drive and take risks in war-torn Bury to get a decent cinema seat). On occasions I didn’t go with friends…………oh yes on occasions I went with a girl. The world was indeed an exciting place.

There was an abundance of variety on offer on the big screen as well, with hardly any hint of a wisecracking superhero or pointless remake.

It was also the decade that I finally started to join the dots regarding Spielberg. Jurassic Park was the film that made me realise, that this was the same guy who made Indiana Jones, Jaws, E.T and Close Encounters……….I loved all those films, and now he is making one about dinosaurs. The 90s was the decade that would finally reward him with critical approval, and rightly so, with 2 astonishing pieces of Cinema about World War 2 which are faultless in their execution and hugely immersive for the audience. It was also a decade that still showcased his fun side, and that is where we now begin.

Hook (1991)

Have to fly, have to fight, have to crow, have to save Maggie, have to save Jack, Hook is back.

Hook Poster  Image result for hook movie

I’m going to throw this straight out there……….I like Hook, I like it a lot. One of Spielberg’s most derided films has struggled to win fans in the past three decades, even Spielberg has publicly cited Hook as the one film of his that he struggles to enjoy. Critics have labelled Hook as over bloated, over stylised, overlong and bizarrely when you consider this is a Peter Pan film, over-acted.

Initially conceived as a musical with Michael Jackson in the lead, the idea was scrapped with Jackson not interested in playing a “grown-up” Peter Pan and John Williams songwriting not hitting the right creative path that Williams and Spielberg had envisioned. Ironically, in my opinion, Williams actually produced one of his most underrated Spielberg scores for Hook, catching the finished films actions, childlike humour and emotions perfectly.

As stated earlier I am a big fan of Hook but there are clearly issues. It’s overlong, at 2 hours 20 mins for what is essentially a kids film, it could quite conceivably lose 40-50 mins. Most of that chop could come from the ponderous opening act. Yes, there is a need for a backstory, there is a need for character development but Hook takes too long to get going. I recently watched Hook with my kids and you are almost 40 minutes in before you glimpse Neverland and the youngest, in particular, was beginning to lose interest. That’s not to say that adults won’t find things to enjoy in this extended first act. The immaculate Maggie Smith lends the film gravitas and the film sparkles whenever she is on. Caroline Goodall also is enchanting if a little underused as Moira.

Once the action relocates to Neverland the film really does come into its own. Spectacular sets that do lend to the earlier conceived musical ideas, glorious matte backdrops that transport viewers into the pantomime surroundings of Neverland. This in my mind is Spielberg setting his stall out. If you don’t like Hook at this point then leave now as you never will.

The colour that streams from the screen, the ping-pong dialogue between Williams and Hoffman, the Lost Boys (not as annoying as they clearly could have been) are fantastic entertainment, and in the middle of all that you have the indefatigable Bob Hoskins having the time of his life as the bumbling Smee.

Yes, it’s over sentimental, (remember this is a kids film), yes Julia Roberts has nothing of any note to do and yes it is too long. However, there is so much to love, such as the food fight, the finding of Peter’s face and, a personal favourite, Hook’s suicide attempt. Special mention must go to Charlie Korsmo, who stands out in a movie full of kids, as Jack.

Hook is divisive amongst Spielberg fans but for me, it achieves what it sets out to do. Its fun-filled, action-packed and was a film genuinely aimed at all the family. When compared to future re-tellings of the story it stands head and shoulders above P.J Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan and Joe Wright’s awful 2015 Pan.

Hook was a relative box office flop and this followed on from a rather nondescript few years for Spielberg. Indiana Jones films aside, Spielberg had not really hit his box office mojo since E.T in 1982. That was all about to come to an end.

Spielberg admitted to being disappointed with final result of the movie. He had such a hard time working with the rebellious crew of young actors that he later said, only somewhat kiddingly, that the experience made him wonder if he wanted to have any more kids. He also felt guilty that he wasn’t able to find an economical method to filming the many complex human-flight sequences in the film. However, after Robin William’s death, Spielberg says he is now thankful he made the film, as that was how he met Williams and became good friends with him. (1)

Why should you watch it?

Dismissed at the time of being over-blown, that is now with hindsight one of its main strengths. How do you make a Peter Pan film without throwing every color of the rainbow at the screen? A bit ponderous to start with, but once it establishes its confidence it is rip-roaring entertainment that rewards those who are willing to give it a second chance.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

 

Christmas Day 1990, 3:15pm, the Queen has just finished her annual, televised address to the nation and the BBC is about to show the World television premiere of E.T. Spielberg had always been fiercely protective of his most personal film. The video release of E.T was not until 1989, 6 years after the theatrical release. The BBC was allowed to show E.T on the proviso that they didn’t make any cuts, hence the line “it was nothing like that penis-breath” remaining in the broadcast, despite the time of broadcast not normally allowing such “language”. The reason I mention this is a further indication of the power of Spielberg. The BBC wanted the world exclusive and were willing to bend their own stringent censor rules to get the film. The power of Spielberg is that what may be deemed unacceptable for other filmmakers doesn’t apply to him.

Take Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for example, a film rated as a PG in the UK but when all said and done considerably more violent than films such as Tim Burton’s Batman which was rated as a 12 in the cinema and 15 on home video.

Jurassic Park itself whilst not a graphically violent film, is incredibly tense and fraught with peril from the off.  In the UK it received a PG certificate whilst films like James Cameron’s The Abyss and the Spielberg produced Arachnophobia received a 12. I know which one scared me the most. There is a thought that if Jurassic Park was made by any other director then the 12 certificate would have been applied.

So onto the film itself, on paper, it is a match made in heaven. Spielberg and dinosaurs, in reality……….it is a match made in heaven. I’ve mentioned the tension already but it’s worth mentioning again, as this is the most white-knuckle, sweat dripping, edge of the seat terror-inducing Spielberg film since Jaws. I can remember watching it in the cinema as an annoying 16-year-old and being scared beyond belief from the Dilophosaurus attack to the Velociraptor siege at the conclusion of the film. The T-Rex attack on the Jeep is the films stand out set piece and is nerve shredding good. It starts with one of Spielberg’s most iconic, yet simplest special effects, a tepid glass of water sat on the dashboard of the Jeep, a distant thud creating a tantalizing ripple on the water. The audience knows to get itself ready……this is not going to end well.

Spielberg is a master of the off-camera menace, take the first hour of Jaws where the shark is never seen but the terror is always there, or the build-up to the climactic scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the sound of German artillery is heard approaching the compound, we know this isn’t going to be a comfortable watch.

In the T-Rex scene the thuds continue, “Can you hear that?” asks Tim “Maybe they’re trying to turn the power back on” replies blood sucking lawyer Donald Gennaro ambivalently. No its nothing like that Donald, prepare yourself for an unscheduled trip to the toilet, where quite frankly the lack of toilet paper will be the least of your worries. Once again employing the power of suggestion alongside groundbreaking animatronics, the brilliance of this scene is that here are the main protagonists, cars stopped in the middle of a thunderstorm and somewhere there is this ginormous beast, but the cast and the audience don’t know where it is. John Williams drops his score completely as if he too is sat frozen in fear waiting for the next resounding THUD!

When the T-Rex does finally emerge the scale and sheer power of the dinosaur is captured perfectly from the giant footsteps to the destruction of the Jeep with Tim and Lex still inside. The moment where Spielberg shows the kids screaming and clinging onto each other as the mighty T-Rex squishes the Jeep further into the mud with its enormous foot is so terrifying for all involved (cast and audience) that you have to remind yourself this is a PG film. I can remember vividly watching that scene in the cinema, it was as if the audience were unable to breathe. This is what Cinema is about, there doesn’t have to be fountains of blood to make an audience scared, just tap into inherent fears of the human psyche and then push them to the edge.

“My early exposure to all the leviathans of the Saturday matinee creature features inspired me, when I grew up, to make ‘Jurassic Park.'” (2)

If the T-Rex scene is all out terror then Spielberg demonstrates his more sinister side with the more suspenseful Raptor chase. Where the T-Rex is a beast who will hunt to satisfy his hunger, the Raptors are painted as more calculated. They are described as being in it for the chase, for the thrill of it. In many ways, the Raptors harp back to Yul Bryner’s Gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s other “theme park gone wrong” thriller, Westworld or even the T-800 in James Cameron’s The Terminator. The difference here is that the Raptors work as a team, displaying acts of cunning and guile, remember they never attack the same part of fence twice. Whereas the T-Rex attack harks back to the monster horror movie, the Raptor attack is more a psychological thriller designed to keep even the most anti-nail biter chewing down to the bone.

If I’m honest the end is a bit anti-climactic but as an audience, we have been through enough to wheeze a huge sigh of relief. As for the performances, they are all top-notch. Sam Neill is amazing in everything and one shot in particular displays the greatest “eye-acting” ever captured on film when he first sets eyes on the Brachiosaurus, a scene that 25 years on is still as breathtaking now as when Dr. Grant first grabbed and turned Dr. Sattler’s head to share the moment.

Jeff Goldblum plays the chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm, who is the first to notice that all is not all merchandising and day passes in the park. If there is one disappointment in the film is that Malcolm spends the final third of the film incapacitated and with little to do. His banter with Richard Attenborough’s Hammond is playful and gives the film some of its lighter moments. The children once again are less annoying than they could have been, Joseph Mazzello’s Tim is particularly charming. There is also a great turn from Samuel L Jackson as the chain-smoking Computer operator Arnold.

The stand out performance for me though is Laura Dern as Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. Here is a female lead who is a match for any of her male counterparts in the movie. She is smart, gutsy and takes risks for the bigger picture. In a decade that launched the phrase “Girl Power” into the public psyche, here is a character who is an early icon of the movement. She is the complete antithesis to, Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott in Temple of Doom.

Jurassic Park was huge in every way, a box office behemoth which Spielberg actually needed after, Indiana Jones aside, a few disappointing years. It was generally loved by critics, but of course not in that way, it was, of course, a popcorn peddlers dream. As for Spielberg himself, the post-production of Jurassic Park became a catharsis as he was about to go on the most personal experience of his career.

Why should you watch it?

Copying somewhat the less is more blueprint that was so accidentally fundamental about the scares of Jaws, here Jurassic Park again toys with some of the more inherent human fears and puts the audience through the emotional ringer, at times gasping for air. A petrifying study of when “science goes wrong” that 25 years on is as fresh and tense now as it was then.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

Schindler's List Poster Oliwia Dabrowska in Schindler's List (1993)

In 1989 Spielberg directed and prepared two films for cinematic release, the bombastic blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the quieter, more intimate Always. If 1989 was a practice run, then 1993 was the main event. This is the first real example of what has become somewhat of a Spielberg trademark, the one for the fans and the one for himself. 1993 is possibly Spielberg’s crowning glory. Box office demolition thanks to Jurassic Park and then, finally, universal critical approval for one of the most astonishing pieces of Cinema anyone has ever produced.

I watched Schindler’s List again recently in order to be able to put this blog together, it had been a few years since I had sat through it. And that is exactly the point, we helplessly sit through it. There are times when it scarily feels that you are watching a documentary, this is helped in parts by the black and white cinematography and that approximately 40% of the film was done using hand-held cameras. The shoot was relatively quick, just 72 days, and was a personal immersion for Spielberg who had owned the rights to the source material since 1982 but had waited until he felt he was mature enough as a film-maker to be able to do the material justice.

“The Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is color. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black-and-white.” (3)

In Empire of the Sun, Spielberg hinted at the brutality of war but never really showed anything other than carefully constructed shots to illustrate the point. In order to do the subject of the Holocaust justice, Spielberg removes the shackles and shows us everything. At times as a viewer I found myself wanting to cry out in exasperation, mainly to the cameraman to stop showing this now, or even more strangely, ask them why aren’t you helping? We are shown in unflinching detail the desperation of the people as they search to survive against the evil regime that is bent on destroying their home, their town, their religion, their people.

A relative unknown at the time Liam Neeson lends a noble gravitas to the philandering, arrogant Schindler. When we first meet Schindler it is hard for us as the audience to warm to him but after he witnesses the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, we see a more vulnerable side to the profoundly effected Schindler as the true horrors consume him. In the first half of the film, it is difficult to truly like Schindler, we sympathise greatly with Mrs. Schindler, a small but effective part played by Caroline Goodall whose performance of loyal displeasure illustrates how the audience feels towards Schindler at first.

The frustrations that we feel towards Schindler pale into monochrome insignificance once we meet the execrable Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes with enough intimidation as to make Voldemort cower with fear in the corner. The main difference, of course, is that Goeth is based on a real person, so his depiction makes the evil that he purports all the more heinous. Fiennes fixes Goeth a steely gaze that freezes the audience as we once again beg the cameraman to stop filming as he carries out his cold-blooded executions.

For all the terror that the realism of Goeth brings to the screen, there is hope in the form of Ben Kingsley’s Ishtak Stern who acts as Schindler’s alter-ego and conscience. Stern is the voice of reason, the man who appeals to Schindler’s frugality by pointing him in the direction of the cheaper Jewish workforce. In turn, Stern ensures that many workers are needed to help the German war effort and by doing so helped save hundreds of lives. Kingsley is perfect in the role and is the warm presence on screen that the audience needs to help deal with what they are witnessing.

Schindler’s List was rewarded with 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg. On occasions Academy Awards are presented to individuals for a body of work as opposed to their most recent output, e.g. Martin Scorsese belated win for The Departed, which whilst a good film is not really in the same league as his earlier work, but here there was no doubt that Spielberg was being rewarded for Schindlers List. The critical acclaim had finally arrived for Spielberg after so long being treated with a sniffy upward-turned nose by his peers and well deserved it was.

However, perhaps more importantly for Spielberg, the film was a personal tour-de-force, an emotional pilgrimage that introspectively examined his somewhat lapsed Jewish faith. Spielberg was not paid for his contribution to the film and the Shoah foundation was established to further the remembrance of the Holocaust in World War 2.

In order to remove himself from the emotional bombardment of the filming process, Spielberg would edit Jurassic Park in the evenings to help lighten the mood. He had his friend the late Robin Williams ring the set regularly and perform some of his stand up routine to try to increase the morale of cast and crew

The question remains about whether as a viewer you can “enjoy” Schindlers List? I think enjoy is the wrong word, but there are lots to admire and as a piece of cinematic art it is peerless. Whilst it’s clearly not a film to sit around with your friends over beer and pizza looking for light giggles and thrills, neither should one feel guilty about appreciating and immersing oneself into one of the late 20th Century’s most complete pieces of Cinema.

Why should you watch it?

It is Spielberg’s most complete work. Yes, it is an ordeal at times and has moments of such unflinching brutality, but to sugar coat some of the events would be a disservice. It is film making of the highest calibre. Not one for  a regular re-watch but it is Spielberg at his artistic best. Quite simply one of the finest pieces of Cinema ever made.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997)

Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park Poster Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

After the emotional rollercoaster of the critical success and personal enlightenment of 1993, for the first time in his career, Spielberg took a sabbatical from the director’s chair. Four years was the longest that he had gone without a major cinematic release as director. When he decided to return he followed a path that had previously been trodden in 1989 and again in 1993 by releasing two films almost back to back. The one for the fans and the one for me was never more evident than the 1997 blockbusting Jurassic Park sequel and the intense, historical courtroom drama about true life events of the Spanish slave ship Amistad (which I will come onto shortly).

With The Lost World, it was argued that Spielberg was easing himself gently back into the director’s chair and on reflection, it is easy to concur with such thoughts. The Lost World, whilst entertaining in places is Spielberg on auto-pilot. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a lack of effort on display here but I don’t get the feeling that the director is overly enthusiastic about the job at hand. Spielberg himself has mentioned that perhaps his heart wasn’t fully in it

“I beat myself up… growing more and more impatient with myself… It made me wistful about doing a talking picture, because sometimes I got the feeling I was just making this big silent-roar movie… I found myself saying, ‘Is that all there is? It’s not enough for me.'” (4)

It’s not all bad though. What you have is still a fairly entertaining dinosaur movie and if we are honest with ourselves there is still tremendous fun to be had here. The cliff-top caravan vs T-Rex scene is outstanding, in particular, the slowly cracking glass separating Julianne Moore from plummeting to a watery grave is a quintessential Spielberg moment. If the director is bored and longing for more, he certainly isn’t showing it at this point.

There is also a beautifully shot Velociraptor chase through tall grass that sends shivers down the spine and the majestic Pete Postlethwaite who pretty much improves any film that he is in, is a more despicable, hissing big game hunter upgrade on the first films more skeptical Robert Muldoon played by Bob Peck. Despite the film lacking the strong presence of a Dr. Grant figure, (played with wide-eyed calmness in the first film by Sam Neill) it is good to see Jeff Goldblum front and centre as the wily chaotician, Ian Malcolm.

A pointless subplot involving Malcolm’s stow-away daughter is a Spielberg touch too far and adds nothing of any significance other than to add yet another struggling father figure to the Spielberg canon.

The problem that the film has before its even started is to still find wonder in the dinosaurs. I noted earlier in this blog when reviewing Jurassic Park that the first glimpse of the Brachiosaurus and the T-Rex attacks in particular still stand the sense of wonder today. There are no such money shots in the Lost World, the dinosaurs are introduced within the first 15 mins and they are there for the entirety. There is no real sense of menace, and Spielberg addresses this by turning the hunted into the hunters. There is a mean core that runs through the characters of the Lost World none more so illustrated by Peter Stormare’s latest European thug who gets his comeuppance from a pack of hungry Compsognathus.

The film climaxes in downtown San Diego where the hunting party has brought their captured T-Rex to be displayed at the San Diego Zoo. Needless to say, all doesn’t go to plan. Now what was quite an intriguing idea and what must have seemed like a fun concept on paper is quite frankly all over the place. This is the most out of control from a directorial point of view Spielberg has been since the dark days of 1941 (the film not the year).

I don’t hate this film but I realise there is plenty wrong with it. I feel this was a time when Spielberg felt he had to remind the world that he could still pedal the popcorn and make a film for the fans. I think this is the last film, with the possible exception of 2008’s Crystal Skull where he actually bowed to the easier option. It’s maybe the only film in his entire back catalogue where you could think that any number of directors could have made this.

Why should you watch it?

Despite its flaws it is still massively watchable. Yes there is a sense of phoning it in by Spielberg, but for sheer popcorn entertainment it can’t be faulted. 

Amistad (1997)

Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free.

Amistad Poster Djimon Hounsou in Amistad (1997)

As stated in the previous blogs every decade of work has a film that somewhat passes under the radar, a Spielberg film that sits quietly in the corner observing more illustrious or attention-grabbing bedfellows. In the 1990s we have Amistad a story of a slave mutiny on board a Spanish vessel on a trip from Cuba to the United States. Amistad often gets lost in the back catalogue of Spielberg historical dramas and that is actually a great shame as once again there is much to admire and digest.

Amistad is essentially an old-fashioned courtroom drama, but instead of a lonely accused sitting in the dock whilst free wheeling lawyers grandstand against each other in attempt to win the favour of a balanced jury, here we have 60 slaves crammed into the dock, none of them understand the language that is used to help determine their future existence. The courtroom scenes are interspersed with touches of light comic relief, the language barrier and an argument on where best to place a table are fun interludes. There are also moments of horrific torture and punishment on the Amistad itself, where slaves are seen scraping the food off each other’s faces to fight the terrible hunger they are suffering from.

The 10 minute scene halfway through the movie where Cinque, played with indomitable power by the marvellous Djimon Hounsou, recollects his experiences of the Amistad that culminates in rocks being tied to the feet of the already chained together petrified slaves as they are thrown over the side of the boat into the ocean is as brutal as any scene up until that point that Spielberg had ever put on-screen. As powerful as that scene is, it’s not really in keeping with the rest of the movie and adds little more than shock value.

This may be the problem for Amistad, the experiences of life before and on the boat for Cinque are never fully explored, with Spielberg instead focussing more on the court case. My feeling is that this would have been a better epilogue to the more interesting story and considering this is a film about the persecution of black slaves, the film paints the two white leads, an albeit excellent Anthony Hopkins as the brusk yet moral abiding president John Quincy Adams and Matthew McConaughey’s young impressionable lawyer, whose impressive hairstyle is the most memorable thing about him as the heroes of the piece. Morgan Freeman is criminally underused in a role that gives him very little to do other than stand around looking like he wants to join in more.

As previously stated Hounsou is an extraordinary screen presence and its near on impossible to tear your eyes away from him when he is on the screen. Hopkins also appears to be having a great time and almost steals the show with his impassioned 10-minute plea to the Supreme Court to find in favour of the Africans.

After the cruise control of The Lost World, Spielberg was back in serious mode, this being his first directorial release for his newly formed studio Dreamworks but again there is a feeling that he perhaps has his eyes on other projects. At times the film seems a little preachy and it possibly all ties up a little too neatly at the end.

The Academy who had been falling over themselves to reward Spielberg for his harrowing depiction of Holocaust brutality equally turned a blind eye to a depiction of a more direct American atrocity. With the exception of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Anthony Hopkins, there was only a couple of nominations in technical categories. No Best Picture nomination in a year that saw Boogie Nights also snubbed in favour of the farcical The Full Monty and the lightweight and ever so dreary As Good As It Gets. Whilst the horrors of the Holocaust happened thousands of miles away the issues of slavery happened right on their own patch. Not only was Spielberg’s film largely underappreciated, it may have also have been largely unwanted.

Why should you watch it?

Amistad feels shockingly relevant today and more people need to see it. It could have done with focussing more on the back story of Cinque and his cohorts and it is all a bit too neat and tidy, but it is a subject matter that should not be undersold and should have been seared into the consciousness of the cinematic going public. 

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.

Saving Private Ryan Poster Saving Private Ryan (1998)

After a busy yet somewhat underwhelming 1997, a year that saw the release of two films that were perfectly serviceable but somewhat nondescript, Spielberg returned to a familiar subject for his next Cinematic release, World War 2.

Saving Private Ryan is the story of a battalion of American soldiers who are tasked with a mission to find a paratrooper whose three brothers had all been killed in action. This simple premise is all the set up that you need as you get launched straight into the middle of a blistering attack on the senses. For anyone who has not seen Saving Private Ryan then it is worth noting that this film is not for the faint of heart, with Spielberg at his brutal visceral best that will leave the audience trying to contain themselves through some of the most realistic depictions of warfare captured on film.

Most people familiar with the film will talk about the Omaha Beach landing scene which dominates the first 25 minutes. There is very little that I can add that has not already been written about this opening battle in the last 20 years other than to say I can distinctly remember that in a scene that is so loud and unflinching in its ferocity, there was unadulterated silence in the cinema as it unfolded in front of us. Myself and the friends I was with were numbed to our seats as the horror and emotion engulfed us.

As was often the way back then, my cinema-going friends and I would go for dinner and possibly a few beers before catching the late night movie and I remember this was one such occasion. So we were probably in quite high spirits as we sat through the trailers and the excitement began to build as we waited for the latest Spielberg epic to begin. That first 25 minutes was the most sobering experience I had ever had with a piece of Cinema. This wasn’t the place to give that knowing elbow to the friend on the right of you, you know the one where 20 minutes into a film, you give them a nudge that is the universally recognised body signal that this film is great. No, we sat, staring at what was happening. Then the reality hit home, and in retrospect, this was part of the Spielberg genius, the reality hit home that this was the reenactment of a real event. However it was more than that, the realisation hit that these were not trained soldiers, these were normal men sent to do an extraordinary and inexplicable thing, these were your local teacher, your baker, your local store owner…………your grandfathers. None of these men had signed up for this but here they were making the ultimate sacrifice to allow us to lead the lives we now do, allow me even to write this. This is the genius of Spielberg, it’s just a film but it feels so real. Before the Germans even fire a single bullet there is a brief scene aboard the approaching boats to Omaha, where Spielberg shows a couple of extras huddling beneath the decks, with looks of abject terror on their faces…………these are not soldiers…………these are ordinary, petrified men who are quite literally moments away from going through hell.

It is easy to dismiss, and many have tried over the past 20 years, Saving Private Ryan as just being 25 minutes of brilliance and then two and half hours of trudging. I’m here to reaffirm that they are truly wrong. I will talk about the closing battle, protecting the town of Ramelle shortly but before we get to that there is plenty going on to ensure that this film is not just a one-act special.

The Jackson vs clocktower sniper had Spielberg at his most imaginative and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski at his most searing. This is followed by an attempt to capture a German machine gun post that goes horrifically and tragically wrong. It is here that the often overlooked character development of the film. The fall out from the failed machine gun capture sees the squad slowly begin to turn on each other and dissolve as a coherent unit. They are pulled back together by Captain John Miller played by Tom Hanks who was making his debut in a Spielberg film. Hanks was at the time the most bankable leading man in Hollywood, having secured two best actor Oscars in the previous 4 years and countless box office smashes. He was the quintessential Spielberg leading man, an everyday man put in the most extraordinary situations. The Spielberg/Hanks working relationship is still going strong two decades later.

I made ‘Saving Private Ryan’ for my father. He’s the one who filled my head with war stories when I was growing up (5)

Hanks gives an exceptional performance, he is the glue that is holding the whole hellish world together. He is joined by a superb cast who are all at the top of their game, especially Tom Sizemore who plays the robust but curmudgeon Sgt Horvath and Giovanni Ribisi who plays the sensitive medic, Wade. There are also early career performances from Vin Diesel and Matt Damon. However, the stand out for me of the supporting cast is Jeremy Davies who plays bookish interpreter Upham. He shines the brightest in a cast that rarely puts a foot wrong.

So onto the climactic battle protecting the town of Ramelle. Once again there is a bombardment of the senses, however, unlike Omaha, this is a slow build. Reminiscent of the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park where we hear the impending doom before we see it, here Spielberg employs the power of rumbling sound to tap into the nerves of the soldiers and the audience. We hear the German tanks for a full 2 minutes before we see it, once the tank arrives we are back into the inferno of the hell of the Omaha beach, only this time in a more claustrophobic, rubble piled setting. Some of the violence in the Ramelle battle is more distressing for the audience, at this point we have invested two and half hours in getting to know these men, these heroes, we want to see them survive. But in a war there is no fairytale script, a particularly harrowing knife fight ends in agonising slow motion as one combatant finally gets the upper hand after an exhaustive struggle. The battle of Ramelle in my mind is equally as effective as the Omaha Beach landing and further shows that Saving Private Ryan is not just the sum of its opening 25-minute salvo.

Criticism labeled at the film was that it was too American, that once again America thinks it won the war on its own. I’m pretty sure that no one wins the war in this film, and besides anyone who watched any of the British war films of the 1950s would be led to believe that not only did Britain win the war on their own but they were the only ones in it.

Saving Private Ryan’s success and enduring longevity is testament alone to the legacy that the film has. It was Best Director Oscar number two for Spielberg, whereas the Best Picture award bizarrely went elsewhere. Those who watched the Academy Awards that year will probably never forget the look on Harrison Ford’s face as he read out the name Shakespeare in Love.

Why should you watch it?

Because it is so much more than just the opening 25 minutes. The character development and notion of brotherhood between the main protagonists is one of Spielberg’s finest depictions of togetherness and bonding. As viscerally blinding as this film is, at the heart of it is a truly human story.

As the 1990s came to a close, Spielberg had visually matured as a filmmaker. He had finally been accepted by his peers, with critical acclaim for two of the most groundbreaking depictions of World War, whilst still demonstrating a flair for the fantasy and wonder with Jurassic Park.

Spielberg would move into the 21st Century once again at the top of his game. As the world became used to life after 9/11, Spielberg would start to explore darker issues, the fluffy friendly family fodder would become few and far between, things were about to get creatively very interesting.

footnotes:
1. Trivia item from imdb.com
2. http://www.azquotes.com
3. www,wikipedia.com
4. http://www.imdb.com
5. http://www.imdb.com