Steven Spielberg

by Joseph McBride

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Tom O'Brien (review date 15 June 1984)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Tom. “Parsifal at the Bat.” Commonweal 111, no. 12 (15 June 1984): 373-74.

[In the following review, O'Brien describes the action sequences in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as “relentless” and “predictable.”]

The priests of Kali (remember Gunga Din?) are at it again; tearing hearts out, performing human sacrifice, renewing the ancient conspiracy of the original “thugs,” and chanting mantras on their route to worldwide domination. They have stolen this sacred diamond from a poor Himalayan village (grabbing its children to boot), and ace archeologist Indiana Jones (having just narrowly escaped the clutches of a sadistic Shanghai gangster), must penetrate their secret palace, recover the diamond, rescue the kidnapped children, and destroy this focus of evil in the early twentieth-century world. If it wasn't for the services of his faithful “Indian” companion (here a Chinese boy, but you get the idea), Indiana might not make it, especially considering the non-services of a female companion who is dumb blonde enough to high-heel it to the Himalayas. Such is the plot of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; in other words, Raiders of the Lost Ark II, without the frankness of that designation.

If The Natural sacrifices its inner life to stylized exterior, Indiana Jones has no hint of interiority: it's pure outrageous action, with one special effects chase after another. It's the first so-called “summer fun flic” of 1984, direct from Raiders' team Steven Spielberg and George Lucas who here give us the cinematic equivalent to the old TV lure to “tune in next time.” Confronting the eternal show biz question (“What'll we do for an encore?”), they have answered quite simply: the same thing, wound up to the nth degree. Here they have put their heads and stocks together in one grand effort to out-wow all other action-adventure fantasies. The only question is—who will tire first, Indiana, or us?

Indiana Jones is exhausting and finally boring. Beginning with the hectic Shanghai prelude, there is never a pause to Indiana's escapades; it's as if we're supposed to be on the edge of our seats before we're even in them. The pace thereafter (if “pace” applies), is a relentless assault, and, I suspect, an audience wipe-out even for the self-propelled torpedoes among us. After a rickshaw car chase, Indiana must endure: mountain air crashes, treks in the high country, yucky eel dinners at the sinister palace; secret passages crawling with giant bugs and bevies of snakes; spear-studded chambers; forced initiation into Kali rites; swordfights with the High Priest; a mine-shaft escape-ride that out-vertigoes all roller coasters, cascades of water flooding the mine tunnels, and finally (I think), a floppy suspension bridge perilously roped over some gaping crocs.

The crocs are both cute and key. Considering their prominence in other films of this kind, they should get a nomination for an award sometime, or at least some credit for all their cameos. But they also illustrate the limits of this genre, an imitativeness that kills. Ironically there is no suspense in Indiana Jones, not because we know he will survive, but because we have seen it all before—the jaws, the chases, the evil priest, the works. When so predictable, the action pales.

There are other, more serious problems, particularly the violence (Spielberg has acknowledged that he would not send a ten-year-old to see the film), and the stereotypical image of an exotic country as rife with homicide and perversion. There is also the obscenity of the cost: $25 million. It takes ten minutes to read the production teams listed on the screen credits...

(This entire section contains 703 words.)

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at the end of the movie, and their names occupy four-fifths of the space on Paramount's publicity foldout.

Spielberg justifies the expense by saying that profits from such movies allow him to make better films without studio interference. I hope so. He is far better at films that blend myth with action, inner with outer, love and thrills. Interestingly, these are set in America (E.T. and Close Encounters). At home, Spielberg is deeper—better, in short, at Indiana than Indiana Jones. Like E.T., he should come home and escape the clutches of the evil High Priest Lucas, whose cinema rites seem to demand tearing the heart out of every film.


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Steven Spielberg 1947-

(Full name Steven Allan Spielberg) American director, novelist, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Spielberg's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.

Known for the stylistic virtuosity and mainstream appeal of his works, Spielberg is the most commercially successful film director of all time. Throughout his career, Spielberg has evinced a keen ability to craft engaging and entertaining narratives that appeal to both popular and critical audiences. His films have covered a diverse range of genres—literary adaptations, science fiction, and historical dramas, among others—though he is probably best known for his bombastic, special effects driven adventure films, which reflect the sensibilities of the “cinema of the spectacle” school of filmmaking. Spielberg's films have achieved such a level of international popularity that certain aspects of his movies have been permanently entered into the modern cultural vernacular, such as the foreboding violins from Jaws (1975), the landing of the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and the heroic theme music of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Despite some claims that Spielberg lacks depth as a filmmaker, a number of his works examine serious, and often difficult, subject material, including racism, the effects of rampant technological advancements, and the legacy of slavery and the Holocaust. In 2000, when the American Film Institute compiled its list of the top 100 films of all time, five of Spielberg's films—more than any other director—appeared on the list. The films were Schindler's List (1993), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jaws,Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ranking at numbers 9, 25, 48, 60, and 64, respectively.

Biographical Information

Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 18, 1947. His father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer specializing in the newly-emerging field of computers. Spielberg's family moved frequently during his youth, residing in New Jersey and Arizona before settling in San Jose, California. As a teenager, Spielberg became interested in filmmaking and began recording family events on an eight-millimeter camera. In high school, Spielberg shot dozens of short films—which often emulated his favorite movies—and finished his first full-length film, Firelight, in 1964. When his poor grades kept him out of California's more prestigious film schools, Spielberg attended California State College and studied filmmaking by sneaking onto movie sets. His short film, Amblin' (1968), won awards at the Venice and Atlanta film festivals and attracted the attention of executives at Universal Pictures. Signing a seven-year contract with Universal, Spielberg began directing for television, including several episodes of such series as Night Gallery,Marcus Welby, M.D.,Columbo, and The Name of the Game. Spielberg also directed a number of made-for-television movies, including Duel (1971), which received such positive critical attention that the film was eventually released theatrically. Spielberg's first full-length feature film, The Sugarland Express (1974), garnered a lukewarm critical assessment, but his next film, Jaws, became a cultural phenomenon. Jaws broke box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing film ever at the time, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The success of Jaws cemented Spielberg's reputation as a skilled filmmaker and allowed him the freedom to develop his own projects. His next film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was also a commercial success and earned Spielberg an Academy Award nomination for best director. Though Spielberg continued directing, he also became a film producer, forming the production company Amblin Entertainment and producing such films as Gremlins,The Goonies,Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In 1994 Spielberg teamed with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen to form DreamWorks SKG, an independent studio that produces a variety of films, musical acts, and television programs. Spielberg has also been involved with several charitable organizations, including the Shoah Visual History Foundation for Holocaust survivors. Throughout his career, Spielberg has received numerous awards and accolades for his films, earning a wealth of Academy Award nominations and winning Oscars for best director and best picture for Schindler's List and best director for Saving Private Ryan (1998). He has also won the Irving G. Thalberg Award for his overall body of work from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the National Society of Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for best picture for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA award for best picture for Schindler's List, among others.

Major Works

Spielberg's first film to be released theatrically was Duel, a television movie that follows a beleaguered motorist as he is relentlessly pursued down a highway by a homicidal truck driver. The Sugarland Express, Spielberg's next film was based on a true story of an escaped convict and his wife who kidnap their child from his foster family, resulting in a police chase across Texas. Though these early films were generally well received, Jaws stands as one of the most significant films in Spielberg's career, establishing a number of recurring traits that the filmmaker would utilize throughout his career. These traits include setting ordinary characters into extraordinary circumstances, the presence of a lurking, off-camera menace, and the director's frequent collaborations with composer John Williams. Set on a popular New England tourist island, Jaws centers around the struggles of a small-town police sheriff, a marine biologist, and a grizzled sea captain to find and kill a predatory great white shark that terrorizes the local inhabitants. Spielberg crafted the screenplay for his next directorial effort, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which chronicles a series of unusual encounters, marking the moments of first contact between human beings and extraterrestrial lifeforms. The film abandons the typically adversarial relationship between mankind and aliens in past films, instead depicting the meeting of the two races as a profoundly spiritual and joyous occasion. Spielberg also composed the novelization of his screenplay for Close Encounters, his only full-length prose work to date. He followed Close Encounters with the farcical World War II comedy 1941 (1979), one of the director's few commercially unsuccessful films. Inspired by the action cliffhanger serial films of the 1930s, Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark became the first in a trilogy of films featuring the swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones. Continuing Jones's adventures in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Indiana Jones battles Nazis, witch-doctors, and evil henchmen in his pursuit of legendary lost treasures, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones from India, and the Holy Grail. Often referred to as one of Spielberg's most personal films, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial features a young boy named Elliott who develops a symbiotic friendship with an alien called “E.T.” who was accidentally abandoned on Earth. Elliott, who feels heavily isolated due to his parents' divorce, tries to help E.T. contact his home planet while they both dodge suspicious government agents who wish to imprison and dissect E.T. The film became an enormous commercial success, surpassing Jaws as the highest-grossing film of the 1970s.

During the mid-1980s, Spielberg began a second phase in his directing career with two notable literary adaptations. In 1985 he directed the film version of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, which chronicles the life of a poor, African American woman in the rural South in the early years of the twentieth century. Trapped in an abusive marriage, the protagonist, Celie, writes letters to her sister, Nettie, who has travelled abroad. After years of apparently receiving no response from Nettie, Celie learns that her husband has kept Nettie's delivered letters from her and that Nettie is living in Africa with Celie's two children whom she gave up for adoption. In 1987 Spielberg helmed the film adaptation of J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun. The plot centers around a young English boy named Jim who is captured in Shanghai, China, during World War II and is forced to live without his parents in an internment camp for the duration of the war. Both films were considered to be a departure for Spielberg, focusing more on interpersonal relationships and trenchant emotional themes than the director's traditionally more commercial fare. Always (1989)—a remake of the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe—continued Spielberg's emphasis on smaller, more intimate stories. The protagonist, Pete, is a fire-fighting pilot, who dies in a crash, but returns as a ghost to help his former girlfriend, Dorinda, move on and find a new love. Spielberg returned to the “cinema of the spectacle” with Hook (1991), a big-budget adventure based on J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.Hook is based on the premise of an aging Peter Pan, who has forgotten how to fly, and is forced to return to NeverNeverland to rescue his children from the villainous Captain Hook.

Spielberg's career reached another important milestone in 1993, both critically and commercially, with the release of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. Adapted from the novel by Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park examines the chaotic effects of genetic engineering and commercialism run rampant. John Hammond, a billionaire entrepreneur, discovers how to clone dinosaurs from their fossilized remains and opens an exotic zoo/amusement park where paying customers can see his creatures. During an early preview of the park, a group of scientists, stakeholders, and Hammond's own grandchildren find themselves pursued by the predatory animals after the park's security network is sabotaged. Jurassic Park became a huge financial success and, like both Jaws and E.T., became the highest-grossing film of its time. Spielberg later filmed a sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in 1997. Schindler's List, based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, chronicles the true-life actions of Oskar Schindler, a charming though irresponsible German industrialist who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jewish concentration camp prisoners by employing them at his factory during World War II. Filmed in black and white, Spielberg utilizes spare cinematic effects to explore the horror of the Holocaust and the moral struggles of a man attempting to come to terms with his own conscience. The film was both commercially and critically acclaimed and, according to some film scholars, marks Spielberg's maturation as a filmmaker. In 1997 Spielberg continued to address more serious historical themes in Amistad, recounting the saga of a group of Africans kidnapped and shipped aboard a Spanish slave ship to America in 1839. After a successful shipboard revolt, the Africans gain control of the craft, only to be commandeered by an American naval vessel. A series of judicial hearings and trials ensued—the last of which was argued before the Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams for the defense—until the men were eventually classified as free by the American government and returned to Africa. In Saving Private Ryan Spielberg turned his historical perspective toward the World War II D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. The story follows the journey of a squad of American soldiers, who participated in the landing at Omaha Beach, Normandy, as they search for a missing American paratrooper, Private Ryan, whose three brothers were killed in combat. As the sole surviving brother, Ryan will be sent home from combat, yet when the squad locates him, Ryan insists on remaining to fight with his unit to secure a bridge from German forces. Much of the film's critical attention has centered on its first twenty-five minutes, which presents a chillingly accurate depiction of the horrors of the D-Day invasion.

Adapted from a short story by Brian Aldiss, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) began as a collaboration between Spielberg and noted filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. After Kubrick's death in 1999, Spielberg took over the project and wrote the screenplay himself—his first original screenplay since he co-authored Poltergeist in 1982. Drawing heavily from the story of Pinocchio, A.I. focuses on a robotic boy named David who is programmed to love the woman he believes is his mother. After being rejected and abandoned by his adopted family, David—along with a handsome robot named Gigolo Joe and a mechanical stuffed animal called Teddy—searches for the Blue Fairy, a mythical figure that David believes will grant his wish to become a real boy. Spielberg released two films in 2002—Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, Minority Report is set in Washington, D.C., in 2054. Murder has become a thing of the past due to a group of three psychics—called “pre-cogs”—who receive visions of homicides before they occur. This information is scanned, interpreted, and relayed to the Pre-Crime Unit, a crime prevention team headed by John Anderton. When the pre-cogs allege that Anderton is going to commit murder in the near future, Anderton must gather evidence to prove his innocence. Catch Me If You Can explores the true-life adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr., a seventeen-year-old con artist who passed more than one million dollars in fraudulent checks while impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, and an assistant district attorney.

Critical Reception

Since the early beginnings of his career, critics have recognized Spielberg's ability to create films that combine old-style, thrilling adventure stories with technical virtuosity, careful craftsmanship, and the latest developments in special effects. Most reviewers have contended that Spielberg has a keen ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the modern era and craft films that appeal to a wide audience base. However, film scholarship on Spielberg's oeuvre has frequently been polarized regarding the commercial/artistic value of Spielberg's films. Several critics have routinely commended Spielberg for his skill at creating technically-sound, crowd-pleasing movies that exhibit a firm reverence for the history of film. Others have countered this assessment, faulting Spielberg for overloading his narratives with visual effects and cloying sentimental messages. Such reviewers have argued that Spielberg tries too hard to make his films accessible to all audiences, thus resulting in bland and aesthetically empty commercial products. During the different phases of his career, Spielberg has attracted a diverse, and occasionally contradictory, range of criticism on his works. While some have dismissed his early films as juvenile and immature, others have lamented his more serious films of the 1990s, calling for a return to the more energetic and entertaining films of his youth. Commentary on Spielberg's more politically-conscious films has also been varied. Though many have praised The Color Purple and Amistad for effectively portraying often ignored elements of African American history, several critics have derided Spielberg, arguing that, as a Caucasian filmmaker, Spielberg is unqualified to present the perspective of minority characters. The critical debate surrounding Schindler's List has also been widely split. Despite widespread public acclaim from reviewers, audiences, and Holocaust survivors, some have argued that the film is overly sentimental and emotionally manipulative. Regardless, Schindler's List has evolved to become a respected part of the contemporary Judaic film canon. Reviewers have also offered diverse opinions on A.I., inspiring significant debate between the merits of Spielberg and Kubrick as filmmakers. Certain commentators have asserted that Spielberg unsuccessfully attempts to emulate Kubrick's cinematic style in A.I., though others have lauded the film for Spielberg's stylistic experimentation and more ambiguous emotional themes. While critics have continued to argue the merits of Spielberg's films, he retains a role as one of the most successful and revered popular filmmakers of the modern era.

Anthony Magistrale (essay date July 1984)

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SOURCE: Magistrale, Anthony. “Innocence Unrewarded: A Note on E.T. and the Myth of Adolescence.” Science-Fiction Studies 11, no. 2 (July 1984): 223-25.

[In the following essay, Magistrale examines the portrayal of adults in E.T. and discusses the film as an indictment of adult society.]

As I write these words, Steven Spielberg's movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is banned to Scandinavian children under the age of 12. Supported by an influential group of child psychologists, the authorities in Finland, Norway, and Sweden have interpreted the fantasy film as a negative image of adulthood because it portrays a society composed largely of individuals who are the enemies of children.

The adults in Scandinavia should at least be applauded for their insight. For E.T. is a subtle act of subversion, decrying a society, a culture that has lost contact with the sustaining values of human compassion and tolerance. Yet the critique which the film levels at the adult world as perceived from the standpoint of children—and sensitive and personable children at that—is not easily dismissable. Nor will prohibiting children from seeing it do away with the social tensions that alienate them and make them rebellious.

Early in E.T. we learn that the movie's young protagonist, Elliott, is disconsolate over the departure of his father—throughout the film a faceless figure who has separated from Elliott's mother and is currently pursuing another woman in Mexico. Although Elliott still lives with his mother, older brother, and younger sister, it is clear that his affluent life in suburban California is painfully incomplete without paternal influence. While searching for equipment to aid E.T. in the construction of his communicator, Elliott and his brother, Michael, discover a discarded shirt belonging to their father; Elliott even recognizes the exact scent of cologne that still lingers in depressing familiarity. In the dialogue which ensues, the audience learns that among Elliott's fondest memories are the baseball games he once attended with his father. Moreover, in spite of Michael's reassurance, the child is no longer confident such father-and-son activities will reoccur. The scene is important not only for its emotional impact in illustrating the void that exists in Elliott's life, but also in preparing the audience for E.T.'s symbolic emergence in the temporary role as a partial substitute for Elliott's absent father. In fact, it is through the extension of the baseball metaphor that the child is initially introduced to E.T.: playing a one-sided game of catch with the invisible “presence” behind the garbage cans.

Elliott is a precocious child of the 20th century. He understands intuitively that if E.T. is discovered, the creature will be displayed, analyzed, and finally dissected by a scientific community less interested in the wonder of this organism from space than in the properties which enable it to function in Earth's atmosphere. It is for this reason that Elliott elects to release the frogs in his biology class: E.T. physically resembles the specimen about to be chloroformed; but more importantly, he has also produced a heightened awareness in the child of freedom and life—values not exclusive to only the human sphere.

It is a process that bears interesting parallels with the Huck Finn-Jim relationship in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck undergoes a painful moral struggle to eventually achieve a similar empathy with the black man. This emancipatory process is more complex for Huck—filled with contradictions and the belief he has forfeited his soul—than for Elliott; but it nonetheless results in his embracing a position rather like Elliott's. Both children choose to reject the most important foundations upon which their societies are grounded—slavery and science, respectively. By logical analogy, their rejections unite them with the outsider in a life-and-death struggle against society in general.

As Leslie Fiedler has documented in Love and Death in the American Novel, there exists a mythic archetype in American culture that connects the white male outcast to the non-white outsider. The strength of this union, based initially on mutual survival and desperation, belies a loneliness that demands love; its very existence symbolizes a disavowal of the conventional in favor of a broader-based spirit of acceptance. It is a relationship that challenges the core limitations of society, and therefore must remain secretive and illicit.

E.T.'s ending is perhaps less abstract than Huckleberry Finn's, but it is as equally committed to rebellion against a society whose police are prepared (on two separate occasions) to use bullets in order to prevent the escape of both creature and children. Indeed, were it not for E.T.'s magical powers of flight and the escape they offer, the undercurrent of violence that lurks beneath the surface of Spielberg's film would have been more evident than it is, with a result closely resembling the conclusion of François Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows.

But what of the adults in E.T.? Are they indeed unfair caricatures worthy of censorship? Spielberg's treatment of them—from the helmeted albino monsters who finally capture E.T. to the waist-angle shots of legs and jangling keys—considers adulthood from the restricted perspective of a ten-year-old (or a three-foot-high extraterrestrial). From a strictly imagistic point of view, the strategy is highly effective, rendering both a surreal sense of unbridled bureaucratic power and a heightened sensation of anxiety and fear. However, when helmets are removed and upper torsos reattached to legs, Spielberg's adults become no less monstrous. Devoid of an appreciation for the mysterious and even lacking a primitive level of human compassion, they are the technological descendants of Hawthorne's intellectuals (Brand, Chillingworth, Rappaccini, etc.): scorning the relationship between Elliott and E.T., their overuse of science—the discovery of DNA in E.T. produces ecstasy among the white-cloaked technicians—nearly destroys the very organism they seek to penetrate. Representative of modern man at his worst, scientists unite with various governmental agencies to stalk the screen in zombie-like performances; they emerge as the real “creatures” from a hostile world. The technocrats in this film compose an unflattering portrait; but they are—unfortunately—no mere exaggerations of 20th-century man, obsessed in his desire for meaning through statistics.

Perhaps Spielberg's most serious indictment of adults concerns their lost capacity for wonder. While explaining the Peter Pan legend to her daughter, Elliott's mother (Mary) pays lip-service to the importance of believing in “fairies.” However, when confronted with the reality of E.T.—fantasy brought to material form—she responds only with fear and loathing, removing her children from E.T.'s sickly presence. Her reactions are of course in stark contrast to those of her children, all of whom readily welcome the space-being into their lives. Although Mary also comes to “love the alien” at the film's conclusion, she gains this new perspective only after observing the relationship between E.T. and her children and by personally experiencing the intrusion and violation of both home and offspring by the officious authorities.

Spielberg does not unexceptionally condemn adults or science. Peter Coyote appears in a cameo role as a scientist who has relinquished neither his humanity nor the ability to perceive imaginatively. As he acknowledges to Elliott, he has been exploring the world of fantasy, anticipating an experience like the appearance of E.T., since he was ten years old. Only the arrogant bureaucrats and technicians who have willingly purged themselves of all ties to childhood are subject to Spielberg's wrath.

Behind the backdrop of romance and fantasy, there is a pervasive element of desperation that propels Elliott through his adventure. Elliott's own nostalgic longing for the former, more complete family unit he once shared, is echoed in E.T.'s interstellar quest for transportation “home.” But when the spaceship ascends with E.T. on board, Elliott's human father remains in Mexico and marital divorce still looms in the future. At the end of the film, Elliott is abandoned once again, and like so many American protagonists in literature and cinema—from Faulkner's and Hemingway's time-warped outcasts to the celluloid anti-heroes played by Dustin Hoffman—his quest for wholeness remains unresolved. In this sense at least, the child undercuts the sentimental myth of bliss and leisure so frequently attributed by nostalgic adults to the experience of boyhood. Elliott remains profoundly skeptical of the adult world, and given his experience in it, his mistrust is more than adequately justified.

The relationship between Elliott and E.T. represents an indictment of adult society that spans generations of families, decades of history. The film raises the uncomfortable and yet unanswered question of why it is that in America, or Scandinavia, or perhaps anywhere else, a man so rarely evolves into what the boy gave promise of becoming. This is the real issue that child psychologists and librarians, properly concerned over the healthy development of society's children, should consider thoroughly before resorting to the deadening effects of censorship. What is it about the adult world—what properties inhere with the matrix of its institutions and authority—that makes enemies of its own progeny?

Principal Works

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Amblin' [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1968

*Duel [director] (television film) 1971

Something Evil [director] (television film) 1972

Savage [director] (television film) 1973

The Sugarland Express [director] (film) 1974

Jaws [director] (film) 1975

Close Encounters of the Third Kind [director and screenwriter] (film) 1977

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: A Novel (novel) 1977

1941 [director] 1979

Raiders of the Lost Ark [director] (film) 1981

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial [director] (film) 1982

Poltergeist [with Mark Victor and Michael Grais] (screenplay) 1982

Twilight Zone: The Movie [director; with Joe Dante, John Landis, and George Miller] (film) 1983

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [director] (film) 1984

The Color Purple [director] (film) 1985

Empire of the Sun [director] (film) 1987

Always [director] (film) 1989

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade [director] (film) 1989

Hook [director] (film) 1991

Jurassic Park [director] (film) 1993

Schindler's List [director] (film) 1993

Amistad [director] (film) 1997

The Lost World: Jurassic Park [director] (film) 1997

Saving Private Ryan [director] (film) 1998

The Unfinished Journey [director] (short film) 1999

Steven Spielberg: Interviews [edited by Lester D. Friedman and Brent Notbohm] (interviews) 2000

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence [director and screenwriter] (film) 2001

Catch Me If You Can [director] (film) 2002

Minority Report [director] (film) 2002

*Duel received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom in 1972 and in the United States in 1973.

†Spielberg directed the second segment of this anthology film, titled Kick the Can.

‡Spielberg adapted the screenplay from an original screen story by Ian Watson and Stanley Kubrick, which was based on Brian Aldiss's short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.”

Janice Hocker Rushing (essay date May 1985)

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SOURCE: Rushing, Janice Hocker. “E.T. as Rhetorical Transcendence.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 71, no. 2 (May 1985): 188-203.

[In the following essay, Rushing characterizes E.T. as “a significant experiment in the rhetoric of mythic transcendence,” noting that the film effectively deconstructs the boundaries between the individual and the community.]

Heaven has become for us the cosmic space of the physicists, and the divine empyrean a fair memory of things that once were. But the heart glows, and a secret unrest gnaws at the roots of our being.

—Carl Jung1

Our time is marked by a yearning for wholeness. While continuing to benefit from the progress wrought by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, Western humanity is beginning to ask, “At what price?” For, along with its scientific dreams, the Enlightenment has delivered its share of technological nightmares. The twentieth century has enjoyed labor-saving devices, longer leisure hours, and increased lifespans. It has endured pollution, traffic fatalities, and Hiroshima. While few would actually return, given some fanciful time machine, to a pre-industrial age, many feel an undeniable, if unspoken, sense of fragmentation and separation—from their world, their fellow human beings, and themselves.

Although all cultures have sought transcendent wholeness to some extent, the contemporary desire is somewhat unique, tempered by historical precedents and made urgent by frightening future contingencies. A host of scholars have recognized the fundamental division of our age, referring to it in terms of fragmentation, secularization, and an absence of unity. Writers as diverse as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Fritjof Capra, Carl Sagan, and Robert Pirsig have testified to the modern need for transcendence.2 The problem arises, they would agree, because in our scientifically “enlightened” world, “all gods and devils have been rationalized out of existence.”3 Thus, as Stephen Toulmin notes in his recent The Return to Cosmology, the desire has been growing since the 1960s to recapture the classical Greek sense of “cosmos”—“the conviction that the entire system of the world forms a single, integrated system united by universal principles, that all things in the world consequently share in a common ‘good order,’ in short, that the universe or ouranos is ‘well turned out.’”4 Cartesian dualism, he claims, has exhausted its own limitations in the last century; the worldview of post-modern philosophy unites value and science, contemplation and action, returning us to a sense of unity, order, and proportion.5

While numerous scholar-writers have documented the plight of modern separation persuasively for learned audiences, it is film which has articulated the message for those Aristotle called “untrained thinkers.” In particular, space science fiction and fantasy make cosmic connections in mythic form. The more noteworthy representatives include 2001: A Space Odyssey,Star Wars,The Empire Strikes Back,The Return of the Jedi,Star Trek: The Motion Picture,Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,Star Trek: The Search for Spock,Blade Runner,Outland, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.6 Possibly the most significant vision of wholeness, however, is 1982's figuratively and literally uplifting story of a boy and his extra-terrestrial. Viewers have thus far contributed enough money to watch E.T. phone home to make E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial one of the top ten grossing films ever made.7 Most critics exuberantly praised the film. Representative is James M. Wall, who proclaimed E.T. “destined to become one of the great fictional characters of all time.”8 Stephen Spielberg himself referred to the “spirituality” of E.T., explaining, “I was working with a very sensitive screenplay about the total human condition.”9

Whatever the communicative format, statements expressing the contemporary sense of fragmentation and the corresponding impulse toward unity are of considerable rhetorical significance. Together, they constitute an emergent genre of discourse which articulates these feelings as a special kind of rhetorical exigence that it simultaneously attempts to redress. In Lloyd F. Bitzer's concept of the rhetorical situation, “exigence” is an immediate pragmatic problem, a disturbance of equilibrium to be remedied by practical discourse.10 John Angus Campbell notes, however, that there are “ultimate” rhetorical exigences which are enduring and thus do not precisely fit Bitzer's model. Death is such an exigence: “Beyond the pragmatic world of manageable, mundane exigences and manageable responses,” claims Campbell, “looms mortality itself as the omnipotent exigence energizing the ‘trail of symbols’ which is human history as narratives, as lived experience.”11 The need to overcome a sense of separation from self, society, and the universe is another such “omnipotent” exigence. As death is “beyond the capacity of any symbolism whatever ultimately to assuage,” so is the lack of wholeness.12 And yet, as we respond to death with funerals, so we respond to division with rituals and words. We are moved to speak, knowing that our speech is in itself inadequate. Why, then, do we address universal exigences when we are aware that our acts cannot remove them?

One possible answer is that discourse which addresses cosmological matters performs its rhetorical function in relation to history. My general thesis is that contemporary statements addressing the need for transcendence respond to an exigence which is both enduring and developing over time. Such advocacy operates not primarily to remove the exigence, but rather to reaffirm the centrality of the present as one chapter in an evolutionary and cosmological narrative that stretches into the past as history and into the future as spirit. In developing this thesis, I will first recast the universal exigence of fragmentation/holism into a philosophical framework which sets forth more clearly its evolutionary place in the cosmological scheme of things. Such a view is found in the “Philosophia perennis,” a term coined by Leibniz, popularized by Aldous Huxley,13 and refined by diverse writers. I will then use this framework to examine E.T. as a particularly eloquent statement of how this exigence is both presented and addressed in mass mediated public discourse.


Universalize the idea of purpose (as when the mark of God is seen in each creature). Then identify the individual with this universal design. The result is invigorating. But let anything go wrong with the identification, and all that is left is a sorely protruding ego, a very self-sick self.

—Kenneth Burke14

The rudiments of perennial philosophy are found in the mythic lore of all cultures, and its fully developed forms are the core of the world's highest religions.15 It is embraced, in whole or in part, by such minds as Plato, Hegel, Schopenhauer, William James, Whitehead, Einstein, Jung, Teilhard de Chardin, Capra, and Ken Wilber. Huxley calls perennial philosophy “immemorial and universal,” and defines it as:

the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being. …16

The position holds that the Absolute is not an ontological Other separated from humanity by nature, but rather, the ground or condition of the universe.17 The Infinite exists as a psychic potential within all individuals at the same time that it is greater than each individual. Perennial philosophy is concerned, then, with the One and the Many, defining them as identical.

Though one typically experiences oneself as a separate being, located in time and space, one is actually connected with every other person and with the whole of the universe. Einstein calls this separate self-sense “an optical delusion of … consciousness … a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from that prison.”18 Or, we might say, to respond to the exigence of felt fragmentation. For the ground of being, from which we came and to which we return, is not limited in time and space. It is, rather, what Paul Tillich calls “the eternal now”: “There is no time after time, but there is eternity above time.”19

Though Spirit is infinite and eternal, it is, according to Hegel, also in the process of its own becoming.20 It is actualized only by its development through its end.History, or evolution, is this development, and it is a movement both of Spirit and toward Spirit. History is driven by the telos of “absolute knowledge,” in which Spirit returns from separation from itself to itself on the highest level of the evolutionary hierarchy, at which stage subjectivity and objectivity are identified. In Hegel's words, “the present stage of Spirit contains all previous stages within itself. These, to be sure, have unfolded themselves successively and separately, but Spirit still is what it has in itself always been.”21 Huxley states this view in typical paradoxical form: “Only the transcendent, the completely other, can be immanent without being modified by the becoming of that in which it dwells.”22

Thus, history is the unfolding of human consciousness.23 Teilhard de Chardin's “Law of Complexity-Consciousness” describes this development as the capstone of the evolution of lower forms of life. The law states that evolution proceeds in the direction of increasing complexity, order, and interdependence, accompanied by a rise in consciousness, culminating in human spirituality.24 The human psyche evolves, that is, from an unconscious state of absolute oneness with Spirit, through consciousness of its separation from Spirit, to conscious transcendence of boundaries in a reuniting of itself with Spirit. The evolution of consciousness matures from matter to body to mind to soul to Spirit. Or, to put it another way, it grows from preconsciousness (matter and body) to consciousness (ego/mind) to transconsciousness (soul and Spirit).25 Mythologically, preconsciousness was Paradise, consciousness was the Fall, and transconsciousness, the ultimate unity of the cosmos, for which we even now yearn, is yet to come.26

Whereas perennial philosophy posits an evolutionary telos of unity (and thus differs from the Darwinian claim of random natural selection), it does not imply that the reaching of this telos is absolutely predetermined. Rather, humans, individually and collectively, may choose whether to transform themselves to the next stage of consciousness. Given such transformation, they may also choose whether to negate the former stages, or eventually to negate this negation, thus integrating and preserving all prior stages. That is, true transcendence is open to human choice and praxis and this choice creates both responsibility and the necessity for rhetorical discourse.

It is this choice, also, which creates the opportunity for division—for fragmentation within the self and for separation of the self from the universe. For while each person intuits the true nature of all souls, he or she is also terrified of actual transcendence, for this implies the “death” of the isolated self-sense. In order to satisfy the self's greatest desire, one must sacrifice that very desiring self. “And there is the dilemma, the double-bind in the face of eternity.”27 Since the dawn of the conscious age, people have attempted to resolve this ultimate bind by refusing to accept the inevitable death of the separate self and by embracing instead the drive to perpetuate their own egos as surrogate gods.

The Western world now finds its conscious self in full dominance. The collective ego has become an entity separate from the cosmos.28 The emergence of the ego has brought self-analysis, reflection, philosophy, and science—great prizes for humanity. The dark side of these achievements lies, however, in the increased sense of the self as separate, with the ego confronted with an ever more intense fear of death. And whereas transcendence requires eventual integration of the preconscious realms of matter and body with the mind, the ego instead has responded to its fear of death with violent repression of them. In the average consciousness of the West, the ego has become dissociated from the lower realms, distorting and deforming both the body and itself. “The ego rose up arrogant and aggressive … and began to sever its own roots in a fantasy attempt to prove its absolute independence,” claims Wilber.29 In addition, the typical self of today does not realize that this is not the highest mode of consciousness to be achieved, but has begun, tragically, to “remake the cosmos in its own image.”30

The contemporary exigence of fragmentation, then, interpreted in light of perennial philosophy, is our failure to understand the ego as a part rather than the whole, a transition rather than the telos. This failure is widely felt as a disconnectedness from both roots and future, and is expressed as fear that the extensions of consciousness will overwhelm preconsciousness and deny the possibilities of transconsciousness. It results in warnings that technology overshadows spirituality, that science denigrates emotion and intuition, and worst of all, that nuclear weapons may end history. However it is expressed, this conviction of urgent need underlies all the discourses alluded to above, which collectively comprise a formidable plea for action.


Extraterrestrial life is an idea whose time has come.

—Carl Sagan31

In E.T., as in other fantasy films, the perennial exigence and rhetorical response are communicated in the form of a transcendent myth.32 As Capra notes, “The language of mythology, which is much less restricted by logic and common sense, is often more appropriate to describe transpersonal phenomena than factual language.”33 The “lexicon” of transcendent myth is archetypal symbols, which become meaningful only within the context of the entire narrative.34 In E.T., the most important symbols are the hero, the villain, the flying saucer, and the child. In what follows, I will first interpret these symbols from the perspective of perennial philosophy, which illuminates their import at this particular time in history, and then demonstrate how they attain their special significance within the overall context of E.T.

As critics have pointed out, the central rhetorical symbol in a myth is generally a cultural hero.35 In a truly transcendent myth, although the hero may be from a particular culture and thus appear in a time and space-bound guise, his or her message will be universal. In addition, from the perspective of perennial philosophy, the mythic hero evolves, and thus will take different forms in different ages. As such, a “hero,” says Wilber, is “one who first tries out the next major structure of consciousness.36 That is, the hero's treasure, bestowed on the rest of humanity, is the next and higher stage of evolution toward Spirit.

Symbolically, the hero of the early and middle levels of consciousness was the ego emerging out of the unconscious to claim independence. The heroic ego is justly celebrated in countless myths of this period. Every hero must be tested by a monster or villain, and in an evolutionary perspective, the heroes of the previous stage become the dragons of the present. This is so because the emergent layer of consciousness must first negate the lower level before going on to preserve and integrate it. Thus, the “Great Mother” or “Great Goddess,” worshipped in many guises during the preconscious age, became the dragon to be conquered by the heroic ego.37 In most respects, that particular battle is now over; the heroic ego has won. In fact, today we face “a new dragon”—the egoic structure itself, which was the hero of the last stage.38 Having severed itself from its roots in Mother Nature (the Great Goddess of the preconscious), rationality and its extensions now threaten to kill her. And having emerged victorious, reason has pronounced itself its own end. “No longer harmony with the Heavens, but a ‘conquering of space’; no longer respect for Nature, but a technological assault on Nature.”39

The proclaimed “New Age” of transconsciousness is undoubtedly much farther away than those impatient for its arrival would like to think.40 However, popular myth has for quite some time begun to display the ego as villain rather than hero. The villainous ego most commonly appears in the guise of rationality's most obvious products—science and technology. Frankenstein gave us a technologically created monster on the loose,41Superman an array of evil geniuses, 2001 the treacherous computer, HAL, and Star Wars the half-man, half-machine Darth Vader. In the latter, Joseph Campbell finds the same mythological theme as that of Faust:

Are the machine and the machine maker going to dominate the human spirit, or is the human spirit going to be served by the machine? Luke Skywalker and his father, Darth Vader, represent the two positions. The father has capitulated to the machine and become robotized; the son will not capitulate. He rescues his father.42

This theme, he says, is “the crisis of contemporary life,” and the films show “how the conditions of the time determine the images and bring the spiritual problem into focus in a contemporary way.”43

If the new mythic monster is technological, then the new hero would be trans-rational. This hero's treasure is a state of mind which is centauric (mind and body united), intuitive, and psychic.44 In myth, we could expect this hero to appear as a symbol of wholeness, to search for a holistic treasure, and possibly to be announced or preceded by other holistic symbols. There are countless wholeness symbols in mythology—among them, the jewel, the pearl, the flower, the chalice, the golden egg, the quarternity (usually embedded in a mandala), the golden ball, etc.45 In E.T., the relevant wholeness motifs are the UFO or flying saucer, which brings the extraterrestrials to earth, and the child, who discovers in E.T. a mirror of himself. Jung's interpretations of the UFO and child motifs are particularly useful because he sees them as significant collective images of dissociation in modern times. Thus his reading of these symbols is consistent with perennial philosophy and helps to explain their import in contemporary times, and within the film.

Jung has analyzed the widespread sightings of UFOs in the last few decades, whether real or imagined, as an example of a “visionary rumour,” told all over the world, which expresses an unconscious attempt to heal the split between the conscious and the unconscious in our age.46 They stem from a situation of collective distress or danger, and are a modern manifestation of the mandala, an individuation symbol known to medieval alchemy, which assumed the soul to have the shape of a sphere, analogous to Plato's world-soul. The mandala portrays the archetype of the self, which can unite apparently irreconcilable opposites. Jung found that the UFO inhabitants were often rumored to stand about three feet high, to be weightless, and to look vaguely like humans or like “technological angels”—sometimes dwarfs with enormous heads bursting with intelligence, sometimes lemur-like creatures covered with hair and equipped with claws, or dwarfish monsters clad in armour and looking like insects.47 Sometimes they were carrying out a cautious survey of the earth, but typically avoided contact with humans. They obviously had superior technology, and were occasionally feared as destroyers of the planet. More often, however, they were credited with superior wisdom and moral goodness which would enable them to save humanity. Many imagined them, for example, to be concerned about our capacity for nuclear destruction. It is characteristic of the contemporary age that the symbol of the self would take a technological form. “Anything that looks technological goes down without difficulty with modern man.”48

In addition, as critics have pointed out, E.T. is not just about mandalic spaceships and alien creatures, but about children, and it appeals especially to them and to the child in those of us more advanced in years.49 Indeed, the child can take on heroic proportions. Visions of the child appear in both the dreams of the individual and the artistic images of a culture when a dissociation has taken place between past and present.50 The child, like the mandala, is a compensatory symbol, corrective of “the inevitable one-sidedness and extravagances of the conscious mind.”51 The child symbolizes not only the preconscious state of infancy, but also the preconscious stage of the evolution of humankind, the childhood aspect of the collective psyche, and its imagistic repetition reminds us of the link with our origins.52 More than that, however, the child also represents latent possibilities. Because it will grow into an adult, it essentializes the transconscious phase of humankind. It is the repository of past as well as future possibilities. It is therefore, a “symbol which unites the opposites; a mediator, bringer of healing, that is, one who makes whole.”53 We shall now see how these archetypal symbols—the hero, villain, flying saucer, and child—interact as a whole within the film.

E.T. opens with a dark, misty, dreamy sequence—a primeval-looking redwood forest is lit only by the soft halo-ish glow of a round spaceship. Squatty little elfin creatures, presumably from the landed ship, poke about, carefully collecting plant samples from the forest. The dimness is suddenly pierced by the harsher light of earthbound vehicles. From these trucks emerge giant, threatening men. Through the eyes of one of the small creatures, with whom the camera leads us to identify, we see that the men are hunting it down like a fugitive, blinding it with the shafts of their headlights. The creature hides in a ravine, covered by a protective mist, and watches as they jump over it, its own heart-light flashing with fear within its chest. The spaceship takes off hurriedly as the creature crouches, the yellow lights of the suburb beyond the trees twinkling benignly. “He was alone, three million light-years from home.”54

The whole of E.T. is visually enfolded within this first scene, a subtly complex interplay of lights glowing from each source that will play a symbolically important role in the ensuing drama. Though it does not dominate the scene, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the spaceship is the usual circular, mandala-like shape. From its comparatively soft illumination, it is clear from the outset that this UFO is no destructive force. Rather, its crew members are collecting samples from all the vegetational eras, trying to save earth's foliage before its inhabitants completely annihilate it.55 To the abandoned creature, the real aliens are the adult earthlings, tall faceless men with rings of threatening keys at their belts and relentless flashlights in their hands. Indeed, this dwarfed traveler left on earth by the mandala from the sky is imprinted with its wholeness, as we shall later see. But we do not see the creature clearly yet. Rather, we follow the distant lights to the suburban home, which itself houses a small creature who will first “see” the abandoned one.

The space creature wanders into the backyard of the house, alone, bewildered, and exposed to the harmful effects of the earth's gravity (he is weightless at home).56 He hides quietly in the toolshed. Meanwhile, the house reverberates with activity. A group of children is playing “Dungeons and Dragons,” filling the family room with fairy tale chatter and strewing its contents with middle-class paraphernalia. Amidst the confusion, however, the film's focus is unmistakably the ten-year-old child, Elliott. He lives a materially comfortable life with his mother, adolescent brother, and younger sister. But he obviously misses his father, who has left his mother. Elliott is not quite old enough to be accepted fully into the inner circle of his brother and friends, routinely says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and is, as the book informs us, a “twerp.”57 Like E.T., he seems alone, unconnected, at loose ends.

The child almost always appears in myths and fairy tales as abandoned and exposed to danger. Since the child is evolving towards independence, it cannot accomplish this without detaching itself from its origins. Abandonment represents the precariousness of the possibility of wholeness; there are enormous difficulties to be overcome in attaining this “highest good.” It also symbolizes “the powerlessness and helplessness of the life-urge which subjects every growing thing to the law of maximum self-fulfillment [in perennial philosophy, transcendence], while at the same time the environmental influences place all sorts of insuperable obstacles in the way of individuation [substitute transcendence].”58 Elliott is initially a symbol of the dissociation in our evolving consciousness; he appears to warn us that we have abandoned our childhood state, that we have “lost our roots,” and have forgotten who we are. The danger is that if the childhood state of the collective psyche is repressed to the point of total exclusion, the unconscious will overwhelm the conscious, inhibiting or even destroying its realization. “Archetypes have a strange way of making sure of their effect.”59 But this film is not The Exorcist,The Omen, or Carrie.60 The child is precocious, but kind, and he will provide hearth and makeshift home for the abandoned alien.

Elliott wanders into the backyard. When he hears a sound coming from the toolshed, he throws a baseball into it. To his astonishment, the ball is thrown back to him. His family investigates. Finding nothing, they are, of course, unbelieving. But Elliott's curiosity leads him to lure the “goblin” from the shed Hansel and Gretel style. At first sight they are both goblins to each other, and they shriek at their mutually discovered surprise. But slowly the space creature's face and form are revealed to us, and to Elliott, who “sees” him for what he is—a strange, but frightened visitor who is no more threatening to Elliott than his little sister. They make friends, Elliott christens him (“it” is male, we find out) “E.T.” for “Extra-Terrestrial,” harbors him in his closet, and comes to know intuitively that E.T. is “a great treasure.”

Spielberg wanted in E.T. a creation that only a mother could love,61 and he does take a bit of warming up to. But he is, indeed, marvelous. Visually, E.T. is an oxymoron, creating the initial shocking effect of that trope. His looks are a key to his character. He has a heart-shaped head. He has huge, bulging eyes within a large head, archetypal symbols of rationality,62 as well as a heart that flashes a red light whenever emotionally aroused. His grey-green reptilian skin is “as homely as a turtle without its shell,”63 and yet the children treat him more like a pet, evoking in them and us a “basic puppy-feeling.”64 His drooping stomach is “in touch with the terrain,” yet he is “low-slung and contemplative.”65 He is a plant lover (he brings sagging plants back to life with the merest touch or thought-wave) and a computer whiz (he fashions the transmitter which ultimately allows him to phone home from computerized toys and spare parts around the house). He uses his long, rootlike fingers both to manipulate objects and to heal human wounds. He can be clumsy and awkward, as when he catches his web-like toes in the forested underbrush as he is chased at the beginning, but also graceful and soaring, as when he lifts the getaway bicycles over the trees in the final chase to the starborne ship.

E.T. appears oxymoronic because he represents the integration of all the evolutionary stages of the human race. He is in touch with matter, earth, plant life, animals (Harvey the dog worships E.T.), emotions, instincts, logic and technology. Moreover, he is heroic for Elliott and the other children because he has evolved into the next stage of consciousness. He not only demonstrates psychic powers, but also establishes a telepathic connection with everything from plants to animals to Elliott to other extra-terrestrials.66 Plants in the house die when E.T. gets sick; Elliott (begins with “E,” ends with “T”)67 gets tipsy at school when E.T. drinks his first beer, and kisses a startled schoolgirl while E.T. watches a love scene at home on T.V. (Spatial boundaries are eliminated.) An unconscious sense of interconnectedness with externals is characteristic of the first evolutionary stages, but E.T. is quite aware of his unity with the cosmos, and this is characteristic of transconsciousness.

The important thing about this hero is, then, that he does not repress or ignore former stages of consciousness as he moves into the next. E.T. is above all a symbol of wholeness, a model of merged contradictions. In him, even temporal boundaries are eliminated, creating a true paradox. For, with his wizened rib cage, pot belly, and oversized cranium, he is both a wise old sage—ten million years old, in fact—and a vulnerable little baby. Elliott understands this. As he is showing E.T. around the house, “The long, rootlike fingers entwined with his, and Elliott felt he was leading a child younger than himself, but then the rippling wave washed over him again, bearing star-secrets and cosmic law, and he knew the creature was older than he was, by a great deal.”68 Ariel Dorfman captures the audience's paradoxical feelings about E.T.: “However much E.T. is beholden to worms, dragons, and insects for his looks, he is above all an overweight fetus, a wise old man from outer space in the garb of an infant.”69 Young and old, he is the child of humanity's infancy and its promise of future possibilities.

E.T. forms a bond with Elliott rather than others for several reasons. Both have been abandoned and are in need of a friend. As representative of the “child motif,” Elliott and E.T. seem to recognize themselves in each other. Both are treated as insignificant by some of the people around them—Elliott by his brother's friends and E.T. by Elliott's mother. The divine child is generally treated as “a mere child,” as “insignificant,” because the conscious mind does not readily recognize the child's redeeming possibilities. It appears unexpectedly in the unlikeliest of places (generally close to nature) and in ambiguous forms—e.g., Tom Thumb, a dwarf, a human child, an elf. Symbolic of the devalued past, “It is therefore easily overlooked and falls back into the unconscious.”70 This is why Mary, the mother, does not see E.T. when she practically trips over him in the kitchen and when she looks right at him among the stuffed animals in Elliott's closet.71 Neither do the adults entertaining the trick-or-treaters “see” E.T. as real when he rings their doorbells on Halloween, standing boldly on their doorsteps. He does not stand out because they are adults, representative of consciousness. Elliott, as well as his brother and sister, see E.T., certainly, because they are loving, trusting, and curious,72 and because it is traditional in children's tales for the adults not to see the supernatural while the children do.73 More important, however, as children, they represent what our age most needs—to retrieve our collective childhood and allow ourselves a glimpse of our old age. Elliott is interchangeable in this regard with the small boy in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Childhood is thus in a double sense the “treasure hard to attain” of the modern age. E.T. (and by extension, Elliott, who is now indelibly linked to him) is its representative here. E.T. is both a hero and a treasure in the same way that other truly transcendent figures have been both. E.T., that is, has found the treasure of transconsciousness, become one with it, and now is that treasure for others. As hero, he simultaneously shows the way and is the way. He demonstrates how to become what we can be. Elliott intuitively knows he has been given a wonderful gift, and that he must hide E.T. in his closet, even before he sees the trucks spying on the house from the streets. For great treasures are always in great danger of being stolen, devoured, desecrated, ripped apart, or stuffed. “It is a striking paradox in all child myths,” Jung writes, “that the ‘child’ is on the one hand delivered helpless into the power of terrible enemies and in continual danger of extinction, while on the other he possesses powers far exceeding those of ordinary humanity.”74

Indeed, E.T. and Elliott become very ill. E.T. turns light grey, then white. Elliott, now cosmically united with E.T., also burns with fever, and the houseplants die. “Still bound to their planet, Earthlings can't deal with the ache of universal love.”75 It is telling that E.T., this ancient traveler in the void, would get sick here on Earth, exposed to our environment. “In our society,” warns Capra, “a truly holistic approach will recognize that the environment, created by our social and economic system, based on the fragmented and reductionistic Cartesian world view, has become a major threat to our health.”76 E.T. has lost hope his transmitter will allow him to phone home, and that his fellow space botanists will return for him. Although he obviously loves Elliott, “Cosmic loneliness had gotten to the marrow of his bones.”77 Toulmin speaks to what E.T.'s illness represents:

The world of nature is the place where, as members within the larger evolutionary scheme of things, human beings are “well adapted,” and so “at home”; or, at the very least, where they have the power to make themselves “at home”. … [T]he program of cosmology thus has an intrinsic connection with the ideas of “natural status” and “home.”78

In dream and myth, home generally symbolizes the whole self. E.T. simply cannot feel at home here, where technology-on-the-loose is so marring our fragile planet. He is sick because he is divided from himself.

To make things worse, powerful enemies have now located the extra-terrestrial, and have marked Elliott's house with an “X” on their maps. Spielberg's monsters are never aliens—they always dwell among us—in our oceans, highways, houses, machines, and psyches.79 In E.T., the portrait of the villains is chillingly accurate. They are adult, male, technologically advanced scientists, astronauts, doctors, and government agents. Adults represent consciousness when they are contrasted with children as symbolic of pre- and transconsciousness. Mythically, males represent “the solar ego,” hero of the egoic evolutionary stage that replaced the Great Mother with the “sun god” and matriarchy with patriarchy.80 Embodied in the scientists, these adult men are literally “off on their own ego trip,” neither stopping to pay respects to their parents (their child) nor to their wiser elders.

Visually, the film is quite clear that these are the enemies. We see them rise ominously from behind a hill, their outlines wavering in the heat of the sun, slowly gathering in numbers. Once at the house, they drape it in plastic vinyl and, dressed in spacesuits, enter forcibly through a pneumatic tube; unlike Elliott, they want to ensure no contaminating contact with the transcendent creature. Though they are trying to help, they insist on doing it their own way. It does not occur to them that the extensions of their own egos may not be able to “fix things” this time. As Kotzwinkle has it, “Keys” (the one most intent on finding E.T.), “had not considered that too much expertise might be dangerous, that a little spaceman who thrived on M&Ms did not need intravenous feeding, nor a possible organ transplant.”81

In spite of Elliott's screaming, “You're hurting him! You're killing us!” the doctors continue to poke and prod both Elliott and E.T., sticking them with needles and hooking them to machines. In the throes of their own hubris, these men want to possess the cosmos rather than to become one with it. Instead of being one with God, they try to play God. Their efforts are to no avail on E.T.; the EKG reading shows his heart has stopped. Elliott's fever subsides, however, as E.T. “expires.” The men in the suits pack the creature in dry ice, zip him in a plastic bag, plop him in a lead coffin, and shove him in the van outside. The film's warning of danger is that yesterday's hero will become tomorrow's monster if this hero desecrates its origins and refuses to die for the sake of its own transcendence. The theme is similar to that Langdon Winner finds in Frankenstein. Like Victor Frankenstein, the men in E.T. are brilliant scientists. But Victor, like them, “never moves beyond the dream of progress, the thirst for power, or the unquestioned belief that the products of science and technology are an unqualified blessing for humankind.”82

In the face of such powerful enemies, Elliott and E.T. seem alone, exposed, and insignificant. Myth emphasizes, however, that the “child” will unexpectedly pull through despite all dangers.83 Just when we are sure that E.T. will become a stuffed display of the Allen Space Center at the Smithsonian, his heart-light shines through the dry ice. Elliott joyfully unzips the plastic bag, and hears once more the irrepressible “E.T. phone home!” Apparently the transmitting device is working, and Elliott and the other children, chased by their enemies, drive, bicycle, then “fly-cycle” E.T. to the spot where E.T.'s beloved mother ship lands in a beam of lavender light. As Elliott gazes at the ship, transfixed, he imagines it “E.T. multiplied a millionfold, the greatest heart-light the world had ever seen.” Indeed, “Her command lights shone their elegant patterns around her hull, and he felt the mind of the cosmos therein, in its most evolved form.”84 In a moment of attempted loving possession, Elliott begs E.T. to stay. But E.T.'s task on Earth is finished. He has shown the way to transcendence through love, which dissolves all opposites, and must now return from whence he came. (Besides, who would ever want to give up transcendent bliss for a California tract home?) He embraces Elliott and, placing his graceful glowing finger at Elliott's temple, says, “I'll be right here.” He leaves the three children (three is the number symbolic of time—past, present, and future), boards the ship and streaks off, leaving a rainbow in the night sky.85 Like Horatio, Elliott is left to carry on.

Elliott is transformed. He has learned much, and likely will never be the same. He has survived a grave illness, typical prelude to transcendence.86 The boy becomes a man, but we sense he will take his “child” with him. He has made friends with one of the “enemy” scientists who remembers E.T.-like fantasies from his own childhood, yet he has also experienced the depths of his emotions. Touched by the hand of E.T., Elliott is left as leader of those who have also experienced his wisdom. Above all, E.T. will live in his head and in his heart.


E.T. is one example of a rhetorical message that combines a vision of the eternal with a plea for change in addressing the contemporary form of the ultimate exigence of fragmentation. It links the world of time with the universe of permanence through a modern hero myth. The foregoing perspective and analysis suggest several implications concerning mythic rhetoric and the space fiction genre.

A theory of the modern hero myth at the height of the age of consciousness would require, of course, a careful comparison of many like stories.87 Besides the ones already mentioned, recent media examples might include The Dark Crystal,Tron,War Games,Splash,2010,Dune, and Starman. This analysis can, however, pose a few features of such a myth. First, analogous to the classic hero myth of the emerging ego, the modern hero's task is to achieve the next stage of consciousness. This next stage is the “treasure hard to attain” and the hero is that treasure. This time, however, the treasure is transconsciousness rather than consciousness. And whereas the task of the egoic hero was to separate itself from the grip of the devouring monster (the Great Mother) to achieve independence, the task of the modern hero is to merge this independent ego with the Great Mother and to transform consciousness.88 Thus, the egoic hero's achievement was dialectical, and the modern hero's achievement will be transcendent. This implies that the transcendent hero will not slay the dragons, but will ultimately integrate them—even make them into friends. Indeed, E.T. integrates the flowers of technology into his character and Elliott begins to befriend them. Perhaps the modern hero myth will be less violent than the classic one, more collaborative than competitive.

A more complete contextualizing of E.T. with other modern popular culture artifacts dealing with technology would likely demonstrate that we are not yet certain whether to vilify, canonize, or transcend the extensions of the ego. 2001's evil computer, HAL, finds his counterparts, for example, in TV's Six-Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman—forces of good rather than evil. The computer in The Demon Seed forcibly rapes its owner's wife and impregnates her with a computer/human “half-breed,” but computers are hailed as the saviour of failing elementary-school children and as concerned with women's rights in TV commercials for Texas Instruments and Apple. The villainous medical scientists in E.T. find their opposites in such “doctor shows” as Marcus Welby, M.D., and Medical Center; here, the technical advances of modern medicine are praised and their practitioners worshipped. It is perhaps worth speculating that, in a period of evolutionary transition, techne would vacillate between hero and villain in countless stories, and that it would be both preserved and transcended in only a few.

In addition, if E.T. is a clue, visions of transcendence may occur in the most mundane of places and the most humble of forms—that is, not on a mountain-top but in a middle class suburb, not in a charismatic leader but in an ugly little elf. Perhaps this is Spielberg's version of the manger and the stable—the “insignificant” child appears in insignificant places. Because of the current cultural dissociation with our roots, the “child” is a particularly apropos vehicle for the mythic communication of wholeness. We might also expect to see feminine characters increasingly playing the heroic role. Calling for a new Hero Myth, Wilber expresses his hope that “as the male once rescued consciousness from the chthonic matriarchate, the female might today help rescue consciousness—and her brother—from the patriarchate.” Although the new consciousness will be mentally androgynous, “the lead in this new development can most easily come from the female, since our society is already masculine-adapted.”89 Unlike in many myths, such as the American Western, women would not be incidental to the heroic task.

There is also a certain irony surrounding this motif of “insignificance.” Just as the adults in the film did not “see” E.T. when he was plainly visible to the children and to the audience, neither did most of the critics “see” E.T. as much more than a charming and entertaining, but ultimately insignificant (except in the financial category, of course) “children's” film. Scholars are likewise prone to dismiss as trivial, not only children's films, but also entertainment media in general. We tend to stumble over them, when it is possibly that they best reflect the changing consciousness of our times, simultaneously envisioning exigences and imagining responses.

Perhaps it is just this—that visual media are addressed to the eye—that ironically keeps us from “seeing.” As rhetoricians, we are more familiar with the word than the image, the enthymeme than the myth. Attuned to logos, such non-sensical rhetorical forms as visual paradox are especially perplexing. While myths may not all be paradoxical, it is likely that the new hero myth will take on this form. Wilber is again helpful: “[The mind] cannot adequately look at or map spirit because spirit transcends it. And when spirit is described in mental terms it is not in the nice, common-sensical, down-to-earth categories of empiric-analytic thought or even in the subtler symbolic logic; it is in the slippery, paradoxical, poetical terms of mandalic reason.”90 Paradox “is simply the way nonduality looks to the mental level.”91 Of course, the fact that reasoning about Spirit always generates paradox does not mean that paradox always indicates Spirit, and it would certainly be foolish to go around uncovering the Absolute in every contradiction.92 On the other hand, in the present analysis, it is possible that the medium fits the message in this regard. In explaining perennial philosophy, one must resort to such “A = non-A” statements as “the eternal now,” “lose your life to gain it,” “negate in order to preserve,” and “reality is both permanence and change.” In embodying this perspective, the film's hero is, as we have seen, a creature of contradictions. He is a child and an old man, a treasure and, as the hero, not a treasure.

If E.T. and other recent films are indicative, it may be that space fiction or fantasy is the most important contemporary genre for presenting and responding to the rhetorical exigence of fragmentation. In a prior article, I explored the dialectical interplay of individualism and community as values inherent in America's premier myth—the Western. I argued that reaffirmation of this dialectic, the preservation of tension between opposites, is preferable to either emphasis on one of the opposites over the other, or to their pseudosynthesis. But I also suggested that it is possible that a hero will come along eventually who will transcend the dialectic altogether, and that the most likely context would be space films.93 Space naturally suggests the cosmic rather than the cultural, and is thus in a real as well as a mythic sense “the New Frontier.” Perhaps space fiction can ultimately demonstrate that there is no tension to be had between individualism and community, since the individual is the whole and the whole is the individual. In E.T., paradoxical transcendence rather than dialectical reaffirmation is the task of the modern mythic hero.

E.T. is a significant experiment in the rhetoric of mythic transcendence. It is true, of course, that the film does not deal with the nitty-gritty of rhetorical contingency. It argues eloquently that we need to recognize the monster the extensions of the ego have become; we must unite with the cosmos rather than possess it. E.T. does not, however, suggest how to make science subservient to humanity rather than humanity subservient to science. Practical debate, though, must be derived from the vision rather than vice versa. Perhaps E.T., in his “wisdom of all the ages,” had read Robert Frost, who would remind us to “Choose something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid.”94


  1. C. G. Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1959), Vol. 9. I., par. 50.

  2. C. G. Jung, The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York: The Viking Press, 1971), pp. 456-789; Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968); Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By (New York: Bantam Books, 1972); Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959); Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1975); Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1983); Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973); Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1974).

  3. Campbell, Hero, p. 104.

  4. Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 224.

  5. Toulmin, pp. 237-56.

  6. Others have noted similar wholeness themes in some of these films. See, for instance Dale E. Williams, “2001: A Space Odyssey: A Warning before Its Time,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1 (1984), 311-21; Thomas S. Frentz, “Mass Media as Rhetorical Narration,” The Van Zelst Lecture in Communication, published by Northwestern University, The School of Speech, May, 1984. Joseph Campbell notes these themes in the Star Wars trilogy, in Charles Leroux, “Grasping Myths to Extend the Reach of Man,” Chicago Tribune, 19 Jan. 1984, Section 5, p. 3. Similar themes are attributed to the horror film The Shining in Robert A. Davies, James M. Farrell, and Steven S. Matthews, “The Dream World of Film: A Jungian Perspective on Cinematic Communication,” Western Journal of Speech Communication, 46 (1982), 342.

  7. Gene Siskel, “Look Out Summer, Here Comes Indy,” Chicago Tribune, 13 May 1984, Section 13, p. 7.

  8. James M. Wall, “Summer Movies: Four That Matter,” The Christian Century, 23-30 June 1982, 59.

  9. “Sand Castles: Stephen Spielberg interviewed by Todd McCarthy,” Film Comment, May-June 1982, 53.

  10. Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1 (1968), 1-14.

  11. John Angus Campbell, “A Rhetorical Interpretation of History,” unpublished ms., University of Washington, p. 9.

  12. John Campbell, p. 9.

  13. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

  14. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 315.

  15. Huxley, p. vii.

  16. Huxley, p. vii.

  17. Ken Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1983), pp. 3-4, 314-15.

  18. Cited in J. Gowan, Trance, Art, and Creativity (Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation, State University College, 1975).

  19. Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), p. 125.

  20. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Reason in History, trans. Robert S. Hartman (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill), 1953. In addition to the citations from Reason and History, I am indebted in this discussion of Hegel to Wilber's interpretation of Hegel's work, pp. 313-17.

  21. Hegel, p. 95.

  22. Huxley, p. 2.

  23. Wilber, p. 7.

  24. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper, 1964). Teilhard was a Jesuit mystic, geologist, and paleontologist. Fritjof Capra notes that Teilhard's thought is quite consistent with general systems theory in biology, which finds the general pattern of evolution to be moving toward “the progressive increase of complexity, coordination, and interdependence; the integration of individuals into multileveled systems; and the continual refinement of certain functions and patterns of behavior,” in The Turning Point, pp. 288, 303-304.

  25. Wilber, pp. 7-11. On this evolution of consciousness, see also S. Radhakrishnan and C. Moore, A Source Book in Indian Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957); Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973); Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1976); and Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden (New York: Ballantine, 1977).

  26. See Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1960).

  27. Wilber, p. 13. See also Norman O. Brown, Life against Death (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959); Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973); and Ken Wilber, The Atman Project (Wheaton, Illinois: Quest, 1980).

  28. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 181. This “mental egoic” period is estimated by various scholars to begin with the Iliad, the Odyssey, or sixth-century B.C. Greek philosophers.

  29. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 182.

  30. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 182.

  31. Sagan, The Cosmic Connection, p. viii.

  32. I am assuming a distinction here between “sacred” (transcendent) or universal myth, as described by such theorists as Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, and purely cultural or “ideological” myths, as described by such theorists as Roland Barthes. For a similar distinction, see Jeff D. Bass and Richard Cherwitz, “Imperial Mission and Manifest Destiny: A Case Study of Political Myth in Rhetorical Discourse,” Southern Speech Communication Journal, 43 (1978), 213-32.

  33. Capra, The Tao of Physics, p. 43.

  34. See Walter R. Fisher, “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument,” Communication Monographs, 51 (1984), 1-22. I am using “archetype” in the typically Jungian sense, as a universal symbol, and not in the sense sometimes used by literary critics. Northrup Frye, for example, defines “archetype” as “a typical or recurring image” and “archetypal criticism” as “primarily concerned with literature as a social fact and as a mode of communication,” The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 99. He reserves the term “anagogic” for criticism of truly universal symbols and myths, pp. 115-28.

  35. See, for example, Hermann G. Stelzner, “The Quest Story and Nixon's November 3, 1969 Address,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59 (1973), 160-67; Martha Solomon, “The Positive Woman's Journey: A Mythic Analysis of the Rhetoric of STOP ERA,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 65 (1979), 262-74; Walter R. Fisher, “Romantic Democracy, Ronald Reagan and Presidential Heroes,” Western Journal of Speech Communication, 46 (1982), 299-310; Sarah Russell Hankins, “Archetypal Alloy: Reagan's Rhetorical Image,” Central States Speech Journal, 34 (1983), 33-43; and Janice Hocker Rushing, “The Rhetoric of the American Western Myth,” Communication Monographs, 50 (1983), 14-32.

  36. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 180.

  37. Wilber, Up from Eden, pp. 111-294. See also Erich Neumann, The Great Mother (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955).

  38. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 260.

  39. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 187.

  40. Many so-called “New Age” enthusiasts actually confuse the preconscious with the transconscious, according to Wilber, Up from Eden, pp. 322-23.

  41. See Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), pp. 306-35, for an analysis of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's original Frankenstein.

  42. “A Conversation with Joseph Campbell,” U.S. News and World Report, 16 April, 1984, p. 72.

  43. “A Conversation with Joseph Campbell.”

  44. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 260.

  45. C. G. Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” in C. G. Jung and C. Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 79.

  46. C. G. Jung, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, trans R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

  47. Jung, Flying Saucers, pp. 11-16.

  48. Jung, Flying Saucers, p. 22.

  49. See, for example, Charles Michener and Katrine Ames, “A Summer Double Punch,” Newsweek, 31 May 1982, 62; Richard Corliss and Martha Smilgis, “Steve's Summer Magic: E.T. and Poltergeist,Time, 31 May 1982, 54-55; Pauline Kael, “The Current Cinema: The Pure and the Impure,” The New Yorker, 14 June 1982, 119-121; Andrew Sarris, “Films in Focus, Spielberg's Sand Castles,” The Village Voice, 15 June 1982, 59; and Stanley Kauffman, “The Gospel according to St. Stephen,” The New Republic, 5 July 1982, 26.

  50. Jung, “Psychology,” p. 81.

  51. Jung, “Psychology,” p. 81.

  52. Jung, “Psychology,” p. 80-81.

  53. Jung, “Psychology,” p. 83.

  54. William Kotzwinkle, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Storybook (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1982). The book is based on the screenplay by Melissa Mathison; she wrote the screenplay after Spielberg told her the story. Changes were made in the script during the shooting of the film, so that screenplay, book and the film correspond to most, but not all the particulars.

  55. William Kotzwinkle, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in His Adventures on Earth (New York: Berkeley Books, 1982), p. 11.

  56. Though not explained in the film, Kotzwinkle's account in the Storybook has it that earth's gravity will eventually twist E.T.'s spine out of shape.

  57. Kotzwinkle, Adventure, p. 38.

  58. Jung, “Psychology,” pp. 87, 85.

  59. Jung, “Psychology,” p. 75.

  60. See Sarah Russell Hankins, “The Rhetoric of the Demonic Child,” unpublished manuscript, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1982.

  61. “Creating a Creature,” Time, 31 May 1982, 60.

  62. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 239.

  63. Corliss and Smilgis, 60.

  64. Ariel Dorfman, “Norteamericanos, Call Home,” The Village Voice, 24 August 1982, 39. See also Corliss and Smilgis, 56; and Kael, 119, both of whom note E.T. is the children's “pet.”

  65. Kotzwinkle, Adventure, p. 32.

  66. Both books give more detail in this regard than the film, although the film does suggest telepathic connections.

  67. Kael, 120.

  68. Kotzwinkle, Adventure, p. 59.

  69. Dorfman, 39.

  70. Jung, “Psychology,” pp. 76, 89.

  71. For an alternative interpretation of the latter scene, see Dorfman, 39.

  72. Kaufman, 26.

  73. Kael, 120.

  74. Jung, “Psychology,” p. 89.

  75. Kotzwinkle, Adventure, p. 172.

  76. Capra, The Turning Point, p. 320.

  77. Kotzwinkle, Adventure, p. 186.

  78. Toulmin, p. 260.

  79. In his first full-length movie (for television), Duel, the enemy is a ghostly semi-truck intent on running over Dennis Weaver. It is a blind, technological death force, exhibiting only at one point a beckoning human arm. Jaws locates the enemy in the unconscious—the awesome “Bruce” is the classic deep sea monster who, like Jonah's whale, swallows his victims up—unfortunately, not whole. Close Encounters of the Third Kind finds the monsters in suburban homes—they are the ordinary people who refuse to admit the possibilities of the unknown. Poltergeist releases the monsters from television, one of the more pervasive technical forces, implying that they haunt an innocent family's tract-house because it was built on top of Indian burial grounds in the name of “progress.” Humanity cannot long repress the past without grave consequences.

  80. Wilber, Up from Eden, pp. 177-260.

  81. Kotzwinkle, Adventure, p. 245.

  82. Winner, p. 313.

  83. Jung, “Psychology,” p. 89.

  84. Kotzwinkle, Adventure, p. 245.

  85. Joseph Campbell, The Flight of the Wild Gander (South Bend, IN: Regnery/Gateway, 1979), p. 82.

  86. Campbell, Gander, p. 171.

  87. For a theoretical attempt to integrate singular media events into rhetorical patterns, see Frentz.

  88. Wilber, Up from Eden, pp. 111-31.

  89. Wilber, Up from Eden, p. 260.

  90. Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983), p. 70. For alternative views of the function of paradox in rhetoric, see Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “The Rhetoric of Women's Liberation: An Oxymoron,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 1 (1973), 74-86; Phillip K. Tompkins, “On ‘Paradoxes’ in the Rhetoric of the New Transcendentalists,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 62 (1976), 40-48; Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “Femininity and Feminism: To Be or Not to Be a Woman,” Communication Quarterly, 31 (1983), 101-08; and James W. Chesebro, “The Symbolic Construction of Social Realities: A Case Study in the Rhetorical Criticism of Paradox,” Communication Quarterly, 32 (1984), 164-71.

  91. Wilber, Eye to Eye, p. 180.

  92. Wilber, Eye to Eye, p. 188.

  93. Rushing, 32.

  94. Robert Frost's Poems, ed. Louis Untermeyer (New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1967), p. 262.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 27 January 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1243

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Sign of the Times.” New Republic 194, no. 4 (27 January 1986): 24-5.

[In the following review, Kauffmann views The Color Purple as a significant advancement in the portrayal and participation of African Americans in contemporary film.]

The history of black actors in Hollywood films has few surprises: it closely reflects current social attitudes. (By “Hollywood” I mean white-controlled films made anywhere in America; the black film industry, which began making features in 1918, is a quite different subject.) Before sound, black actors were cast as “Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks,” as Donald Bogle says in his book of that title. Leading black roles, when they occurred, were played by white actors in blackface. For example, in 1927 Warner Bros. made a picture about two black comics in World War I. They were called Ham and Eggs: the picture was Ham and Eggs at the Front. The leads were played by two white men blacked up. The script was by Darryl Zanuck, and the female lead was played by Myrna Loy in blackface.

The arrival of sound, which provided the chance to use black music, inevitably altered matters somewhat. As early as 1929, two all-black features were made in Hollywood: Hearts of Dixie, directed by the now-forgotten Paul Sloane, and Hallelujah, directed by the well-remembered King Vidor, who had already done The Big Parade and The Crowd. From time to time through the next three decades, pictures with black casts—or nearly all-black—came along once in a while; of course, in the last dozen or so years, they have appeared much more frequently.

Now—and it's a landmark—the most successful director-producer in the world history of film has directed and produced a (virtually) all-black film [The Color Purple]. The juncture of Steven Spielberg and a black subject reflects current American society as black employment in film has always done, but in this case there's an extra dimension. Spielberg has become a golden eminence not just through talent, which he certainly has, but also, perhaps especially, because he is not the least bit shrewd. He is open and self-gratifying. It's easy to imagine the story conferences at which a lot of latter-day black films were cooked up to cash in on what's happening. It's impossible to imagine anything like that with Spielberg. He makes us feel that, as producer or producer-director, he makes films that he himself wants to see. He apparently operates on the assumption that if he wants to see it, the international film public will also want it, an assumption that is now pretty well validated. So it's significant that he wanted to see, thus wanted to make, a film of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple. If Spielberg is a congenital vicar for an immense public, which he seems to be, then an immense public is ready for a black film that tells some unpleasant facts about black American life.

Walker's novel won a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award and has been read by millions. (This is no guarantee of film success; the past is strewn with failed film transcriptions of best sellers.) Except for one salient episode, The Color Purple is not about black-white relations: it is about blacks. Specifically, it is about the mistreatment, the abuse, of black women by black men. As literature, Walker's book seems to me to have much the same relation to, say, Jean Toomer's Cane that The Exorcist has to The Turn of the Screw. Walker's novel is often affecting, but at a somewhat elemental level. The book is composed of letters, most of them written in so-called black English that in itself evokes pathos. Celie, the heroine, addresses letters to God. (Later there are more literate and much less moving letters from her sister who escapes from rural Georgia to become a missionary in Africa.) “Dear God,” begins the book, “I am fourteen years old.” Then come two crossed-out words. Then: “I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” That salutation, those crossed-out words, the bewildered appeal launch the book at once on its accessible way.

God gives Celie plenty of signs of what is happening to her, most of them oppressive, but Celie endures, with taciturn courage. A sketch for those who don't know the book: the story follows this Georgia farm girl from 1909 to 1931. Her stepfather gives her two babies, then takes them away. She doesn't know where they are. Then he hands her over for marriage to a widower who had come to ask for Celie's sister. Her husband tyrannizes her and taunts her with his passion for a band vocalist. Celie, continually jeered at as ugly, is first told otherwise by the singer. Sex to Celie has merely meant submission to men. It is a woman, this singer, who introduces her to sexual pleasure. Celie matures, achieves independence, eventually returns to her husband, and at last is reunited with her missionary sister, who also brings Celie's children home.

The book might have been written for Spielberg. Walker and he are both genuine, both skilled practitioners of popular art. It seems inevitable that this should be the book to switch him, temporarily anyway, from space sagas and kid stories. About the only serious adjustment that Spielberg and his screenwriter, Menno Meyjes, had to make in the book was to diminish the lesbian element, which is only implied.

Allen Daviau has photographed the film in colors that are the visual equivalent of Quincy Jones's lush music: Spielberg apparently feels that the flooding music and color transcend artifice because of the authenticity they adorn. Moreover, Spielberg keeps the camera below eye-level a good deal of the time, often near floor-level, looking upward as if to assert that he feels the story is epic.

For Celie, Spielberg, with his usual good instincts, chose Whoopi Goldberg. Her stage name is some sort of joke that she is now stuck with: her abilities deserve better. She is a solo performer of sketches she herself creates. Her Broadway appearance last year demonstrated that her performing talent is better than her writing. Goldberg's future in film is a wide-open question, I'd say, unless there is a place for a female Eddie Murphy; but as Celie, she is perfect.

Danny Glover, the widower who weds her reluctantly, goes from strength to strength as an actor. Up to now, he has played sympathetic roles—notably, the vagrant in Places in the Heart. Here he plays a brute who mellows with the years. Glover makes the younger man both terrifying and understandable, and makes the mellowing as credible as anyone could do.

Two women are outstanding. Oprah Winfrey is a plump proud woman who pays grievously for her pride. Margaret Avery is Shug (short for Sugar), the singer who bewitches Celie's husband but whose love turns out to be the liberation of Celie's spirit. Avery is worldly wise, yet warm and lovely.

The film travels a bit errantly and sluggishly toward the happy ending we know it must have, whether or not we've read the book, but Spielberg's convictions carry it through: his conviction that this is now the moment for a mass-appeal film on these aspects of black life and his conviction about happy endings. Clearly he believes that happy endings are integral to film, that they are what film is for. These two convictions, of instance and of principle, sustain this picture.

Further Reading

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Bremner, Ian. “Saving Private Ryan.History Today 48, no. 11 (November 1998): 50-1.

Bremner commends the verisimilitude of the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Dinomania.” In The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays, edited by Charles L. P. Silet, pp. 171-87. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Gould—a noted author and evolutionary biologist—offers a critical assessment of Jurassic Park, noting the film's impact on the world of modern paleontology.

Gourevitch, Philip. “A Dissent on Schindler's List.Commentary 97, no. 2 (February 1994): 49-52.

Gourevitch discusses the differences between Thomas Keneally's book and Spielberg's film adaptation of Schindler's List, asserting that “Spielberg's supremacy as a visual stylist is deeply undercut by his conventionality as a storyteller.”

Greenland, Colin. “Icons of Omnipotence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4434 (25 March 1988): 332.

Greenland compliments the clarity and fidelity of Spielberg's cinematic adaptation of Empire of the Sun.

Kemp, Peter. “Theme Park to Scream Park.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4712 (23 July 1993): 18.

Kemp unfavorably compares Jurassic Park with Michael Crichton's novel.

Richler, Mordecai. “Why I Hate Schindler's List.Saturday Night 109, no. 3762 (June 1994): 34, 68.

Richler outlines the major defects of Schindler's List, concluding that the film is “lacking in both insights and illuminations.”

Seitz, Michael H. “Pop Purple.” Progressive 50, no. 2 (February 1986): 40.

Seitz regards The Color Purple as a sterile and adulterated adaptation of Alice Walker's novel.

Stone, Laurie. “Freaks are Us.” Tikkun 16, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 78-9.

Stone divides A.I. into three distinct chapters, arguing that the middle section is the most engaging and entertaining of the three.

Additional coverage of Spielberg's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 8, 24; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 32; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 20; Literature Resource Center; and Something about the Author, Vol. 32.

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 11 July 1986)

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SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Mauve.” New Statesman 112, no. 2885 (11 July 1986): 27-8.

[In the following review, Mars-Jones discusses the flaws in both the novel The Color Purple and Spielberg's film adaptation, arguing that the two works rely “heavily on the plot-machinery of melodrama.”]

Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple is based ‘upon’ Alice Walker's novel, and the reverence of the preposition is eloquent; but every film of a book is an involuntary act of literary criticism. Faults of structure tend to stand out rather starkly when the words are stripped away.

Spielberg's difficulties with tone, particularly in the early scenes, are revealing. He films the heroine's childbed in the dead of winter with so much realism that the newborn baby steams, then in the same scene shows her father—also the father of her child—snatching the baby from her arms with a brutality that would make even the villains from silent films, for all their hand-rubbing and moustache-twirling, hiss him off the screen.

There is more villainy in store for poor Celie (Whoopi Goldberg). When a man comes to court her sister Nettie, her father gives Celie away instead, unasked and unasking. Nettie stays at home until Pa's sexual harassment becomes intolerable, then pays a visit to Celie in her new home. Celie's husband in turn makes Nettie's life a misery with his propositions. When Nettie leaves, he vows to intercept any letters she writes to Celie, and does so for the next several decades.

The Color Purple, whether as a film or as a book—where the vigour of its dialect does something to disguise things—depends heavily on the plot-machinery of melodrama, with none of the serenely lubricated momentum of Victorian plot-machinery. Nettie, for instance, ends up as a missionary in Africa, and companion to the couple who have—unknowingly—adopted Celie's children. She lives, then, with her nephew and niece, unable to reveal the true basis of their relationship, just like Lady Isobel in East Lynne returning disfigured after a railway accident to be governess to her own children.

Having committed herself wholeheartedly to contrivance, the author of East Lynne would not then simply let things slide. In The Color Purple Nettie's return to America with Celie's children could have happened at any time, and is just another thing that happens to Celie—a joyous thing, admittedly, rather than an atrocious one, but a mere unmotivated event all the same.

Nor would Mrs Henry Wood, had she been able to write such a thing, have started a book with an incestuous rape and then let it fizzle out. Celie's Pa turns out not to be her father at all; and that is not a plot twist but a plot unravelment.

One of Spielberg's methods, faced with such uneven material, is simultaneously to exaggerate and underplay, setting up a sequence broad to the point almost of slapstick and caricature and then choosing a subtle, or at least indirect, angle for his camera. So a crucial punch is obscured by a passing car, and Celie's husband ignorantly pouring kerosene on the stove is represented by a cut to Celie's suddenly deserted rocking-chair, the flames blooming only in reflection on the wall.

When Spielberg comes to dramatise Nettie's letters, which Celie finds in a strongbox of her husband's, he pulls out all the stops on his technique, setting up a string of visual and acoustic correspondences between Celie's surroundings and Nettie's, cutting from one continent to the other. The effect is emotionally impoverishing. If reading a letter is as good as being there, where's the sting of separation?

In the book, there are two means of overcoming separation: sexuality (between women) and a sort of pantheism. Spielberg attenuates both, and it's hard to blame him. A Color Purple without lesbianism would be like a whale-free Moby Dick; but Spielberg shows the relationship between Celie and the blues singer Shug Avery—whom Celie's husband also loves—only in one scene of chaste but lingering kisses. He has already taken risks with his audience by making a film in which Blacks are defined by their relationships with other Blacks, women by their relationships with other women. Now he leaves the viewer to calibrate those kisses on a scale from sisterhood to sensuality.

His problem is different with the book's rather icky pantheism—The Color Purple is dedicated to the Spirit, and the author thanks her characters for coming. A book can get away with the suggestion, two-thirds of the way through, that ‘God is everything’, but the movie camera is just naturally pantheistic. It can't keep the world out that long. Every panning shot wants to turn into an act of worship, and what we call cutting could just as easily be joining.

Spielberg substitutes as the climax of his film a celebration of culture for the book's celebration of nature. Shug Avery, estranged from her preacher father, leads a party from the juke joint where she has been singing and gatecrashes his gospel service. Her blues voice sings out against the gospel choir, and the warring elements, sacred and secular, African and American, come together in harmony. It's a brave rhetorical solution to the narrative weakness of a book whose attraction was always its flesh and not its bone structure.

Donald R. Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Mott, Donald R., and Cheryl McAllister Saunders. “From Television to Feature Films.” In Steven Spielberg, pp. 17-30. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay, Mott and Saunders examine Spielberg's early made-for-television movies, noting that the eventual theatrical releases of Duel and The Sugarland Express set certain thematic precedents for Spielberg's subsequent films.]

Spielberg made his debut as a television director with a segment of Night Gallery, produced by Universal Television. The episode stars Joan Crawford as a wealthy but blind woman who makes her wish for sight come true by blackmailing a famous eye surgeon, played by Barry Sullivan, into performing an experimental operation. The surgeon is reluctant about the surgery because the results are only temporary. The premise of the show is that the woman will do anything for even a few hours of sight. After the operation, when Crawford removes the bandages at the appointed time (at night, when she is alone), an electrical blackout makes it appear that the operation was a failure. The darkness she was used to is still around her, and her temporary eyesight fails before the lights come back on. This type of plot twist is typical of the Night Gallery series.

Although Crawford and Sullivan were famous actors, by all accounts, Spielberg, only twenty-two, was undaunted by his stars' reputations and experience. The two turn in their usual polished performances, both very much in command of rather limited roles, which allowed Spielberg to concentrate on other aspects—an excellent way for an inexperienced director to start his career. It is not the acting that makes the episode notable, but the highly stylized camera techniques, particularly the dolly-zoom shot noted earlier, and Spielberg's symbolic use of light imagery. The symbolism, at times heavy-handed, is remarkable because such sophisticated techniques are seldom used in television. The segment shows the influences of new wave filmmakers on Spielberg's early work.

Spielberg next directed episodes of The Psychiatrist,Marcus Welby, M.D.,The Name of the Game, and Columbo for Universal Television. Spielberg considers two episodes of The Psychiatrist as his best television work: “Jerry Friedman was the producer. … I was just a young person, whom he liked at the time, and to whom he said, ‘Here, do two Psychiatrists for me.’”1 One show was about death, the other about a six-year-old boy lost in a world of fantasy and comic books. Spielberg felt the episode about the dying golf pro was his best, since he was able to incorporate his own ideas into the story. It involved two friends who could not face another friend's death. To provide a moving climax Spielberg created a scene where the friends present the dying golfer with a shoe box containing the eighteenth hole from the golf course. “He tore the grass out of the hole and he squeezed the dirt all over himself and he thanked them for bringing this gift, the greatest gift he ever received. It was just a very moving moment that came out of being loose with an idea.”2 The other series, which included individual episodes longer than ninety minutes, such as Name of the Game and Columbo, prepared Spielberg for the rigors of feature-length productions. In these longer teleplays Spielberg was able to develop the story and make his characters come to life.

Spielberg found working on Columbo “fun because the series was an experience in helping, but mostly watching, Peter Falk find this terrific character.”3 Two Columbo television movies had been shot before Spielberg did the first episode of the series, but Falk was still exploring his offbeat detective character for “Columbo-isms.”

After his series work, Spielberg made three television movies—Something Evil (1970), Duel (1971), and Savage (1973). Something Evil was a project Spielberg “wanted to do,” but he apparently resented directing Savage: “[It] was an assignment bordering on force majeur. [Savage] was the first and last time the studio ordered me to do something.”4 Of the three, Duel stands out as the finest example of Spielberg's unusual abilities as a television director.


An adaptation of a short story by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay, Duel provided Spielberg a perfect showcase for his talents. It is an unusually well directed television movie (later released with additional scenes as a feature-length film in 1973) about a man on a routine business trip who is terrorized by an eighteen-wheeler. Through the use of unusual wide-angle shots and split-second choreography in the editing, the truck becomes a believable, ominous terror. The truck driver is never seen—except for his hands and boots.

The unusual story begins when David Mann (Dennis Weaver) leaves on a typical morning for an out-of-town business meeting. The story (in the feature-length version) opens from the car's point-of-view; David is seen only later when the car is already on the highway. The audience first gets a headlight's view as the car backs out of the driveway, drives through town, through a tunnel, and then onto the highway. Then we see David and the car itself. They both express simple lines—David neatly dressed in shirt, tie, and khaki pants with his seatbelt firmly buckled, and the vehicle, a typically plain, nondescript company car, whose only distinguishing feature is its bright orange-red color. The visual contrast with the truck is startling. When David first gets behind it on the highway, the first thing he notices is the obnoxious smoke pouring out of it and its blackened, greasy appearance. This typical, everyday occurrence quickly becomes a major conflict between the good guys—David and his cleanly designed automobile—and the bad guys—a smelly, highly flammable tank truck and its anonymous, uncontrollable driver.

Matheson's symbols of good and evil are animated by Spielberg's technical expertise. Using POV (point-of-view) shots, such as the “headlight” view of the road, Spielberg brings to life a machine that becomes an important ally to its conscious, human driver. The truck takes on the appearance of an evil personality. Since the driver of the truck is kept from sight, Spielberg lets us fantasize about the possibility that there is no driver at all, that an evil entity has taken over its controls to play cat and mouse with freeway drivers like David.

Carefully storyboarded, almost to the point of animation, the film reflects the influence of Chuck Jones's Road Runner cartoons. Just as in the cartoon, when David thinks he has outrun the truck, it appears again for another attack. (Pye and Myles point out the psychological parallel between the truck and other types of duelists in similar conflict: “The truck becomes alternately wolf, shark, tank, or prehistoric monster; it has a set of strategies from patient waiting to sudden strikes. It is the doom of Mr. Mann.”)5 One scene stands out for its cartoonlike depiction of domesticity. After being chased off the highway by the truck for the first time, David pulls into a combination gas station and laundromat. Once inside, he calls his wife—as if to touch base with reality by hearing a familiar voice—to apologize for an argument they had the night before. This domestic scene, shot through a “dryer window darkly,” sets up David's character as mild mannered and nonaggressive. His wife berates him for letting an obnoxious man at a party “almost rape” her in front of everyone. (The wife is not particularly sympathetic; she looks as if she had stepped out of a television commercial for an oven cleaner. Wearing a dress and apron, she is vacuuming when the phone rings while two children play nearby on the floor with a toy robot.) As Pye and Myles note, “Mann has no answer for that. He asks himself: ‘What did she expect me to do? Duel?’”6

Spielberg's exposition contrasts the absurd, irrational predicament David finds himself in to his middle-class suburban life. It is not surprising that in the beginning of the film, David constantly doubts that the faceless driver of the truck is actually trying to kill him. After a harrowing chase down a mountain grade—with the sun brightly shining and the black, sooty truck looking ominous with its snoutlike front—he drives into a fence in front of Chuck's Café.

At this point, David is convinced that he has fallen prey to a maniacal truck driver. He talks to himself as if to reaffirm his own existence and sanity. Two elderly men come out to see if he is all right and except for a neck injury, he seems to be fine. When he tells the old men that a truck was trying to run him off the road and kill him, they do not believe him because they do not see the truck. David quickly realizes that people around him think he's mad and suffering from delusions. He has only one alternative—to believe in himself and “duel.” Pye and Myles note, “By now the social roles that define and support Mann have all collapsed. He does not rule his family, protect his wife, fight for himself, or help the children on the school bus; he lacks potency. He is deadened by his suburban life and aspirations. He becomes open prey—nudged onto a railway line in front of a train, trapped in a snake farm, allowed a brief respite by the roadside while he imagines the truck has gone on.”7 As soon as David is able, he goes inside the café. In the restroom, he washes up and tries to comprehend his incredible experience. In an interior monologue, echoed by the realistic sound of running water, he realizes how close evil is, that it exists, and that in spite of civilization, within minutes “we can be back in the jungle.”

When he enters the service area of the café, he notices that the truck is parked in front. His fear is palpable as he looks at the ominous rig. Surveying the café, he considers the men in the room: any one of them could be his attacker. As he slowly inspects each one, he hopes to elicit a response from the guilty driver. Finding no sign or clue, he focuses on their feet looking for the telltale boots he spotted at the gas station. Upon finding a pair that look like the ones that got out of the truck, he foolishly confronts the driver and narrowly escapes being beaten. After the two are calmed by the café owner, the apparently innocent man departs in a huff and David is asked to leave. As he does, he sees the truck start up and begins chasing it on foot, which emphasizes his sense of terror and isolation against this unknown force.

He stops chasing the truck, which speeds away. He returns to his car, clears away the debris, and leaves. Once he is on the road again, everything appears normal, the truck no longer in sight. Here Spielberg employs the Hitchcockian device of allowing the evil or danger to pass momentarily. This allows the audience to catch its breath and also serves as a suspense-builder. During this interim pause David stops behind a schoolbus pulled off alongside the road. The driver explains that he needs a push, but David is uncertain whether his car will be able to accommodate the request. Spielberg's ability to portray children naturally is obvious here; the children act just as real ones would in the situation, making faces and gesturing at Mann through the rear windows. When the car does get stuck, Spielberg's sense of humor comes into play. Mann acts abnormally concerned about the hood of the car when the bus driver wants to jump on it to unhitch the bumpers.

The next scene is a beautiful shot of the truck framed by the mouth of a tunnel just ahead. When David sees it, he tries to make the driver and the children get back in the bus. They think him mad when the truck just sits ominously in the empty tunnel. As Pye and Myles describe it, “the truck waits for him at the end of the tunnel, its lights like animal eyes.”8 Then the truck slowly starts to move. It turns around, gets behind the bus, and helps to get it started. David, who had freed his car, watches in amazement.

David is next seen cruising along pastoral roads (birds chirp in the background) when the peace is broken by the sound of a train. When David stops at the railroad crossing, he is shocked to see the truck, which creeps up behind and attempts to push his car into the passing train. He barely escapes by driving across the track and up an embankment. The truck barrels past and David continues cautiously.

At the next opportunity, he stops to call the police at a gas station snake-a-rama. The truck returns from nowhere and rams into the phone booth just as David gets the operator. The truck wreaks havoc on the booth and the cages where the proprietress keeps her show snakes. David, now exhausted, climbs back into his car and tries to pull off the road to let the truck get far ahead. He dozes and in a lovely dreamlike sequence his thoughts flash back to the scene at the snake-a-rama. A train awakens him.

He finds the truck has also pulled off the road and is waiting for him. Two passersby refuse him aid and deny the situation; particularly uncooperative is an elderly couple that he flags down and asks to call the police. Although they want nothing to do with the matter, they get involved when the truck backs toward them.

David climbs back into the car and tries to outrun his pursuer on an upgrade. The pace quickens with corresponding musical intensity. Wide-angle shots of the eighteen-wheeler make it look as if it is floating. Meanwhile, we are privy to David's fears and see the road flying in front of him as if through his sunglasses. Spielberg uses close-up and quick-cutting shots of the speedometer, the gas pedal, and the rear-view mirror (a favorite visual object in his films) to intensify the drama. It becomes clear that any mistakes, whether human miscalculation or mechanical failure, will yield David to his closing foe. Spielberg employs the telephoto lens to compress the perspective making it appear that the ominous truck is only inches from David's rear bumper. When the radiator hose (he had been forewarned by the first gas station attendant) breaks, it looks as if the truck will claim its victim. Clouds of smoke pour from the underside of the car while panel instruments signal the problem.

In a last-ditch effort to save himself, David tricks his follower onto a byway. He jams his briefcase between the front seat and the gas pedal, aims the car toward the edge of a ridge, and jumps out. The truck, in heated pursuit with no time to stop, follows the car over the cliff. The truck crashes and bursts into flames.

Even now, Spielberg gives us no sign of human life within the truck. Extreme close-up shots dramatically reveal the result of the crash: steam coming from the truck's engine, a spinning left front wheel register the truck's slow, agonizing death. Spielberg even gives us a tour inside the cab. Papers and objects are seen on the dash. The only other clue that suggests a human driver is a small, black fan still running.

Looking over the cliff and down at the white ashes of his enemy, David is jubilant! He has won the duel.

It is evident from his achievement in Duel that Spielberg had found his niche as a promising director. His meticulous storyboarding, choice of lenses and shots, editing, and music all reveal his abilities not only as a filmmaker but also as a storyteller. The film also demonstrates the quick pace and rhythm evident in Spielberg's feature films, and it marks the first use of his favorite theme—ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Spielberg's David Mann is also Clovis and Lou Jean (The Sugarland Express), Chief Brody (Jaws), Ron Neary and Julian Guiler (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark), the children and mother in E.T., and the Freeling family (Poltergeist).

After Savage in 1973, Spielberg's career as a contract television director was over. His feature-film career began with The Sugarland Express and the releasing of Duel theatrically in Europe.


Locked into a seven-year television contract at Universal and waiting for his second television movie to materialize, Spielberg realized that he would have to take the initiative if he planned to work in feature films. During the lull in his work at Universal, he embarked on several projects, one of which he hoped would become a vehicle for his directorial debut.

One such project, Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies, was written by Spielberg and submitted to David Brown and Richard Zanuck, then at 20th Century-Fox.9 His intention was to direct what he had written. Brown and Zanuck reviewed his previous material (several shorts and the television shows) and concluded that Spielberg was not ready to direct theatrical films. They did, however, buy the Ace Eli property, which was eventually directed by John Erman in 1973.

Shortly thereafter, Zanuck and Brown moved to Warners. Eighteen months later, they wound up on the Universal lot forming an alliance with Lou Wasserman, then head of Universal. Zanuck and Brown were given the opportunity to move the studio back into theatrical filmmaking as well as television. They were still considered independent producers, but all their feature films would be produced and distributed through Universal. It was at Universal that Spielberg finally gained their support and confidence.

Spielberg's television years found him directing his career as precisely as he directs films. After making his third television movie, Savage, Spielberg was given the opportunity to make his feature-film debut with White Lightning, a Burt Reynolds vehicle, since he had trouble at Universal getting Sugarland off the ground.10 Spielberg spent almost three months on the picture, scouting locations and casting the movie until he realized it was not something he wanted to do for his first picture. Spielberg is quoted as saying, “I didn't want to start my career as a hard hat journeyman director. I wanted to do something a little more personal.”11 He wanted instead the Sugarland Express project to be his directorial debut in feature films. The timing of Zanuck and Brown's move to Universal was perfect; they agreed to produce Sugarland, thus affording Spielberg the opportunity to make his first theatrical motion picture.

Pye and Myles note, “After some thought Zanuck and Brown decided that they would back the project; but they cautiously buried it in their first batch of proposals.”12 Wasserman felt the script was “good,” but realized the day of the anarchistic, antiestablishment “youth film” was over. Rather than posing obstacles for his new producing team, however, Wasserman gave Zanuck and Brown the go-ahead on this low-budget film but warned, “Make the film, fellows. … But you may not be playing to full theaters.”13

Spielberg's graduation to feature films brought with it a close association with the University of Southern California's class of 1967. Pye and Myles observe, “The members of that class were to become his closest associates in the film world. He would work from the same office building as John Milius; offer to share second unit duties on films by George Lucas; dream, with the others, of some final retreat to ‘Shangri-Coppola,’ where films are made without moguls or studios or interfering executives.”14 This collegial association began with the script for The Sugarland Express, which was written by two USC graduates—Hal Barwood and Matt Robbins.


The title, Sugarland Express, refers to a train of cars moving toward Sugarland, Texas. A fugitive couple in a captured highway patrolman's car leads a procession of police, reporters, and curiosity seekers to their destination and tragedy. The “express” is the motivating force, literally and figuratively, for the film's plot.

Its appeal to young Spielberg is understandable, particularly after his success with Duel. He made the most of his expertise with machinery in Sugarland. Critics were impressed with the intricate maneuverings of the vehicles, which snaked gloriously across Texas—crashing, tipping over, or flowing across the screen—as the director willed. In his review, Newsweek's Paul Zimmerman praises Spielberg's “breathtaking command of action” and talks of his “vision, satiric but strangely beautiful, of an America on wheels.”15 He claims: “In this world the cars are as eloquent as the characters. … The pursuing police cars are like four-wheeled robots. … they hunt in packs and caravans, greedily sucking gas stations dry … crash into each other in acts of spectacular stupidity … [and] trail the trio with a prudence that borders on cowardice.”16 The cars are perhaps more eloquent than the characters, and that is a serious flaw in the film.

The film focuses on the characters in the lead car—the fugitives, Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) and Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), and their hostage, Officer Slide (Michael Sacks). Based on a true story reported in newspapers in 1969, the plot depends on making the Poplins sympathetic, well-rounded characters. According to Tony Crawley, the actual fugitives—convict Robert Samuel Dent and his wife, Illa Faye—had become “instant folk-heroes” and their escapade “a media event.”17 In the film, however, Lou Jean and Clovis are not real, or likable, enough to win over an audience as Bonnie and Clyde's heroes did in 1967.

Lou Jean is the instigator of events in the film. She coerces her husband into running away from a minimum security facility, where he is serving a short term for a minor offense. Then she has him help her kidnap the highway patrolman to get his car. Hawn's performance received generally good reviews, but her stereotypical character is a weakness in the film. Spielberg's immaturity as a director is shown by his inability to make Lou Jean a more sympathetic character. She is a character out of the 1960s television series, The Beverly Hillbillies, a member of a low socioeconomic class, lacking in education. In her comic moments, the audience is meant to laugh at her and not with her, and cruelly, to laugh at her because of her lack of sophistication and intelligence. It is an adolescent humor that probably served to establish Spielberg as a filmmaker who was better at directing action than characters. Interestingly, this is the most developed female character Spielberg had presented to that date.

Spielberg does do somewhat better with the male characters, particularly Captain Tanner, played by Ben Johnson. Tanner is the chief highway patrol officer, who insists on not harming the fugitives or their hostage. Johnson brings to his brief role a humanity, which Spielberg later realized would have strengthened the film had it been developed more fully. He confesses: “That's one film [Sugarland Express] that I can honestly say if I had to do it all over again I'd make in a completely different fashion. The first half of the movie I would have played out the hand of Captain Tanner. … I would have drawn the whole first half of the film from his vantage point: from behind the police barricades, from inside his patrol cruiser. I would never see the fugitive kids, only hear their voices over the police radio, maybe see three heads in the distance through binoculars.”18 Such changes would have undoubtedly made Sugarland a stronger film. Again looking back, Spielberg admits:

I don't think the authorities got a fair shake in [Sugarland] to know really why … the posse formed, why there was an overwhelming amount of vigilante activity and freestyle heroism, and why Capt. Tanner finally had to make the decision to put an end to this by destroying the characters in the car through force and violence. Capt. Tanner's decision is for me much too weak and unmotivated right now. I would spend the whole first half of the movie getting to know this man … why he valued human life so.

Then the second half of the movie I would have told the entire story inside the car and how really naive and backwoodsy these people are and how frivolous and really stupid their goals were.19

It was Spielberg's view of Lou Jean and Clovis as “naive and backwoodsy” and their goals as “frivolous and stupid” that prevented their becoming viable characters, especially Lou Jean. Yet, he wanted his characters to seem as real and as “natural” as possible. In a 1982 interview, he claims to have done “a lot of printing of the early takes.”20 The role of the hostage, Officer Slide, is, like Tanner's, relatively strong. Sack's portrayal of how he begins to like and help his captors is believable, if slightly clichéd.

Spielberg's homage to the Road Runner cartoons is blatant and unabashed. To insure that viewers do not miss it, he has Clovis and Lou Jean watch a nearby drive-in theater screen on which Coyote and Road Runner enact their never-ending chase. Spielberg's symbolism is never subtle—he wants his audience to see the joke. This is perhaps one of his more endearing traits. He likes Road Runner and knows his audience does, too. If only he had liked Lou Jean and Clovis as well, Sugarland Express would have been a better film.

In spite of the problems with characterization, Spielberg's visual style (complemented by Vilmos Zsigmond's photography) and brilliant execution of the “escort” scenes provide a momentum for the audience that lasts until the climax: “the opening scenes are efficient, crisp.”21 Understandably, critics took notice. According to Alvin Marill, “Spielberg emerged recently from the ranks of Universal-TV's directors unit where he had established himself with the Joan Crawford segment of the original Night Gallery telefeature and latterly with the extraordinary neo-cultist Duel.” He claims, “the premise [of Sugarland], played alternatively for comedy and drama, is basic fodder for a TV Movie of the Week—down to the slick Universal trappings. … However, [Spielberg] has proved himself much too creative to let his debut theafilm remain at this level and slowly molds an intelligent, engrossing movie chase, capturing striking bits of contemporary Americana. …”22

The Sugarland Express did not lose money (it actually made a small profit after its sale to television), but Pye and Myles admit that there was something “wrong with the chemistry.” Part of the problem was an ad campaign that changed several times in the hope that a workable marketing strategy could be found. In order to make the film more profitable, Spielberg was also willing to change the ending—letting his fugitives live—which would have been more consistent with Captain Tanner's character. However, this idea was rejected by producers Zanuck and Brown.

Carl Gottlieb, sensing Spielberg's dismay that Sugarland did not do well at the box office, attributed the film's lack of success to competition from two similar “youth movies”: “Sometimes, the competition can work against everyone: three well-made movies about outlaw couples on the run from organized society were released nearly simultaneously last year, by three different distributors/studios, and they all died—Steven's Sugarland Express, Terry Malick's Badlands, and Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us. Any one of them might have had an individual success, but I think they split the ticket and divided the market, and everyone suffered.”23 Spielberg attributes the film's failure to its structure, which he now admits should have been different. In effect, he attempted to balance three parallel actions—all equal in weight, substance, and intensity—to tell his story. Spielberg is at his best with a linear storyline and one or two central characters. It is evident from his reworking of the Jaws script with Gottlieb that he intended to avoid this trap again, yet he committed the same mistake in 1941, an overindulgent slapstick comedy, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.


  1. Mitch Tuchman, “Close Encounter with Steven Spielberg,” Film Comment 14, no. 1 (January-February 1978): 51.

  2. Ibid., 52.

  3. Ibid., 52-53.

  4. Ibid., 53.

  5. Pye and Myles, Movie Brats, 223.

  6. Ibid., 224.

  7. Ibid., 225.

  8. Ibid., 224.

  9. Ibid., 227.

  10. Tuchman, “Close Encounter,” 53.

  11. Ibid., 53.

  12. Pye and Myles, Movie Brats, 228.

  13. Ibid., 228.

  14. Pye and Myles, Movie Brats, 227-28.

  15. Paul Zimmerman, “Hard Riders,” Newsweek, 8 April 1974, 82.

  16. Ibid., 82.

  17. Tony Crawley, The Steven Spielberg Story: The Man behind the Movies (New York, 1983), 35.

  18. Tuchman, “Close Encounter,” 53.

  19. Zimmerman, “Hard Riders,” 82.

  20. Royal, “Steven Spielberg,” 20.

  21. Pye and Myles, Movie Brats, 230.

  22. Alvin Marill, “Film Reviews: Sugarland Express,Films in Review, 25, no. 5 (May 1974): 308.

  23. Gottlieb, Jaws Log, 52.

Donald R. Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6597

SOURCE: Mott, Donald R., and Cheryl McAllister Saunders. “I'm Going to Make You a Star.” In Steven Spielberg, pp. 110-28. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay, Mott and Saunders explore the inspirations behind E.T. and comment on the film's critical reception and suspected religious symbolism.]

Dear E.T.,

I love you and want you to come to my house on Christmas Day and spend the night with me in case I get scared. E.T. I love you.



Letters to E.T., 1983

Spielberg, with the help of special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi and hundreds of artists and technicians, decided literally to make a star for his next film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Described by Paul Sammon as “a squat, wrinkled, mud-colored beastie with a perpetual chest cold,” E.T. was the unlikely popular and media sensation of 1982.1 This ugly, but endearing electronic-mechanical alien graced everything from the cover of Rolling Stone (he was bumped from the covers of other major national magazines only by the Falklands War) to bedsheets (carefully licensed, of course, for marketing by Spielberg's business and legal branches). The most remarkable thing about this “star” is that he is an illusion. With this film, Spielberg brings to culmination his spellbinding technique, hiding it “so well that never once are you taken out of your chair and reminded of where you are.”2

More lifelike than his ancestor King Kong (also crafted by Rambaldi for the 1976 remake), E.T., according to Sammon, was a combination of special effects, mechanics, electronics, and actors, including a mime and two midgets. Rambaldi, who “made a number of E.T.s for the film,” claims,

Mainly, however, we depended on three different ones throughout the filming. One was a lightweight electro-mechanical form which we bolted to the stage floor and which was capable of thirty points of movement in the face and thirty more in the body. Another, more complicated, body was auto-electronic. When they needed a close-up or something sophisticated, they usually brought out the electronic E.T., which had eighty-six separate points of movement—the most I ever put into a figure. Even King Kong only had forty. And this electronic E.T. had a lot of servo boxes hanging off it and many more cables than the mechanical E.T.

The third suit, cableless and capable of only ten points of movement was custom-designed and padded to be worn by little people for E.T.'s walking scenes. The other, non-walking shots—eighty-five percent of E.T.'s total screen time—exclusively featured the electronic and mechanical models. The primary “little people” suit was also fitted with radio-controlled arms.3

Rambaldi also created four complicated E.T. heads and working parts. Many of the other special effects for the film were created by George Lucas's subsidiary company, Industrial Light and Magic.

Spielberg said he wanted “a creature that only a mother could love. I didn't want him to be sublime or beatific—or there'd be no place to go in the relationship. The story is the beauty of [E.T.'s] character.”4 Rambaldi's final result, however, exceeded Spielberg's expectations and caused him to exclaim, “E.T. could have sung arias if he'd wanted to.”5

Most critics agree that E.T.'s performance—considering the limitations of any electro-mechanical creation—was beautifully choreographed. Spielberg took a chance that the inherent personality of the alien, created by the script, would help to overshadow any visual imperfections that might show through. Everything depended on the alien's believability and characterization. Critics were not enthusiastic about Spielberg's mechanical creature in Jaws, noting that the close-ups of the latex shark at the end of the film almost destroyed the illusion Spielberg was trying to create (even Spielberg's uncertainty caused him to conceal the shark for most of the film); Rambaldi's Puck in Close Encounters—Spielberg's vision of what earthlings might see during their first meeting with extraterrestrials—fared much better, but it was only on the screen for a short time at the end of the film.6 But E.T. became a star, and Spielberg was nominated for an Academy Award for his directorial efforts (his other nominations were for Close Encounters and Raiders).


Many Spielberg fans, as well as critics, expected something like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to come along sooner than the summer of 1982. During a press conference after the premiere of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the fall of 1977, Spielberg indicated that he had plans for a sequel, but he was vague in his discussion of the outline of the story.7 As Tony Crawley notes, “The director [of Close Encounters] had always said he hoped Richard Dreyfuss's Common Man would be returned to earth by Puck and the other aliens.”8 That idea never materialized, especially after Spielberg decided to reedit and reshoot additional material for the special edition. What began as an idea for the sequel to Close Encounters developed into the initial idea for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but slowly and with several changes in both director and screenwriters. It is not surprising, therefore, that E.T. exhibits the friendly alien scenario, the heavy use of Disney-like fantasy, and Spielberg's own personal vision of extra-terrestrial life already seen in Close Encounters.

By 1979, Spielberg had written a story entitled “Night Skies,” which he turned over to screenwriter John Sayles for further development. Ron Cobb, an art director who helped on several scenes in both John Carpenter's Dark Star (1974) and George Lucas's Star Wars (1977), was set to direct; the new aliens were to be designed by Rick Baker, a talented makeup artist who worked on the remake of King Kong (1976) and later on John Landis's American Werewolf in London (1981).9 At this point, Spielberg appeared comfortable in acting as producer for a work that he initially created. However, difficulties arose and the “Night Skies” idea was in trouble: “‘The basic idea came from Spielberg's research on Close Encounters,’ reported John Sayles, ‘involving a kind of an isolated farmhouse. I thought of it as Drums along the Mohawk (1939), with extra-terrestrials instead of Indians.’ Rick Baker saw it more like Straw Dogs (1971), which could explain many of the changes to come. Spielberg is no Sam Peckinpah.”10

The initial problem with the film was its large budget. For this reason, Sayles cut his eleven alien creatures to five in the screenplay, but Columbia found the project still too expensive. As Sayles recalls: “I did one draft … [and] we talked about it, and I started a revision while Rick Baker began designs for the extra-terrestrials … five as I remember. The second draft came in, people seemed pretty pleased and I lost track of the project while it went through Columbia for budgeting. The next I heard, Columbia had passed on it, ostensibly because of what it would cost; and Spielberg and Rick Baker had fallen out, also because of financial disagreements.”11

Spielberg also had reservations about Sayles's script, which portrayed the aliens, especially the alien leader, Scar, as hostile to humans. Crawley notes that Spielberg was more interested in the smallest (and friendliest) alien in Sayles's group, which led him to the idea “What if he got left behind? What if the little chap, the straggler, missed the bus home.”12 When the “Night Skies” project fell apart, Spielberg returned to Close Encounters in the hope that Columbia would be satisfied with a special edition of the film in lieu of a sequel.

Spielberg supposedly conceived E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial while filming Raiders. Crawley notes that he had been working on two horror films for the summer trade:

What he was planning, by way of antithesis, was a couple of shock-horror numbers, Poltergeist and Night Skies. A pair of quicky productions, good for summer trade. What he did do was read the second script more often than the first, notice how it related in many ways to the first. Then he discovered within it the kernel of antithesis to both shockers. … Why not merge the second with some previous thoughts and bring in some kids … and it, or E.T., built on from there. … The antecedents of E.T. are about the most convoluted of any Spielberg film. It grew out of three scripts, four writers, six titles and two special effects wizards, every bit as much as out of the Spielbergian soul.13

One of Spielberg's more useful talents is his ability to connect the right idea with the right people. With E.T., Spielberg connected a dissatisfied writer with an idea that developed into her most famous screenplay to date. Because of his interest in Puck, Spielberg discussed story possibilities with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who had come to visit Harrison Ford on the set of Raiders (she later married him). Earlier, Kathleen Kennedy (the coproducer of E.T.) had suggested Mathison, who had written the screenplay for The Black Stallion (1979). Initially Mathison refused, because, according to Crawley, she had reread her recent work and decided never to write again.14 Later, while the filming of Raiders continued in Tunisia, Spielberg told Mathison that he wanted to make a film about children who discover an alien from outer space.15 This time she was interested and agreed to write the script. She was a perfect choice since her writing added a female perspective to Spielberg's story. It is interesting to note that most of the production staff were also women.16 This may explain why E.T. lacks the hard edge of Spielberg's previous work, where critics accused him of making “brilliant movies with a mechanical heart.”17

Spielberg's technical virtuosity separates him from other directors in his class. His direction of special effects wizards and cameramen creates a cinematic visual whole that elevates an improbable premise to a believable product. His choice of cameraman for E.T. was Allen Daviau, whom he had used on his first 35-mm short, Amblin'. Daviau created a series of lighting motifs that accented the various scenes appropriately. In keeping with Spielberg's lighting trademark, that of slight diffusion coupled with heavy backlighting and the use of weak fill lights, Charles Michener and Katrine Ames observe: “E.T. achieves its almost hypnotic hold through the much more subtly manipulative play of light, which Spielberg and his cinematographer, Allen Daviau, orchestrate like symphonic motifs: the lush darkness of the forest contrasts with the flat brightness of the suburban community; a kind of holy back light bathes Elliott and the E.T. whereas Elliott's family—his mother, little sister and older brother—are viewed in natural, all-around light; the black silhouettes of the advancing government forces suddenly blaze into clinical fluorescence after they find E.T. in his hideaway.”18

While in development at Columbia Pictures, E.T. was thought of as a “kiddie” picture. The Columbia executives' favorite project at the time—one that they felt had more of a story and, more importantly, blockbuster appeal—was John Carpenter's Starman, finally filmed in 1984. By several twists of fate, Spielberg's film project was dropped by Columbia and picked up by Universal, whereas Carpenter's film was put on hold at Columbia for several years.


For his most successful film to date, Spielberg decided to “wing E.T.,” that is, to improvise.19 This was an unusual move for Spielberg, whose meticulous storyboarding usually precedes production. The effect of this preproduction work, as some critics have noted, created interesting, yet mechanical films that provided the fast pace sought by a television generation audience. But the procedure entails a lack of spontaneity; and the resulting product usually appears suspiciously crafted; many of Spielberg's works are carefully contrived, devoid of “holes” or lulls in the action. With E.T., Spielberg decided on a new approach: “Winging E.T. made it a very spontaneous, vital movie. … I realized I didn't need the drawings for a small movie like E.T. I would never wing Raiders II, but I could improvise a more personal picture like E.T., which was essentially more about people and relationships.”20

The E.T. story is simple and straightforward, an interesting cross between The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Old Yeller (1957), with a bit of Peter Pan.Time reviewer Richard Corliss describes it as “a miracle movie, and one that confirms Spielberg as a master storyteller of his medium.”21 The film starts where John Sayles's “Night Skies” screenplay ends—the friendly alien is left behind after his spaceship takes off from earth. The ancient alien's adoption by three typically suburban children, his adventures on earth, and his subsequent return home provide the plot. For one of the children in particular, Elliott (Henry Thomas), E.T. represents a special friend, providing him companionship that has been all but lost because his father has left the family and his mother works. He is also separated from his brother, Michael, who has his own older friends, and from his little sister, Gertie, by her youth and feminine interests. It is a story of a “shy, lonely boy in desperate need of a friend—when suddenly one falls out of the sky.”22

It is Elliott who discovers the “goblin” in the backyard shed and lures him into the house with Reese's Pieces. Once in his room, E.T. begins scanning the various toys and objects scattered around. It becomes a learning process between an old alien and an earthbound boy. Spielberg develops a touching tale that all kids—especially suburban children as Spielberg was—might fantasize during those lonely, isolated periods of youth.

From this point, Spielberg builds a variety of experiences for E.T. and Elliott to share. As Michener and Ames note, “It is through this friendship that Elliott finds a way out of his closed-up anger and discovers the promise of real manhood in a series of funny, touching, exhilarating and, finally, shattering scenes.”23 E.T.'s glowing finger, we learn, can heal Elliott's cut finger. E.T.'s heartlight causes his chest to glow at various times, either in dire fear or because he has been warmly touched. There is also a symbiotic relationship between the creature and the boy, so that whatever E.T. experiences, Elliott does too. In one scene, for example, E.T. becomes intoxicated on beer and Elliott exhibits the effects at school. E.T. watches a love scene on television between John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in John Ford's film The Quiet Man (1952). At the same time, Elliott, now in science class and under the spell of E.T.'s symbiotic extrasensory perception, quickens his nerve and kisses the prettiest girl in the class. Noticing that his friend E.T. looks like the frogs he and his classmates are about to dissect, Elliott is suddenly compelled to free all the frogs from their glass enclosures, putting himself in trouble with the science teacher.

Elliott finally introduces E.T. to his brother and sister. Gertie is startled when she meets the ugly, but strangely cute, creature whom Elliott has found. She immediately blurts out a scream that alarms E.T.: he cranes his neck up in fear and belches out an unearthly screech. Eventually, Gertie takes an interest in E.T. because he is “someone even smaller than she, an infant brother she can dress up as a bag lady and even teach to speak.”24

E.T.'s living space is a large closet off Elliott's room filled with clothes, toys, and stuffed animals. It even has a small, multicolored stained glass window, which suggests a spiritual dwelling place for this unusual time traveler. In E.T. and Poltergeist, the closet becomes the focus of either a hiding place (for E.T.) or a place of terror (in the later film the “TV people” reside there and swallow Carol Ann into the next plane of existence). As Corliss notes, “In a house [Spielberg] had to share with three mischievous younger sisters, Steven would take the standard boy's revenge: lock them in the closet and then throw in the thing they feared most.”25

For Spielberg, such places seem to represent those special areas in the suburban home where children feel isolated, yet safe with their thoughts, or, alternately, frightened by images of entrapment or capture by some creature. For a suburban child, these places can be the bathroom, the basement, the attic, or a backyard shed. In all of Spielberg's works to date, there is a sense of such “small places.” The sanctuary of the bathroom appears to add the element of spirituality since it contains a source of water, a place to cleanse not only the body but also the soul. Consider, for example, David Mann (Duel) splashing water on his face in a roadside café restroom. In Sugarland Express, Lou Jean diverts Clovis into a restroom in the minimum security prison. There she has sex with him and unfolds her plan to retrieve Baby Langston. In Jaws, the cabin of the Orca extends the bathroom motif because it is a small place surrounded by water. The cabin becomes Brody's refuge from the giant killer shark after it devours Quint. He is forced to escape when the shark crashes through the hull filling the small cabin with water. Consider Roy Neary's attempts to cleanse himself of the implanted image in his mind in Close Encounters. It is the bathroom where Neary first carves Devil's Tower, out of shaving cream, and where he has his mental breakdown—lying in the bath tub face up, fully clothed, and with the shower on. Indiana Jones's “tight spots” are usually experienced within the confines of insect-ridden, booby-trapped caves, narrow tunnels, or the dark chambers of lost civilizations; his only love scene with Marion commences in the small space of a ship's cabin. The spiritual nature of the cleansing process as rebirth is evident in Poltergeist, where mother and daughter are revived and cleansed of the messy afterbirth in a tub of hot water in a downstairs bathroom. When E.T. becomes ill and his life begins to drain from him, he is led into the bathroom with the hope of reviving him and saving him from death. These small places are a natural part of Spielberg's vision because his filmmaking, he says, “comes from some of my experiences growing up.”26 For young Spielberg, these “secret” spaces might have provided him creative refuges from the mundane existence of suburbia, neighborhood bullies, and his three sisters. In E.T. and Poltergeist the private visual perceptions of a child's world and the many “small places” in it become magnified and focused. The significance of these “small spaces” has grown with each film Spielberg has directed or conceived.

E.T. experiences Halloween with other neighborhood kids (the first time, Spielberg says, E.T. sees other humans), a sequence that is both funny and touching. For E.T.'s disguise, the children dress him up in a sheet, and one of the first “humans” he sees is outfitted in a “Yoda” costume (from Lucas's Star Wars series). But unidentified government workers are quietly on the prowl for the little alien. They listen in to neighborhood conversations with ultrasensitive sound equipment, use radiation detectors to pick up traces of the extraterrestrial, and eventually begin a house-to-house inquiry.

Fortunately, E.T. manages to build a transmitter contraption out of spare parts (a Speak n' Spell computer toy, an umbrella, a circular saw blade, bobby pins, and a record player) and places it on a hillside with help from Elliott. While the contraption is bleeping out signals into the heavens, Elliott falls asleep and E.T. stands guard over the machine. He eventually begins to feel ill. He walks off into the forest and when Elliott awakens in the morning, the contraption is still functioning but E.T. is gone! Feeling depressed and ill himself, Elliott walks home to a worried mother, and sends Michael out to find the lost creature. E.T. is found in the forest and brought home. Life has begun to leave E.T., who becomes afraid for Elliott, because his life seems to be draining away too—the result of the symbiotic relationship. The children fetch their mother for help, and it is the first time she sees the ugly creature. Her first thought is to protect her children, and in doing so, attempts to usher them out of the house. When she opens the door, she encounters a man in a space suit. Outside the house, government workers are enveloping the house in a plastic tent to decontaminate it. A makeshift emergency room is set up, and E.T. and Elliott are placed alongside each other on long tables. When E.T. is pricked with a needle, Elliott responds in pain. But E.T.'s life is fading and so is Elliott's. Elliott implores E.T. to heal himself, but he apparently cannot. When it appears hopeless for the extraterrestrial, the doctors turn their attention to saving Elliott. Even that now appears futile.

E.T. dies, but Elliott miraculously comes back to full health. He looks at his dead friend and pleads for him to come back to life, but the alien remains pale and motionless. Later, viewing his friend for the last time, Elliott notices E.T.'s heartlight glowing. Overjoyed that his friend is not dead, he knows he must help E.T. escape the government workers. He gets Michael to recruit his friends for help. Pretending E.T. is still dead, Elliott closes the lead tomblike container and follows it through the plastic tunnel to the waiting van. Once inside, he opens the tomb, brushes away the ice and helps E.T. out. Michael, meanwhile, sneaks into the cab of the van, starts the engine, and zooms off, dragging along the plastic tunnel with the two men still inside it. When the men begin to climb forward, Elliott unfastens the tunnel, dropping the workers in the middle of the road. Michael, although too young to have a license, succeeds in driving the van to the meeting place, where his friends are waiting with bicycles. Elliott places E.T. in his bike's basket and the bikers head for the rendezvous location where E.T.'s spaceship will pick him up. When government workers and police trap the bikers with a roadblock, E.T. miraculously makes the bicycles fly off the ground (in classic Disney style) and past the moon (recalling Peter Pan).

At the rendezvous site, Spielberg indulges in a touching, but overly long, goodbye between E.T. and Elliott, while the others—Gertie, Michael, and their mother—look on in wonder and amazement. Gertie gives E.T. a geranium plant that had come back to life, and E.T. tells her to “be good.” Then he waddles up the ramp of the ship, the hatch quickly closes, the ship rises. E.T. is finally going home after his adventure on planet Earth.

E.T. is Spielberg's most evenly paced film. For the first time, he allows the characters to set the pace, which is much subdued compared to his other works. The richness of the film lies in its casting. Spielberg's choice for Elliott was important because it reflects his youthful remembrances of himself—intelligent and inquisitive, yet very much alone and far from popular. The role of Elliott went to young Henry Thomas from San Antonio, Texas, who had just finished his first feature film, Raggedy Man (1982). His first reading for Spielberg was atrocious, but he won the part when he was asked to improvise.27

Cast as the older brother was a more experienced stage actor, Robert MacNaughton, son of Bruce MacNaughton, who, as a child actor himself, played the blond rich kid in Hal Roach's Little Rascals series. Drew Barrymore, playing Gertie, comes directly from third-generation cinematic lineage—her grandfather was John Barrymore, the famous actor of the silent era and early sound films. With innocent-looking eyes, blond hair, and a charming pose, she is convincing as the impish young sister, who may be an “amalgamation of [Spielberg's] three ‘terrifying’ sisters.”28 Before becoming Elliott's sister in E.T., she was featured in several television commercials and a television movie, and appeared as one of Dr. Jessup's daughters in Ken Russell's Altered States (1981).

Casting the suburban children was crucial from the start, because they were required to carry much of the film. The adults in this movie (there are only two) appear unimportant and almost invisible. Elliott's mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), knocks over E.T. in the kitchen without ever realizing what he is (another toy perhaps?). When she enters Elliott's closet to fetch a blanket, she does not notice the “goblin” Elliott has stashed there: E.T. neatly fits into the lineup of stuffed animals (purposely positioned by Elliott for camouflage) and goes undetected. In establishing the relationship between mother and children, Spielberg purposely re-creates the typical dilemma faced by a young divorced woman forced into the working world to support her children. This scenario enables Spielberg to establish a natural distance between mother and children that does not appear contrived. Elliott and his siblings could as easily have hidden a puppy in the closet.

As in Close Encounters, Spielberg portrays government officials and scientists as cold, calculating, and hostile, although like Lacombe, the scientist in E.T., nicknamed “Keys” (Peter Coyote) for the large, clanking key ring he carries, is sympathetic; he can identify with Elliott and understands the bond between him and the alien. He too, since childhood, has been waiting for his special E.T. friend.

The extraordinary magic of the Spielberg-Mathison story is based on a friendship like no other that exhibits tremendous tenderness and warmth. It is like the popular “boy and a dog” story (Disney's Old Yeller, 1957) or a variation on the “odd love story” (George Stevens's Shane, 1953).29 Corliss notes, “Not since the glory days of the Walt Disney Productions—40 years and more ago, when Fantasia and Pinocchio and Dumbo first worked their seductive magic on moviegoers of every age—has a film so acutely evoked the twin senses of everyday wonder and otherworldly awe.”30

Spielberg claims he put himself on the line with this film because prior to E.T., “I was giving out, giving off things before I would bring something in.31 He was afraid to show his innermost feelings in his work. Spielberg recalls, “There were feelings I developed in my personal life … that I had no place to put.”32 They found a place in E.T. and Poltergeist. Crawley refers to this 1981 development in Spielberg's life as a “breakout catharsis,” a “coming out of the closet (in his case, that's the cutting rooms) and showing off not so much his usual bag of mercurial tricks—see Mom, no hands!—but his heart.”33 For Spielberg, age thirty-three, it was his “suburban psychodrama.”

Since Spielberg considers E.T. his “personal resurrection,” his obvious choice for a location was suburbia: “It's a reality to kids; in suburbia you have to create a kids' world apart from an adult world.” Spielberg continues, “What better place to keep a creature from outer space a secret from grownups?”34 The suburban setting prompted Commonweal reviewer Tom O'Brien to note:

In a famous essay, “The UFO as Religious Symbol,” C. G. Jung suggested that modern man appropriates machine images to his own magical purposes, and turns the stuff of science to myth, and religion. No filmmaker does this better than Steven Spielberg, a suburban animist with a tinge of Manicheanism.

Watch Spielberg's pizzas, watch his toys, dolls, and train sets. In E.T., watch his use of Coors beer and Pez candies. On one level, this mass of details explains part of the appeal of his films—the lovingly nostalgic recreation of American life, particularly suburban life, that engages viewer sympathy, tickles humor, and establishes credibility for the weird events about to happen. On another level, however, these physical, almost palpable recreations of the material world are not the antithesis of Spielberg's interest in the uncanny; rather, their intensity explains it.35

It is audiences' familiarity with suburbia (his audiences are mostly composed of suburbanites) that allows Spielberg to be efficient with his story, eliminating much narrative and background material to move the story along at a steady pace (again showing that his greatest fear is boring his audience).36

A lack of exposition, however, creates minor flaws in the film, preventing the audience from fully comprehending events. For example, we do not understand that the effects of gravity on E.T.'s body will eventually cause him to die or that he needs energy pills for food. His fondness for Reese's Pieces and beer suggest that he is in no danger of starvation, yet he begins to discolor and become ill. His sudden turn for the worse, we surmise, might be his depression at not being able to get home. Is he grieving himself to death or is there another reason? William Kotzwinkle's novelization of the screenplay hints that it is a combination of depression, poor diet, and the effects of gravity that cause E.T. to wither and die. Although Elliott pleads with E.T. to heal himself, he says he cannot and becomes fearful for the children, the willow-creature (Elliott's mother), and even the world, for he does not know what effect his death might have on Earth (total catastrophe?). Its effects on the “atomic secret” held within E.T.'s heartlight have not been determined. Spielberg urges us to use our imagination here, to fill in the holes, and to keep the faith. Most young viewers readily accept the given premises, since they tend not to view the action critically, rather accepting whatever occurs as necessary.

When E.T. dies, Elliott, whose life appears to be fading too, immediately comes back to life. Then E.T.'s heartlight amazingly begins to glow—he has apparently healed himself, we do not know why or how. E.T.'s miraculous resurrection appears somewhat confusing in the film and contrived in the novel. Kotzwinkle fills the reader in with this oblique explanation:

A beam of golden light shot through inner space. Historians of the cosmos are divided as to the direction from which it came. It was more ancient than E.T., older than the oldest fossil. There are those who claim it was the healing soul of Earth itself, flickering a single thread of what it knew, as a gesture of diplomacy perhaps, towards its alien visitor.

Don't peek in anymore windows,” some say it said, and was gone.

Others say the Earth was doomed and could not save itself, that the saving force had come from a sister planet, to lend a hand in pacifying the dragon of the nuclear force.

And still others heard:

dreeple zoonnnnnnqqqqqqqummmmmtwrrrdssss

Calling from the beyond.

Whatever it was, it touched E.T.'s healing finger, and caused it to glow.

He healed himself.37

Kotzwinkle also explains why Elliott did not die along with E.T.: “E.T. had found at least one of the formulas he sought, that of a shield, cast behind him as he swooned into death, so the boy could not follow.”38 Such exposition would have been impossible for Spielberg, employing his unusual style of filmmaking, to construct, yet such information appears crucial to explain many such events in the film. E.T.'s inability to speak English clearly made film exposition difficult. Even when he did speak, it was in broken words and garbled phrases that were hard to understand. In Kotzwinkle's novelization, E.T. communicates about his situation (of being stranded), his well-being (the effects of gravity and his lack of energy pills), and his knowledge of humans (the willow-creature and her children) through extrasensory perception to plants (he talks to the vegetables in the garden next to the house) and animals (the family dog).

These missing links do not deter from the friendship between Elliott and the alien or the final climax of E.T.'s adventure on Earth—we either take them for granted or let our imaginations fill in the blanks. Spielberg is one of those directors who leads his audience like the captain of a ship or the pilot of an aircraft. Our faith is in his ability to get us to our destination; the details of the flight (engine failure?) or the cruise (icebergs?)—are perhaps best kept from the passengers. Spielberg creates a tension, a nervousness, in the audience, holding our attention while shuttling the story to its conclusion—where his (and the audiences') dreams come true: the tenderness of the human (and alien) heart is revealed. It is truly, as Spielberg would contend, wishing upon a star!


Discovering a religious allegory in E.T. has become a popular way of viewing Spielberg's 1982 film. In an interview with Andrew Epstein, Melissa Mathison reveals that during production of the film, she, along with cinematographer Allen Daviau, discovered many similarities between her story of E.T. and that of Christ.39 Mathison (who was educated in a Catholic school in Hollywood) said she told director Spielberg of their discovery and was given the reply, “I'm Jewish, and I don't want to hear anything about this.”40

Intentional or not, there are a number of similarities between E.T. and the Christian story of a visitor from another realm, sent to save humanity. Al Millar, a professor of biblical literature, notes at least thirty-three parallels between E.T.'s visitation and that of the Christian savior, Jesus. In his pamphlet, ‘E.T.’—You're More Than a Movie Star, he begins his list with the following parallels to Christ:

“E.T. had a prior extra-terrestrial existence.”

“His early life on earth was ‘submerged’ or hidden.”

“He came to little children.”

The list continues with thirty more plausible parallels, including the final point that, like Christ, “E.T. ascended to his original ‘home.’”41 William Kotzwinkle's novelization of the screenplay lessens some of the biblical parallels, so it is interesting to speculate whether the visual techniques used in the film may have emphasized the similarities. Spielberg's tendency to spiritualize outer space (and extraterrestrials) began with Close Encounters and reached new heights with his 1982 effort. Robert Short, however, likens E.T. to 2001 and other films in the alien genre, which he contends is based on atheistic humanism. He notes: “Clarke and Kubrick would tell us that no one is in charge here. The universe is simply a clock-like, impersonal mechanism, utterly blind and unfeeling and indifferent to people and their problems. No one's in charge. The universe just is. Therefore we can only look to ourselves for help and hope. And of course this is ‘human-ism’ or the deification of humanity.”42

Spielberg, like Kubrick and Clarke, merely makes the assumption that we are not alone in the universe and whatever is out there in space is not necessarily hostile to humankind nor something that necessarily approximates the Judeo-Christian concept of God. If certain parallels exist between E.T. and the Christ story, they are not unlike similar religious parallels contained in the many science-fiction works (film or literature) that have been created before. That Mathison was unaware of the parallels until filming began, or that Spielberg would not hear of Christian influence creeping into his work, provides some evidence that science fiction, popular myth, and religion are intertwined.

Tom O'Brien, reviewer for Commonweal, claims that Spielberg is like many other science fiction directors in that his “[suburban] animism is complicated by the religious extremism which he shares” with them. “According to their plots, whatever comes out of a spaceship must either save us or destroy us.”43 O'Brien likens Spielberg's E.T. to Kubrick's 2001 (1968), Richard Donner's Superman (1978), Harry Horner's Red Planet Mars (1952), and Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) in the same “hallowed moral tradition … where something or someone Godlike or Christlike saves, or at least renews, humanity—or reaffirms its best impulses.”44 For this reason, O'Brien views Spielberg's suburban fantasy as spiritually defective: “As a mythmaker, however, he shares the defect of other creators of science fiction, not excess but defect of imagination. Their substitute religion is based on an unspiritual premise: something physical is going to save or destroy us, depending on whether the E.T.'s involved are angelic or satanic.”45

Although salvation may be “more uncanny than special effects,”46 there are valid spiritual parallels, as Millar points out, between Spielberg's E.T. and the story of Christ. To dismiss the parallels is, frankly, untenable.

Other critics and reviewers were content to hail E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a “masterpiece.” It has been compared to classic children's movies from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Spirit of the Beehive (Spanish, 1973), as well as to nearly every science-fiction film ever made. Spielberg, himself, likes to bring up references to Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and to think of E.T. as his “Christmas story” (classic films like Capra's often pop up during the holidays).

E.T. captured the popular imagination from Ohio to Tokyo and, according to Newsweek's “Portrait of '82” (27 December 1982), E.T.'s famous line “E.T. phone home” became the most “overworked phrase of the year.” It also, of course, became another financial bonanza (E.T. cost only his parts—he couldn't ask for a salary or a star dressing room) for Spielberg and company, achieving even larger box-office records than Spielberg's previous hits.

It will be interesting to follow future reactions to the film. Was it 1982's fad, or will it retain its universal appeal? This appeal distinguishes true film classics—they endure beyond their time and place. Steven Spielberg's “instant” classic needs to stand the test of time.


  1. Paul M. Sammon, “Turn on Your Heartlight: Inside E.T.,Cinefex, no. 11 (January 1983): 5.

  2. Jack Kroll, “Close Encounter,” 98.

  3. Sammon, “Heartlight,” 10, 13.

  4. Crawley, Steven Spielberg Story, 136.

  5. Sammon, “Heartlight,” 13.

  6. Marcia Magill, “Jaws,” 436, notes that the “programmed shark” was realistic enough for most of its scenes, but “has one truly phony close-up, wearing (as my companion remarked) ‘too much make-up.’” Pye and Myles, Movie Brats, 244, describe Puck, the “adult E.T.” in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as “an image of great grace and beauty and wonder.” Other critics, however, appeared dissatisfied with the alien's appearance.

  7. Ralph Kaminsky, “Spielberg Discloses Sequel Script at Encounters Press Conference,” Boxoffice, 21 November 1977, 6.

  8. Crawley, Steven Spielberg Story, 84.

  9. Ibid., 85.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid., 107.

  14. Ibid., 108.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid., 141-43. Crawley devotes an entire section, “Let's Talk about Women,” to the women who were so important to the film's production.

  17. Charles Michener and Katrine Ames, “A Summer Double Punch,” Newsweek, 31 May 1982, 62.

  18. Ibid., 64.

  19. Royal, “Steven Spielberg,” 19.

  20. Ibid., 19.

  21. Richard Corliss, “Steve's Summer Magic,” Time, 31 May 1982, 54.

  22. Ibid., 55.

  23. Michener and Ames, “Double Punch,” 64.

  24. Corliss, “Magic,” 56.

  25. Ibid., 57.

  26. Royal “Steven Spielberg,” 18.

  27. Crawley, Steven Spielberg Story, 120.

  28. Ibid., 120.

  29. Michener and Ames, “Double Punch,” 63.

  30. Corliss, “Magic,” 54-55.

  31. Michael Sragow, “Conversation,” 26.

  32. Ibid., 26.

  33. Crawley, Steven Spielberg Story, 117.

  34. Sragow, “Conversation,” 26.

  35. Tom O'Brien, “Steven Spielberg's Suburban Animism: Very High Sci-Fi,” Commonweal, 13 August 1982, 442-43.

  36. Sragow, “Conversation,” 26.

  37. William Kotzwinkle, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in His Adventures on Earth (New York, 1982), 231.

  38. Ibid., 229.

  39. Andrew Epstein, ‘The Woman behind the Boom: Melissa Mathison Pens the Bonanza Called E.T.,Chicago Tribune, 15 August 1982, as quoted in Robert Short, The Gospel from Outer Space (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 65.

  40. Ibid., 65.

  41. Al Millar, “E.T.”—You're More Than a Movie Star (Newport News, Va: privately published, 1982), 4-5. Millar, a professor of English and biblical literature at Christopher Newport College, Newport News, Virginia, has also written an unpublished humorous account of Universal Studios' reaction to his pamphlet and his subsequent fame, entitled, “The Flea's Reprieve: The Professor Who Saw Jesus in E.T.

  42. Short, Gospel, 24.

  43. O'Brien, “Animism,” 443.

  44. Ibid.

  45. Ibid., 444.

  46. Ibid., 445.

Tom O'Brien (review date 15 January 1988)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Tom. “Go East, Young Man.” Commonweal 115, no. 1 (15 January 1988): 20-1.

[In the following review, O'Brien notes Spielberg's tendency toward childishness and sentimentality in Empire of the Sun.]

Steven Spielberg, who directed and co-produced Empire of the Sun, doesn't want to grow up. In some artists, this refusal can be a fruitful source of protest against time, or, if handled ironically, bittersweet humor. Any obsession can be fruitful; look how wittily Hitchcock handled his with blondes. A director can return to the same theme, or change subjects and deal with a similar theme (as Spielberg has done here with growing up), and still mature artistically. Tone is all.

Empire feels like two films: a stirring, even scary epic spliced with a stagy, unconscious self-glorification. English child actor Christian Bale, as the son of a British diplomat in Shanghai, almost saves the movie with his portrayal of grace and near-madness under the enormous pressures of war, separation from his parents, near-starvation, and the knockabout world of an internment camp. But he is constantly undercut by a tendency toward mawkish, heavy-handed gestures by the director. Empire is a curious case of arrested development: Spielberg wants to depict maturity but is too close to the childish.

Several scenes especially reveal Spielberg's problem, because they almost surmount it and give familiar concerns of his—threats to home, childhood adventures—some mature feeling. Bale's manic love of fighter aircraft can be treated ambivalently; the distance between child's play and real war is slyly elided in a strong early scene when Bale jumps into a ruined aircraft. Spielberg also manages a nerve-racking gothic scene when Bale returns home (calling E.T.!) after the Japanese takeover and finds only spooky hand- and footprints on the cosmetic powder scattered across his mother's ransacked room. The Freudian suggestions are powerful, as is the aura of sex between Bale and a mother stand-in at the internment camp (Miranda Richardson) who drinks water from his cupped hand with some highly charged sips. As in The Color Purple, all evil is external to the main character, although here, at least, Spielberg seems to suspect otherwise. But he never delves deeply—beyond the myth of boyhood innocence and affection to the underside of the same feelings, where aggression subsumes play and eros colors filial love. Look at what My Life as a Dog tackled—only to emerge pure!

Worse than the avoidance is the celebratory element in the film, the frequent resort to special effects, the E.T.-like hands held over Bale's head by a doctor, and the tarty musical climaxes from John Williams's half of the score (the rest features some fine hymns sung by the Ambrosian Junior Choir acting as a pre-war boys chorus in Shanghai). The worst scene in the movie follows some stirring depictions of a dysentery-infested prison center; Bale forces the Japanese to take him to a work camp, first glimpsed in a terrifying scene of human masses breaking rocks to make a runway. It seems that we are about to go from the frying pan into the fire. But Spielberg shies away from the deeper issues to provide an unbelievable, happy tableau of Bale saluting Japanese pilots as if he were their colleague and then taking their counter-salute—all, naturally, to inspirational orchestral flourishes. Then—as if to prove, on a technical level, he was in fact making two films—Spielberg blacks out the screen and resumes the story with the subtitle “four years later.” All that time, and so little pain?

Empire of the Sun practically begs comparison with The Last Emperor and Hope and Glory. Like the former, it has been made with the help of the Chinese government, and partly concerns the invasion of China by Japan in World War II. Like the latter, its point of view belongs to a young English boy. But Empire's real parallel among recent films is Brian De Palma's The Untouchables. Directors like De Palma and Spielberg know what they're doing on one level: they are technically proficient, skilled in film lore, able to recreate some of the effects of the grand masters—De Palma with Eisenstein. Spielberg with Kurosawa, whose genius at action sequences Empire sometimes manages to match. Indeed, Spielberg even pulls off the film acolyte's obligatory bow to movie tradition with a witty shot of Bale, alone and bewildered just after the invasion, beneath a poster for the 1939 Gone with the Wind. It's a nice pun on art and life.

The trouble comes with treatment of character, which, as David Denby of New York magazine noted in a long cover essay (June 22, 1986), is not the specialty of film-school graduates trained primarily as video technicians. Indeed, Spielberg's weakness in handling a mature character, or rather handling character maturely, is based on his obliviousness to his own overindulged obsessions. Granted, Spielberg's narcissistic childishness is more benign than De Palma's, and in films located in the world of childhood or myth (E.T.,Close Encounters) is a potent source of film magic. Nevertheless, Empire amounts to a vast directorial Freudian slip. Ex-Catholic De Palma blood worships Father and Son; in nearly every movie (often appropriately) Spielberg oediplays Me and My Mom. In that order.

Sadly, in Empire Spielberg has tackled tragic material unsuitable for his special gifts. Spielberg may be recalling the war films—Sands of Iwo Jima,Guadalcanal Diary, the original Gung-Ho—that were staples on American television when he was growing up in the 1950s. Fortunately, he does not repeat the racial stereotypes that dominated them. But Spielberg wavers between a genuine sense of human tragedy and the old films' heroic hullabaloo. He presents two unreconciled images of Japan in his film: militarist (represented mostly by the internment camp commander) and humane (represented by a young Japanese boy, Bale's Asian alter ego, who trains enthusiastically to become a kamikaze pilot). But these images are never brought together; the commander disappears, and, at the end (you guessed it) it's the Boys against Brutes, since Boys everywhere are “just like us.” A study of national differences gives way to generational ones. One could accept even this united nations of youth more easily if Spielberg's images weren't so grossly sentimentalized.

Gilbert Adair (review date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Adair, Gilbert. “E.T. and a Half.” Sight and Sound 57, no. 2 (spring 1988): 138-39.

[In the following review, Adair comments on Spielberg's “cosmic” and supernatural sensibility in Empire of the Sun.]

Staying with acquaintances in Paris a few years ago, I fell into conversation with their son, an intelligent little boy of seven and a half, about the current movies he had most enjoyed. The titles he cited were, in the main, dishearteningly predictable: the Star Wars and Star Trek chronicles, Battlestar Galactica and so on. Urged by me to broaden—or rather to curb—his cinematic horizons, he mentioned at last a film that had been doing sellout business in the city, Jamie Uys' South African farce of Coca-colonisation The Gods Must Be Crazy. ‘And where does that film take place?’ I enquired, all innocence. Came the mildly terrifying response: ‘On earth.’

Yet, were I to be asked where Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros) takes place, I would probably offer the same reply, rather than the more precise but also more confining ‘in Japanese-occupied China during the Second World War’.

The difference is that whereas, for my little film buff chum, the phrase clearly reflected his belief in the cinema as a magically untrammelled medium for which his native planet was only one, and perhaps not the most intensely present, of many viable locations, it would be for me an acknowledgment of one director's enduringly, endearingly cosmic sensibility, his unrivalled capacity to retrieve and recreate the earth, for two hours or so, as what it has never truly ceased to be—just another planet rolling through space and open (potentially, at any rate) to visitation from its neighbours. Empire of the Sun is not of course a work of science-fiction (even though based, hardly coincidentally, on a novel by a writer, J. G. Ballard, who happens to be one of the pillars of that genre). But, invested as it has been with the same expectantly premonitory hush that one recalls from the director's previous films, bathed in the same golden, quasi-religious light, one would not be too surprised if some gem-studded gyroscope of a spacecraft were all of a sudden to alight on the internment camp in which most of it is set.

E.T. and the spacecraft of Close Encounters may have departed but the world they have left behind has been irreversibly altered, there being a glowing afterimage of congress with the supernatural indelibly overlaid upon it.

In fact, there does occur in the film's narrative an incident distinguishable from science-fiction, of 40s' vintage, only in its unfortunately total and inalterable realness; and an attendant line of dialogue (not found in the novel) that nicely encapsulates its director's tendency to ‘spiritualise’ technology, even of the most horrendous kind, and harmonise post-Einsteinian physics with a neo-metaphysical system of his own devising.

It is 1945. The film's hero—whose suggestively Stevensonian name of Jim accords with the faintly Long John Silverish character of his befriender, an enigmatic American adventurer called Basie—has been a prisoner of the Japanese for four years, in the course of which he has been transformed from a well-spoken upper middle-class English lad in a school blazer and baggy grey flannel shorts into a precociously go-getting, Americanised adolescent, the Bilko of Tenko. But the war is drawing to its end, the prison camps have been hastily evacuated and the depopulated landscape through which he wanders half-crazed from starvation is abruptly irradiated by an incandescent white flash. It is, as we afterwards learn, the lethally transfiguring glow of the Nagasaki bomb but to Jim in his pre-nuclear innocence it is ‘like God taking a photograph’. It may be said too, that, at their most potent, Spielberg's visuals resemble (or seek to resemble) photographs of the world taken by God.

What is most remarkable about Empire of the Sun, then, is the almost seamless fashion in which a faithful adaptation—from that awful, corny title onward—of a pretty harrowing English novel in the realist tradition has nevertheless contrived to become a proto-Spielbergian affirmation of faith and optimism in the universe, a completely personal work replete with the God-given ‘wholeness’ of vision that diametrically opposes his films, for example, to those Bergman chamber dramas of the early 60s in which the deity was famously conspicuous by His absence.

It is its sense of reverence, as well, that differentiates this film from its most obvious cinematic antecedents. Lean, eminently, with whose Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia it shares several stylistic tropes and even a few narrative correspondences (the sweeping dolly movements from an individual in the foreground to a vast and hitherto unsuspected expanse of milling humanity; Jim greeting the arrival of the fighters from a barracks roof with the same ecstatic panache as Lawrence swaggering from coach-top to coach-top of a moving train; the echo of Kwai's ‘Colonel Bogey’ when he strides triumphantly through the American compound to the tune of ‘The British Grenadiers’; and, indeed, from that latter film, the whole idea of a protagonist losing sight of the realities of the war, with Jim referring as blissfully to ‘our runway’ as Guinness's Colonel to ‘my bridge’). But also, arguably, the ‘epic’ Bertolucci, in the suave, spellbound fluidity with which Spielberg films the tableaux of colonial high jinks, as a gleaming Rolls, bearing cute, diminutive Pierrots and Sinbads to a fancy-dress party, forges a wary path through the densely massed populace of Shanghai. (If The Color Purple was Spielberg's Novecento, this might be regarded as his Last Emperor.)

These influences, and others, are visible enough, yet utterly transfigured by Spielberg's own glistening imagery. So that, here, the Lean-like dolly shots at last unashamedly assume the religious implication which was always latently there in any case; the theme of loving one's enemy is now lent a specifically Christian aura; and a beautiful (Chinese?) hymn sung over the film's credit-titles by a piercingly pure male soprano voice could even be read as a form of grace—the grace by which one is granted access to a body of work that, despite adopting an alien, an E.T., as its emblem, has become, paradoxically, the least alienated of contemporary cinema. Amen.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 19 June 1989)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “The Trail of the Grail.” New Republic 200, no. 25 (19 June 1989): 28-30.

[In the following review, Kauffmann offers a positive assessment of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, arguing that the majority of Spielberg's films function as “prepubescent male” fantasies.]

Reviewing an Indiana Jones film is almost like reviewing a tornado or a flood. It comes on less like a construct than like a force of nature—human nature, in this case, which seems to will the film onto the screen independently of those who made it.

This is obviously a tribute to the people who originated IJ and who in a sense have served as guides for audience impulse. Two others, Menno Meyjes and Jeffrey Boam, are credited with collaboration on the latest IJ story and with the screenplay, which credit I'm sure they deserve; but clearly this film, like the IJ films before it, attests to the deep audience awareness of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg—chiefly of Spielberg, who directed. (Lucas co-wrote the story and co-produced.)

Oceans of ink, a few drops in this column, have washed over the subject of Spielberg as enactor of daydream, the realizer of those boyhood fantasies that are so jealously preserved by men. Spielberg wonderfully exemplifies the twinning of fantasy life and film, the sense that film exists to provide a public vehicle for private fantasy. He has been making films since he was in grade school, has never wanted to do anything but make films, most of which are evidently the films he dreamed of making when he was a boy. The two exceptions to this fervently inbred view were The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. (1941 was really about films.) But mainly he has dealt with prepubescent male fantasy. Even in a war picture, Empire of the Sun, the protagonist was a boy.

“Prepubescent” doesn't mean that there are no women in Spielberg films, only that—however explicit the sex bits may be—they seem to be there only to supply some stuff that grown-ups insist on. Sex in the latest IJ has a new twist: IJ and his father, without knowing it, enjoy the same woman. But even this coincidence, which might seem much more than coincidence in other hands, is here only a wry male joke, no more than if they both by coincidence had visited the same restaurant.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Paramount), Spielberg and Lucas tell us, is justly titled: it's the final item in a trio including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Maybe they are running out of sacred objects for the central quest of the plot. First it was the Ten Commandments, then the Sankara stone, and now it's the Holy Grail. In Panavision. What's left?

The year of the main action is 1938, and the chief villains, once again, are Nazis. “I hate those guys,” says Indy when he comes up against them. Like that line, his dialogue throughout is a nice balance of comic-book and comic-book mockery. A novelty this time is the participation of his father, an archaeologist before him, who has spent years tracking down clues to the whereabouts of the Grail. (No mention of Monsalvat where Parsifal, when last seen, was guarding it.) The father-son relationship is nicely handled—no TV goo, just teasing rivalry between two men who were never really close.

Harrison Ford once more is Indy, once more giving the part the conviction that he is a scholar who is plunged into wild adventures, plus enough conviction that he can handle those adventures. Dad is Sean Connery, which fulfills in a way an old Spielberg-Lucas hunger. The press tells us that in 1977 they dreamed of making a James Bond film with Connery; now they've got him, playing the father of their own creation. Connery is warm and funny, but I confess I'd rather have seen him playing the father of James Bond: it would have seemed more organic. Connery's best achievement here is in almost making it credible that, at his age, he could battle atop a racing tank, etc.

Spielberg has an ingenuity that comes from psychic understanding. The opening sequence, in 1912, is set in Monument Valley, Utah. John Ford country. From atop a butte we see a file of horsemen crossing the valley floor at a walk. John Ford people. Closer, we watch from the rear a presumable line of cavalrymen as their horses make their way between the rocks. Then the leader calls a halt and orders the troop to dismount. We get our first head-on view of the riders. Except for the leader, they are boys—Boy Scouts of 14 or so, Indy (played by River Phoenix) among them. Thus Spielberg slyly leads the younger part of his audience to think they are watching a Western, then suddenly puts them right in it. Spielberg knows what that audience wants because he wanted it, and still wants it, himself.

Minutes later comes the first chase in the film, young. Indy riding furiously away from nasty pursuers. A train is crossing the valley, and Indy swings aboard, as do his pursuers. And what kind of train is it? A circus train, complete with a lion, snakes, and a car full of magic apparatus. Another daydream fulfilled. Spielberg must be the least frustrated man alive.

The grown Indy travels to Venice and Austria and Berlin and the Middle East, trying to keep the Holy Grail out of Nazi hands. John Williams's music—a constant in Spielberg films—accompanies Indy on his travels, obligingly menacing in Utah, a touch of mandolin tinkle in Venice, and so on. Williams's scores do a good deal to support the feeling of authentic fakery.

Once again, however, despite all the storms at sea and catacomb escapes and sudden fissures in the earth, this latest IJ picture, like the earlier ones, is more amusing than exciting. I'd suspect myself of not ever having had sufficient adolescent fantasy if it weren't for a film like Major League. I got a great deal more excitement out of the payoff baseball game at the end of that picture than out of all the landscape over which Spielberg's camera keeps rolling.

Armond White (review date July-August 1989)

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SOURCE: White, Armond. “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Film Comment 25, no. 4 (July-August 1989): 9-11.

[In the following review, White elucidates the political themes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and asserts that the film repudiates the genre conventions of the two earlier Indiana Jones films.]

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

—a Hollywood curse

Diviners of popular culture who once celebrated Steven Spielberg for his ingenious extension of the Hollywood film tradition (“A new generation's Howard Hawks”) have deserted him when he needs them most. Spielberg's last three films, The Color Purple,Empire of the Sun and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are transitional landmarks in Hollywood's ethos. They attempt to expand the cultural awareness of commercial films, struggling with generic form while improving their political implications. This is nothing less than Hollywood glasnost but reviewers expect aesthetic reform and cultural revision to come from Young Turk independents outside the official institution, or to be neatly differentiated by an acceptable passage of time—i.e. the generations that separate John Ford's sagebrush sentimentality from Sam Peckinpah's anti-Hollywood revisionism.

In The Last Crusade, Spielberg repudiates the very genre conventions and moral infractions he himself perpetrated in the two previous films of his George Lucas-produced series. It was the thinnest material Spielberg worked on since Jaws. Complaints that this final, third installment lacks zest disregard the extraordinary enhancement Spielberg has effected. In place of the melodramatic Freudian suggestions that Irving Kershner used to spike the pulpy The Empire Strikes Back, Spielberg makes a clean, funny, close-to-structuralist analysis of narrative practice. Insight about myth, not speed, is now the series' point.

The sensational timing and stunt work in the second of the Indiana Jones trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, could not be praised as anything but a dispassionate exercise of craft; the increased speed and smoothness were at the expense of sensible, responsible cultural expression. It was an infantile jamboree. But there's no need to tolerate that misused virtuosity when films like A Chinese Ghost Story can, miracle by miracle, step on Temple of Doom's feats, while offering an authentic picture of a foreign culture. The Last Crusade redresses the issues of culture and imperialism that Spielberg and Lucas previously ignored. This film doesn't need to be paced any faster because, now, everything that happens around Indiana Jones is something to think about. The mind races along with the heart.

This improvement is, doubtlessly, more instinctual than calculated, yet it's also a rare sign of folk-pop development in Hollywood. Spielberg's extraordinary mastery of formula and of structural tropes seems, on its own, to tend towards cultural inclusion, a global egalitarianism—the opposite of “classical” Hollywood's aesthetics. Back then, the perfection of escapist forms was a systemic social reflex—an expression of the country's political ideology. Films like Gunga Din,Lives of a Bengal Dancer,Beau Geste,Drums along the Mohawk,The Four Feathers (and countless others) roused motor responses at the same time that they sanctioned belief in white superiority and Western imperialism.

After E.T., the era's great popular film, Spielberg tackled two “minority” projects: The Color Purple, where he adapted Black American iconography to the Hollywood fantasy styles previously reserved for white fiction; and Empire of the Sun, where he showed absolute empathy for both the Chinese and Japanese positions in World War II. (It was, perhaps, less Sino-sympathy than Sony savvy.) These creative experiences must have sensitized Spielberg to the different, third-world readings that a non-white viewer might give to Hollywood genre films—consideration that never occurred to old moguls who simply wanted to conquer world markets. The nationalist and racist biases in Hollywood cinema are appalling if viewed intelligently today. The entire history of Hollywood fantasy reveals its corruption in the persistence of white male heroism and Western domination. Yes, Spielberg should have known better when he began the Indiana Jones series, but the general enthusiasm for Temple of Doom's overwhelming kinetics and shoddy anthropology also proved that most critics neither knew better nor cared.

The Last Crusade's full-color, wide-screen shots of Monument Valley in the opening sequence are brilliantly clever revisionism: the setting, familiar from John Ford westerns, is the locus classicus of American cinema's solipsism. Spielberg sums up the process of patriotic indoctrination with a joke: the figures we see commanding this locale are a horseback Boy Scout troop. The point: American action in the primeval West is, essentially, child's play. But movies that are proud of their national and racial biases are not kid's stuff, they're dangerous. The Last Crusade is knowingly constructed with allusions to the self-aggrandizing parochialisms of the adventure film genre. There's a satirical element in seeing white male American derring-do written so large. It becomes simultaneously tumid, neurotic and comic. But unlike Temple of Doom and parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's never insulting or oppressive.

Instead of presenting the opening sequence (with River Phoenix playing the teenage Indy) as a prologue, Spielberg compresses this antecedent information into the main story. Manipulating narrativity this way is the prerogative of a famous showman—he's tweaking the audience's awareness of storytelling, stoking the engine of his plot. The locomotive set-piece is a metaphor for narrative momentum, a visceral anecdote economically and humorously explaining the origins of Indy's mythic characteristics—his scarred chin, his fear of snakes, his dexterity with a bullwhip and his trademark fedora. (Spielberg audaciously casts Richard Young, an actor who resembles himself and Harrison Ford, as Indy's amoral alternative role model.) This western-cum-circus-train sequence gives Indy his first quotable dialogue of the trilogy—“That belongs in a museum!” The phrase describes his motives and tenacity, but it also reverberates as a statement of western acquisitiveness—as applicable to the Elgin Marbles as to the pretend goodies, the Cross of Coronado and the Holy Grail, fought over in the film.

Linking American adventure movies to the crusades shows a shrewd understanding of what adventure movies are designed to do culturally and politically. They're ideological war machines.

This makes good on the Joseph Campbell influence that Lucas botched in his Star Wars trilogy and in the little-people-as-the-third-world-making-their-own-history in Willow. The allusions to the big screen history of the American West are connected to the Middle East pursuit of the Holy Grail by way of pre-Renaissance Italy. The global/historical sleight of hand is pure philological wit. We see the Grail as an artifact that, like westerns and adventure movies, confers beauty, power and divinity upon its owner. These historical referents in the Menno Meyjes—Jeffrey Boam script expose the fascist, quasi-religious fervor that's been a part of the American adventure film from D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and John Ford's The Iron Horse to Out of Africa and Mississippi Burning.

Spielberg's formal expertise makes The Last Crusade a beautiful title, unlike Temple of Doom, which suggests an amusement park ride—one of the most sophisticated adventure films ever made: its parts snap together with precise, dry cunning. It's the wised-up razzmatazz of an adult playing within the acceptable boundaries of world politics and subverts the globetrotter caprice that the Indy series revives. Finally, in The Last Crusade, the interplay between Indy's boyish spirit and (his father's) scholarly, political rectitude dramatizes the creative impulse threading its way through this era of dwindling western superiority. One response is to make a lovely but wan little myth study like Caleb Deschanel's smart revision of Daniel Defoe, Crusoe. Spielberg's recent cinema, however, remains boldly fantastic while adjusting to global realities; his transitional films confront and rewrite historical fiction.

“Movies and TV programs like The Jewel in the Crown and A Passage to India are what I call ‘Easterns,’” Hanif Kureishi once told me, citing the European counterpart to the historical inaccuracies and political conceits of American westerns. Kureishi was disgusted at the imperialist arrogance that only recognizes third world cultures as things “that belong in a museum” for the first world's delectation. The Last Crusade is in agreement: as Indy maniacally reaches for the Holy Grail his archaeologist father cautions, “Let it go.”

That advice, morally inspired, is also politically enlightened. And it gains significance coming from Sean Connery, who, 14 years ago in his best performance, as Danny Dravat in John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King, acted out the racist-colonialist vanity of the British empire—the cultural tradition Indiana Jones inherited, via James Bond. Of course, Huston's film updated Rudyard Kipling by making it a working-class fantasy trapped inside the psychology of colonialism. Ultimately, the movie failed to break completely away from it. Spielberg distances himself by riding the genre into the sunset. He's not looking for a Tequila Sunrise, the sour, decadent renewal of Hollywood's past.

This “letting go” upsets people who want to believe in John Wayne and the raj and in the fast deployment of film technique without political consciousness. When the once “liberal” Village Voice recently printed film reviewer Georgia Brown's blithe admission of her antipathy to and impatience with films about people of color, it's clear that our film culture is mired in barely understood racism. Brown instead glossed over The Last Crusade's political themes to make knee-jerk accusations of sexism—the only ethical issue most white critics seem to care about.

The most audacious moment in The Last Crusade deals impudently with the significance of history and myth: carrying his father's diary, Indy comes face-to-face with Adolf Hitler in the middle of a Nazi book-burning rally. Hitler—a media star and he knows it—autographs the diary rather than burns it. By inscribing the text that Indy has been using—almost religiously—as a reverent guide for survival, Hitler puts his mark on a historical record. This scene is worthy of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime: Hitler's graffito intrudes on a subjective text; his existence is a type of uncomfortable truth that must be dealt with in all our personal versions of history. The anti-Spielberg critics are all little Hitlers—cinema burners—who don't want movies to tell the truth. Realizing how moviegoers turn legend into “fact,” Spielberg will no longer simply film the legend people want to believe, because history is more complicated than move myths allow.

Regarding the sexist charges: Unlike Raiders' Karen Allen or Temple of Doom's Kate Capshaw, Alison Doody's Elsa is the series's first female who is not helplessly feminine. In the larger historical framework her “villainy” is as ambiguous as Indy's “heroism.” They're psycho-political peers. The comic use of Nazis surpasses Ernst Lubitsch's in To Be or Not to Be. It's historically apt for Indy to say “I hate those guys” matter-of-factly; the film eschews sentimentality on this subject, too, yet shows prescience (with the benefit of hindsight) in a closeup of an indestructible Nazi insignia. That shot forecasts the next probable development and final solution of the Indiana Jones saga: the War, which was only entertaining in the movies.

Born a Jew and consecrated a filmmaker who's taken on the task of entertaining the world, Spielberg has to maneuver between a personal political agenda and a respect for both Christian and non-Jewish, American and international cultures. Few men in the history of Hollywood have attempted this honestly. Spielberg closes off a racist film form with The Last Crusade because today no one can conscientiously make movies the way they used to.

Harvey R. Greenberg (essay date September-October 1989)

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SOURCE: Greenberg, Harvey R. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Serial Mythmash.” Tikkun 4, no. 5 (September-October 1989): 78-80.

[In the following essay, Greenberg explores the influence of the Saturday matinee serials of the 1940s on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Indiana Jones series as whole, particularly noting elements of covert racism and sexism evinced in the films.]

Steven Spielberg desperately wants to recreate ancient legends for enjoyment at the local sixplex. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the third installment of the wildly successful series about the indefatigable archaeologist Indiana Jones, and is Spielberg's latest attempt at Sunset Boulevard mythopoesis. Armed with courage, American know-how, and a bullwhip, Indy once again saves a revered icon of Western culture from despicable foreign plunderers. Spielberg wants Indy to appear as a bigger-than-life reinvention of a matinee serial hero from the forties, acting out a saga with overtones of Homeric, Oedipal, and Arthurian legend. Unfortunately, the director's special-effects wizardry cannot sustain the myth of Indy. Instead, Spielberg has produced a mythmash of exotic scenery, furious chases, and one-dimensional characters.

Like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,The Last Crusade is a “prequel” to Raiders of the Lost Ark. A past has been invented for our hero, centered around Indy's chronic estrangement from his curmudgeon father. Professor Henry Jones's competitive and disapproving demeanor is briefly established during early scenes from Indy's adolescence. The father is revealed as a noted medievalist with a lifelong obsession with the Holy Grail. His wife died young, and he was so consumed with work, so neglectful and critical of Indy, that the boy left home at an early age.

The action flashes forward to 1938. A grown-up Indy returns from his latest perilous escapade to resume a quiet academic life. His first class is hardly over when an American tycoon (who turns out to be in secret league with the Nazis) commissions Indy to find the Grail. The tycoon says that he previously enlisted Indy's father for the same purpose after hearing that Professor Jones had discovered new evidence in Venice proving the Grail's existence. At first, Indy truculently resists becoming involved with his father's monomaniacal quest. Then he learns that the professor has mysteriously vanished. Indy receives the professor's notebooks in the mail, apparently posted on the brink of his disappearance. Using the notebooks to complete Jones's Venetian research, Indy discovers that during the Crusades the Grail was hidden away in a mountain stronghold deep within Arabia Deserta.

Indy traces his father to an Austrian castle, where the Waffen SS has imprisoned him. The two escape, journey across Europe into the Middle East, and air their grievances as they fight off the pursuing Hun from motorcycle, zeppelin, airplane, and horseback. The chilly relationship between father and son gradually thaws. Professor Jones realizes the depth of his long-disavowed affection when he mistakenly believes Indy has been killed.

Good and Evil questors finally meet in the caverns of the desert peak. Indy survives a gauntlet of deadly challenges and enters the chamber where the Grail is enshrined, guarded by the same knight who placed it there centuries ago. The Nazis and their minions perish, but not before Professor Jones is mortally wounded. Indy uses the Grail's power to save his father, then returns the Grail to eternal rest with its chivalrous keeper. The Last Crusade ends with Jones Senior and Junior literally riding off into the sunset.

The Saturday matinee serials of the forties have had a decisive influence upon the cinema of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. (The present film, like its predecessors, was directed by Spielberg in close association with Lucas.) In The Last Crusade, Spielberg again naively embraces the serials' ingrained prejudices, which in turn are directly traceable to the blatant biases about race, ethnicity, and class found in the “penny dreadful” fiction devoured by middle-and upper-class boys earlier in the century.

The Last Crusade shows that Spielberg the adult still shares an uncritical receptivity toward this sort of bias. Moreover, he is now hawking this prejudice to the audience. It was more pardonable in the youngsters. (Memory from my World War II childhood: in front of Philadelphia's Renel theater, my seven-year-old buddies and I debate how many “Jap” soldiers are worth one American trooper. The going rate before we see Wake Island is four to one; afterward, we realize how shamefully we have shortchanged American valor. No doubt about it—one Marine is worth ten craven little sadists!)

The typical serial propelled its white-bread hero into a series of near-lethal confrontations with a variety of villainous “others.” Westerns, crime and spy capers, space operas, and various adventures in exotic climes constituted the most popular serial genres. Spy and “jungle” serials were especially riddled with racial and ethnic slurs. The Anglo-Saxon hero's nemesis in the spy serial was often a mad mastermind of frankly alien race like Fu Manchu, apotheosis of the Yellow Peril, bent on world domination. Or he came from a dubious Balkan, crypto-Semitic heritage—for example, Bela Lugosi's Dr. Boroff, known as “Master Spy and Munitions Overlord” in the serial SOS Coastguard.

In the adventure and jungle serials the archvillain was an unprincipled prince, leader of a death cult, or less frequently a shady Western entrepreneur after buried treasure or mineral rights. His henchmen were drawn from the lower classes or the criminal underworld. In the adventure genre, they were of basest mixed blood, a Kiplingesque stew of half-castes. Less toxic but no less demeaning Orientalist caricatures included helpless villagers, comic servants, capering pickaninnies, and the hero's selflessly dedicated “native” assistant.

Viewers sensitive to these stereotypes were especially offended by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which managed to reprise virtually every repellent distortion of the jungle serial. Third World people were represented by a squalid tribe totally dependent upon a white adventurer for rescue, jeweled nabobs dining on monkey brains, and treacherous thugs who flourished after the British departed the Raj. A ditzy blonde heroine consistently got in Indy's way, meanwhile outscreaming Fay Wray.

In The Last Crusade, Spielberg has cannily retreated to safer ground, once more making Nazis the nasties. Nazi evil is now generic, curiously drained of historical reference, as in some postwar German school textbooks. “I hate those guys!” is Indy's sole political appraisal of his enemies. Ironically, the apostles of race hatred themselves are portrayed as racial stereotypes, appearing as the megalomaniacal, leering, criminal masterminds of the serials. (A similar shift in serial villains away from the Dr. Boroffs and Fu Manchus to the Nazis and Japanese occurred during World War II.)

The covert racism of the serials can be seen also in the Nazis' hirelings—a corrupt sultan and his feckless soldiers. “Good” stereotypes include Sallah, Indy's paunchy Arab buddy from Raiders, and the murderous, but noble, brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, a band of Arab Christians who have protected the Grail against violation for two millennia.

It's life eternal, not the ideology of the Master Race, that appeals to the turncoat American magnate. He is the jungle serial's tainted, white venture capitalist, and he fits in well with the current Hollywood penchant for portraying Big Business as a target for viewer hatred as uncontroversial as Hitler and Qaddafi.

A brief love interest is supplied by a film-noirishly duplicitous art historian who shares Indy's passion for the Grail sans patriotism. She first beds father, then son, to get the Grail. Consistent with the sexist patriarchal sensibility that fashioned the serials (and still informs much feature fare today), women are depicted in the Indy pictures as shrill mascots or spider ladies. Either way, the companionable misogyny of the prepubescent gang prevails; it's implied that men do better alone or in safe male company.

A supertechnological invention, often a laser-like death ray, was a Saturday serial mainstay. Like the Star Wars cycle, the analogous Force of the Indy movies is spiritual rather than scientific. It sizzles out of a fabled holy artifact. In The Last Crusade, it's the Grail; in Raiders, it's the Ark of the Covenant. Spielberg assumes that Indy has every right to pilfer archaeological objects from their native cultures and put them where they rightfully belong—in Western museums. After all, doesn't Indy track down these relics at entertainingly terrifying risk, for the benefit of Science? Doesn't he snatch these revered icons from the Powers of Darkness for the good of Western Civilization?

The screenplay implies that possession of the Grail will grant immortality to Hitler and his cohorts, making a ten-thousand-year Reich a reality. According to ten-year-old-boy logic, this makes sense, but it doesn't say much for the Deity's common sense. In the current dubious Gospel According to Spielberg, a transcendent Godhead's power is insultingly wedded to Its symbolic representation, not vice versa, Whoever owns the Grail or Ark has God in his or her pocket, and God has no more to say on the subject than does a genie in a jug.

It's apparent that the quest for the Grail is meant as a metaphor for the arduous odyssey toward reconciliation undertaken by its two heroes. Alienation of father from son has been a wellspring of myth from the Oedipus plays to Death of a Salesman. George Lucas studied with the late myth critic Joseph Campbell and credits him for influencing the Star Wars cycle, which focused upon Luke Skywalker's troubled paternity. Spielberg mines the same territory in The Last Crusade, with the same grandiose designs and mediocre results seen in Return of the Jedi.

Campbell's work is elegant, complex; Lucas and Spielberg fancy a quote from Frank Capra profound. Like Lucas, Spielberg cribs a few “high” concepts from Campbell—The Return of the King, The Hero's Testing for Worthiness—and drapes them over the armature of popular entertainment. Perhaps the serial format is too fragile to carry heavy symbolic baggage. Certainly other standard Hollywood fare has plumbed myth artfully, intentionally or otherwise. (The Jungian psychoanalyst John Beebe has written persuasively on the artist's unconscious ability to channel collective themes.) One recalls Hitchcock's poignant restaging of the Tristan and Isolde saga in Vertigo or the doppelgänger motif in Strangers on a Train, and the Oedipal undertones energizing Howard Hawks's classic western, Red River.

Myth is deeply, subtly embedded in such films; a viewer needn't know anything about archetypes to find pleasure in them. But Spielberg doesn't have Hitchcock's literacy or intellectual power, or Hawks's talent for realizing strong characterization through vivid action. Ultimately, he's limited by a remarkable but facile visual sense. Bellowed out in hectic, unevocative clashes between cardboard antagonists, the mythic elements of Indy's story are rendered meaningless. One feels bathos instead of pathos as Indy/Parsifal administers balm from the Grail to Professor Jones, wounded Amfortas-like. Professor Jones's instantaneous recovery possesses the emotional resonance of a Ben-Gay commercial.

As The Last Crusade opens, young Indy stumbles upon a dig, steals a priceless cross, and is pursued across a desert by renegade archaeologists. This is assured filmmaking, worthy of Hawks and reminiscent of the exuberant opening of Raiders. During the exhilarating chase, Spielberg deftly establishes the origins of Indy's iconography—whip, hat, chin scar, snake phobia. But once Father and Grail are introduced, The Last Crusade curiously loses power. The director becomes bound up in the very conventions of the adolescent adventure film he is striving to transcend.

A cliffhanger ending, then a week's wait for the outcome, were integral to the small enjoyments of the Saturday serial. Attempting to exceed the frissons of the earlier Indy films, Spielberg piles one unbelievable cliffhanger and its resolution upon another, virtually without pause, past the point of satiation. It's action porn—too many chocolate chips. John Williams's score is a symphonic blare, relentlessly repeating Indy's theme to the point of nausea.

Harrison Ford and Sean Connery play themselves playing their roles, megastars in megastance. An encounter between an aging James Bond and a wise-guy young American, heir to the Bond tradition, might be appealing in other hands. (Indeed, a case could be made that Spielberg wants to outstrip the Bond films as well as the serials here.) Ford and Connery hurl vapid epigrams about their disappointment in each other across the generation gap, and Connery spouts New Age blather about the Necessity for Every Man to Find His Own Grail of Inner Spiritual Truth. Ultimately, one couldn't care less about Henry Jones's resurrection through Indy's love. The platitudes of the Boy Scout manual ring infinitely more sincere.

A hollow gigantism pervades The Last Crusade and many pictures like it today. Aiming to repeat earlier blockbuster successes, filmmakers are busily birthing a succession of empty clones. The plots of these McMovies seem to exist only to set the scene for outbreaks of special-effect-ridden violence. Dialogue is minimal, banal; the characters are stripped down to cartoon-like stock figures.

The heroes of action-film sequels demonstrate the grossest symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder: morbid egotism, exhibitionism, a resolute lack of empathy, and a flagrant disregard for the general welfare—mandated, of course, by a perilous mission undertaken for the “common good.” See Raiders again, and you'll find that Indy appears far more insensitive and violent now than eight years ago. The same may be said about America under the Great Communicator's amiably ruthless reign.

It's clear that Spielberg hoped to go beyond mere profit in concluding the Indy cycle. The personal Grail he has sought for years is the transformation of middle- or lowbrow culture material, often culled from juvenile pulp fiction or cinema, into something infinitely finer: accessible epic, a pop version of that fusion of story, sight, and sound that Wagner called Gesamptkunstwerk (“total work of art”). Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is well on its way to being one of the most lucrative films of all time. But instead of a Gesamptkunstwerk, Spielberg has furnished an unwitting testament to the intellectual impoverishment and puerile self-inflation that pervades cinema today.

Suzanne Moore (review date 30 March 1990)

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SOURCE: Moore, Suzanne. “Always a Love Story.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 94 (30 March 1990): 46-7.

[In the following review, Moore praises Spielberg's cinematic maturity in Always and comments that the film “has been widely represented as Spielberg's first grown-up film.”]

It may not be possible to be too thin or too rich, but is it possible, I wonder, to be too popular? Take Steven Spielberg. He is the most popular filmmaker ever: he has directed half of the ten most successful films of all time. So it's strange that he has never won an Oscar and is not revered in the way that Scorcese or even Woody Allen is. Spielberg's films are still generally thought to be manipulative entertainment rather than anything else. How could something this popular ever be regarded as art, let alone great art?

The cynical dismissal of his work is littered with the well-worn put downs that are always summoned in the presence of truly popular culture: it is banal, sentimental, predictable and shallow, say the critics. But, even the critics have to admit grudgingly that somewhere along the line Spielberg manages to key into something that makes his movies a success from La Paz to Leeds. And though Always, his latest film, has opened to mixed reaction in the States, I think he's done it again.

Always, a love story, has been widely represented as Spielberg's first grown-up film. In fact, he has already made a love story. What else was E.T. but the tale of a little boy's romance with an alien? Always is perhaps more conventional in that it does feature a man and a woman: On the cards for some ten years, it is essentially an adaptation of the 1943 Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, though at moments it has flashes of Powell's A Matter of Life and Death. Like the Indiana Jones films it is full of knowing nostalgia for an age of purity and faith and a hankering for a kind of security that is no longer possible either in modern life or in modern movies.

The love story of Dorinda (Holly Hunter) and Pete (Richard Dreyfuss) is set amongst fire-fighting pilots. He is, of course, a courageous flier while she is a dispatcher who waits patiently on the ground while he does his derring-do. All this gives Spielberg the chance to inject some spectacular flying scenes using old war planes without the intrusion of anything so morally suspect as real war. Instead, Dreyfuss is a positively green hero risking his neck for the sake of a few trees and his best friend Al—the ubiquitous John Goodman of Roseanne fame, whom, you might like to know, has just been voted the sexiest man in America.

Dorinda, though tough on the outside (she wears boiler suits) is actually soft on the inside—she's worried sick about her man. Their relationship, outlined in a long opening sequence, is somewhat overstretched. It even includes a musical number in which Pete gives Dorinda “girl-clothes” in the form of a horrid dress that only some retard like Diana Spencer would consider wearing. Needless to say, Dorinda is immediately transformed from spunky tomboy to drippy female and waltzes around the canteen with a set of fighter pilots.

The whole thing gets a lot better when, in one too many feats of bravery, Pete pops off and finds himself in a field of daisies with none other than Audrey Hepburn. She plays Hap—a kind of New Age angel in white slacks and sweater who sends him back to earth to be a young man's guiding spirit. The young man just happens to be Ted Baker, a young pilot who is himself in the process of falling in love with Dorinda. Here the gears begin to shift and Pete has to come to terms with giving up his “girl” to Ted.

True love, the movie suggests, means letting go. And Hap mouths a lot of New Age/hippy platitudes in a thoroughly convincing way: “To gain your freedom you have to give it” and “The love that we hold back is the only thing that follows us here” and, best of all, “Time's funny stuff, Pete”. The “here” she refers to might be heaven (if your idea of heaven is a meadow) or it might just mean death. This is the heaven of an agnostic. But Spielberg manages to play out his personal themes—around love, belief and sacrifice—in a way that mixes naivety with profundity.

This is Spielberg's forte because, whether you feel his philosophising is cosmic or comic, you cannot deny the way he taps into concerns that everybody has. Normally, we only refer to them in an off-hand kind of way, like the embarrassing area of spirituality. It is evident in all those action adventure movies that he can make with his eyes closed, but comes to the fore in his more personal work such as E.T.,Close Encounters and Empire of the Sun. In this context you can see why he was drawn to the transcendental humanism of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

There is a consistent refusal to accept death as the end (even E.T. comes alive again) and a continuing emphasis on communication and connections that cannot be explained rationally—the telepathic messages of Close Encounters feature again in Always—that is both enormously attractive and resonant for audiences everywhere. Such popular mysticism is routinely dismissed by the left whether in the guise of intellectual anti-humanism or morbidly literal readings of materialism.

In the real world, however, we read our horoscopes, consult psychics and bore our friends with everyday instances of synchronicity. This world remains completely outside the realms of politics, mainly because it is continually belittled by it.

Spielberg does just the opposite. He elevates these concerns and integrates them into the most traditional of genres, whether it's the love story or the adventure movie. Some have read his preoccupation with loss and separation as a result of the childhood trauma of his parents' divorce. Yet this doesn't explain his universal appeal to all age groups. Officially, Steven Spielberg is now more successful than Disney. And for someone who provides “mere entertainment”, he has an instinctive grasp of one of modernity's deepest secrets: that underneath we just want to believe. We really do.

Andrew Gordon (essay date fall 1991)

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SOURCE: Gordon, Andrew. “Raiders of the Lost Ark: Totem and Taboo.” Extrapolation 32, no. 3 (fall 1991): 256-67.

[In the following essay, Gordon argues that Raiders of the Lost Ark “transcends the old action serials” that acted as its inspiration as evidenced by the film's dense mythological and religious undertones.]

Like George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a pastiche of and homage to earlier Hollywood movies: Star Wars was inspired in part by the Flash Gordon serials, and Raiders is an attempt to recreate the genre of Saturday matinee adventure serials, the cliffhangers of the 1930's and 1940's.1 Like the serials, it is episodic, with a quest plot which is the framework for a succession of action set pieces and fabulous stunts. Nevertheless, Raiders does not merely imitate the tacky thrills of the old cliffhangers. It tells the story not in short weekly episodes but in a single feature-length film, and makes use of an enormously larger budget and much better, more “realistic” production values, including location shooting, state-of-the-art special effects, wide-screen color, and Dolby stereophonic sound. The action is almost nonstop, barely allowing the audience time to catch its breath before the next cliffhanger, but executive producer George Lucas, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and director Steven Spielberg have also spiced up the story with constant touches of visual style and humor. The visuals resemble as well the slam-bang illustrations of today's action comic books. So what we have is not simply a revival of the serials (the economic conditions and the particular audience for that form no longer exist) but, like Star Wars, a new kind of adventure fantasy, an elaborate entertainment which attempts to allow a more sophisticated, demanding audience to experience the feeling and original impact the serials had on naive young viewers decades ago.2

Apart from its formal differences from the old serials, Raiders is able to transcend the pulpish thrills of the genre to which it does pay homage by being deliberately structured as a monomyth, just like the Star Wars trilogy. Once again, this reflects the influence of George Lucas. As one critic writes, “Raiders is a timeless story about the heroic quest for a sacred object and the conflict between good and evil” (Roth 13). Another notes that Raiders follows “the epic mode of classical myth, the oedipal trajectory of primitive initiatory rituals, and the religious quests of legend and holy writ. … Indiana Jones, the putative hero of Raiders, follows the classical narrative trajectory of the mythological hero as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (Tomasulo 331-32).

The monomythic structure of the film is fairly clear; it follows the pattern of departure, initiation, and return and adheres closely to the various stages of the adventure that Campbell enumerates. Indy receives the call to adventure and leaves his everyday world—in which he is a professor of archaeology—and sets off on a quest to some of the most exotic locations on the globe in search of an ancient religious treasure of mysterious and awesome powers, the Lost Ark of the Covenant. (The subsequent two pictures in the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), follow the same mythic formula, merely substituting the lost Shankara stones or the Holy Grail for the Ark.) On his quest for this legendary prize, he battles the forces of pure evil (the Nazis), descends into the underworld (the Well of Souls), and risks his life repeatedly until he returns with the Ark, having saved the world. The pattern is similar to the adventures of Luke Skywalker.

What interests me in the pop culture monomyth that Lucas and Spielberg and their collaborators have created in Raiders is the central object of the quest, the Ark itself. Like the Maltese Falcon in John Huston's 1941 film of the same title, the Ark is the focus of all the passions and violence unleashed in the plot. The Ark is a mysterious, legendary object, holy and hidden. Men will kill for it, for it is imbued with strange powers, a kind of superweapon which can level cities and kill multitudes, like a nuclear bomb. As one character says, “An army which carries the Ark before it is invincible.” In this respect, it resembles the Death Star in the Star Wars trilogy. Yet the Ark is also imbued with an aura of the sacred and the forbidden, which can best be explained by reference to Freud's Totem and Taboo. Freud claims that objects become taboo because of ambivalent oedipal desires, and that the purpose of taboo is to allay guilt and effect a reconciliation with the father (32-35).3

I would suggest that the dual quest of Indiana Jones—for the Ark and for his old love Marion Ravenwood—can be understood on one level as an oedipal quest which enacts ambivalent desires both to rebel against the father and to be reconciled with him. I do not mean by this to imply that Indiana Jones could be said to possess an “unconscious”—he is a fictional construct, a superhero, a character in a fantasy—but that he becomes the vehicle through which the story plays out an oedipal scenario remarkably similar to the one enacted in the Star Wars trilogy (the recent Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with its father-son conflict, simply reaffirms the oedipal struggle which underlies Raiders and all of Lucas's films). Thus Indy resembles both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo; Marion is the spunky heroine like Princess Leia; Belloq equals Darth Vader; the Nazis are the Imperial Stormtroopers; and the Ark has both the evil aura of the Death Star and the power of “the Force.”

The opening sequence seems at first to be a separate, self-contained adventure, unrelated to the rest of the picture. It serves as a trailer or teaser for what is to follow, a movie in miniature compressing into a few minutes enough action, thrills, chills, and hair's-breadth escapes from death for an entire feature. Raiders begins in medias res, like Star Wars, as if this were Chapter Four of a continuing serial. Spielberg said the idea of the opening was “to grab the audience immediately, to show almost the third-act climax of a movie … in the first twelve minutes” (Crawley 91). But the opening sequence also foreshadows the conflict to come, demonstrating the horrible consequences of violating a taboo object (Roth 14). Says Spielberg, “It is really the end of the Raiders that preceded Raiders of the Lost ArkRaiders of the Lost Fertility Goddess!” (Crawley 91).

We first encounter Indy as he is near the end of a laborious trek through a South American jungle with two ragged helpers and some native bearers on a quest for some yet unspecified treasure. The natives flee in terror when bats fly out of the mouth of a stone idol. Already, we are in the nightmare realm of the tropical, the exotic, the proscribed, and the taboo. Almost immediately, death threatens: they find a poison dart stuck to the trunk of a tree, a sign that the dangerous Hovido tribe is near, guarding sacred territory. Then, in the movie's first of a long string of surprises, one of the seedy helpers proves to be a spy and betrays Indy, pulling a gun to shoot him in the back.

At this early point in the film, any viewer already knows several things about the hero: he is the strong, silent type, for he has said nothing yet; he is commanding, for he always goes first; he is determined, for he has gotten this far; he acts quickly and decisively; and he is resourceful, intrepid, and apparently fearless. Nothing seems to faze him: neither the stone idol and the bats which panic the superstitious natives, nor the poisoned dart which so alarms his assistants, nor the attempt on his life. He anticipates the dangers and is confident that he can overcome all obstacles. Thus far, our hero is simply a compendium of heroic cliches, and everything in the film is deliberately presented in a bravura, hyperbolic style to make the character larger than life. He is a figure out of a boy's fantasy; James Bond, with his hyperactive sex drive, is a hero perhaps more suited to the adolescent male imagination. The cowardly, traitorous helpers are there mostly as foils to create further obstacles to the prize and to set off the protagonist's potency and heroism.

But Indy is more than your standard hero; he also has a mythical dimension. He is seen at first only from the back, from the shoulders down, or in shadow. The concealment adds an aura of mystery, just as Spielberg initially aroused audience curiosity by concealing the truckdriver in Duel, the shark in Jaws, and the alien and his pursuers in E.T. In one of the most dramatic introductions in recent cinema, we first glimpse Indy's face the moment he turns and, cracking his bullwhip, flicks the gun out of the hand of the man about to shoot him. The face is stern, impervious; he speaks with his whip. Here too is his superhuman dimension. He seems to have eyes in the back of his head: He senses danger behind him and reacts faster than the man with his finger on the trigger. The use of the bullwhip makes his first act, characteristically, one of phallic assertion.

Later we find that, like Superman, Indiana Jones has a dual identity: the mild-mannered professor of archaeology versus the bold treasure hunter. Again, like Superman in the 1979 movie, he is a contemporary superhero, fallible (afraid of snakes), sometimes bumbling, and ironically self-aware (“I'm just making this up as I go along,” he says at one point).

Along with his mythical and superhuman qualities, there is a moral ambiguity about Indy from the beginning of Raiders, as his introduction in the shadows suggests. In his quest and in his costume, he resembles Fred C. Dobbs, the prospector for gold played by Humphrey Bogart in John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): the fedora, the leather jacket, the dust, sweat and stubble. Both Dobbs and Indy lust after gold to the point of fanaticism, obsession, and paranoia. The difference is that Indy's paranoia is justified, since he lives in a world where booby traps, betrayal by spies, and instant death lurk around every corner. So Indy has the heightened senses and ruthless survival instinct of the paranoid. Whereas Dobbs's mental and moral deterioration was contrasted with the rectitude of his two partners, Indy in the opening sequence seems a positively heroic paranoid compared to his sleazy, treacherous companions. The only moral of the opening sequence seems to be: Never go searching for gold with men dressed in rags. Nevertheless, if Indy is a mythic hero, there is still something at times harsh and brutal about him. Spielberg said of Indy as played by Harrison Ford, “He's a remarkable combination … of Errol Flynn from The Adventures of Don Juan [1948] and Humphrey Bogart with Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. … Harrison can be villainous and romantic all at once” (Crawley 93).

The film seems to be trying to have it both ways about Indy: he is a James Bond-style superhero yet also a sweaty, grubby soldier of fortune, a shadowy, mercenary figure unlike Bond.4 Why the complexity? It seems to me that one reason Indiana Jones is presented as morally ambiguous in Raiders is that the activity in which he is involved is always portrayed as sacrilege. Indy tampers with the taboo, and in movie morality such behavior is suspect and carries a price. In the primitive morality of so many American fantasy, horror, and science-fiction films through the 1950s, there were always things “man was not meant to know.”

Indy transgresses boundaries. First, in the opening sequence he violates a sacred temple and steals a holy object, a golden idol, defying all the warning signs. Second, in the main plot, he again ignores the many warnings and braves death to steal another golden idol, the Ark. The first raid is an assault against a mother figure (he penetrates a cave to steal a fertility goddess), the second an assault against a father figure (the Ark is associated with Moses and the Ten Commandments). Indy's trials, his many brushes with death, can be considered the price for violating the taboo. And neither raid is successful, for in both cases the sacred objects are taken out of his hands by more powerful forces: Belloq in the opening sequence; the U.S. government in the closing one. In the end, it is safer not to possess the dangerous totem.

The guardians and booby traps and many forms of sudden death which surround the holy icon in the opening sequence testify to the power of taboo. The cave scene rapidly triggers an avalanche of primal fears and phobias. If one does not get to you, then the next will: fears of the dark and the unseen; fears of being buried alive; fears of cobwebs, dust, and bugs; fears of the body being penetrated, violated, or crushed—bitten by tarantulas, punctured by arrows, impaled on stakes, or crushed by a collapsing ceiling, a descending stone wall, or a giant rolling boulder; fears of falling into a bottomless pit; and fears of the dead—decaying corpses, mummified bodies, and skeletons. The filmmakers seemed to delight in the excess and proliferation of these horrors, which caused me (and, I suspect, many other viewers as well) to react to the scene not with horror but with admiration and amusement, similar to the thrill evoked by a quick ride through an especially inventive house of horrors. Although Raiders uses some of the elements of a horror movie, it means more to thrill with perilous adventures than to shock with overwhelming horror. Nevertheless, I noted that the scenes of greatest horror coincided with the violation of a sacred, taboo object in the Temple, in the Well of Souls, and in the climactic scene when the Nazis open the Ark.

As Freud mentions, the idea of taboo expresses an ambivalent pairing of emotional attitudes: “on the one hand, ‘sacred,’ ‘consecrated,’ and on the other, ‘uncanny,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘forbidden,’ ‘unclean’” (18). He explains the prohibitions of taboo as a result of emotional ambivalence: the desire to commit the oedipal crime yet the fear of doing so. Thus the taboo combines “veneration and horror” (25). Similarly, the golden idol in the South American temple is an object of worship, yet it is also horrendous, made almost unreachable through a series of elaborate, lethal booby traps. It is a holy object contained in an unclean place: a sort of tomb, a dark cavern filled with cobwebs, bugs, and corpses. The Ark, hidden away in the dark Well of Souls, is surrounded by terrifying giant statues, deadly asps and cobras, and piles of skeletons.

Taboo also “closely resembles the neurotic's fear of touching, his ‘touching phobia’” (Freud 73). Thus in the opening sequence, when Indy finally reaches the glowing, golden idol, he longs to seize it but knows he must move cautiously, for touching it may mean his death. To avoid triggering another alarm, he must instantly replace the idol with a bag weighted with sand. His hands approach carefully, and simultaneously his helper's fingers twitch in anticipation, heightening the suspense (such gestural mimicry is characteristically Spielbergian—recall the mimicry between boy and alien in E.T.). After he grabs the statue, Indy's brief elation turns to panic when the altar stone begins to sink and all hell breaks loose: the ceiling caves in as arrows fly out from slots in the walls. To grasp the taboo object means to risk death. Before he got to the idol, Indy anticipated the perils: don't step in the light and don't tread on the wrong stones. But once he touches the idol, the risks increase and accelerate, and he doesn't foresee the collapsing cave, the treacherous helper, the falling wall, or the giant rolling boulder. The idol is a hot potato that endangers or kills everyone who touches it; it passes from hand to hand, and no one can hold it for long. This pattern is later repeated with the Ark, which is stolen by Indy and restolen many times by Belloq and the Nazis. Almost everyone who comes in contact with the taboo object is killed.

The French archaeologist Belloq, as critics have noted, is not only the hero's rival in the quest to possess taboo objects, but also his doppelganger, or shadow (Snyder 209; Roth 19-20). Indy is American, straight-forward and physical; Belloq is European, devious and cerebral. Indy is grubby; Belloq is impeccably dressed in white. Indy relies on labor and sweat to attain his goals; Belloq lets him take the physical risks, then outwits him and steals the prize. Indy is laconic; Belloq eloquent. Indy speaks only English (at least in this movie), whereas Belloq is master of many tongues (French, English, Hovido, German, and Hebrew). Indy is made to seem crude in contrast to the suave, sophisticated Belloq, who twice refers to the need to “behave like civilized people.” The film plays on American stereotypes of the simple, virtuous American versus the cultivated, corrupt European, since Belloq has allied with Nazis and will stop at nothing to attain the Ark.

Despite the opposite characteristics of the rivals, Indy and Belloq are similar in their moral ambiguity. Belloq recognizes that they are both self-serving and obsessed with obtaining the treasure no matter the cost:

Where shall I find a new adversary so close to my own level? You and I are very much alike. Archaeology is our religion. Yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am only a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.

Ironically, even as Belloq says the above lines to Indy, Belloq is in the light, and Indy, who is ready to murder him in retaliation for Marion's apparent death, is in shadow on the left of the frame. In its imagery of a light and dark side, representing good and evil, Raiders is like the Star Wars trilogy, and Belloq plays a role similar to Darth Vader's.

Belloq, like Vader, represents both the hero's potential evil which the hero refuses to acknowledge and the father figure in an Oedipal rivalry. The first time we see Belloq, he looms above Indy as he steals the golden idol from him, saying, “Dr. Jones. Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” The same positioning—Belloq above, Indy below as Belloq steals the prize—is repeated in the Well of Souls. There, Belloq echoes his opening line: “So once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine.” As Indy's rival and evil double, Belloq goes beyond Indy in violating taboo. He is a megalomaniac who covets the godlike powers of the Ark for himself: “It is a radio for speaking to God.” In the finale, Belloq commits sacrilege by staging a travesty of an ancient ritual. He dresses like a rabbi of Old Testament times, chants in Hebrew (the language for speaking to God), and dares to tamper with the holy Ark by opening it. When Belloq goes up in flames, he is dying in Indy's place (Snyder 211).

Just as Indy and Belloq are symbolically paired, so are the two prizes for which they compete: the Ark and Marion Ravenwood. Marion, Indy's former girlfriend, is linked with the Ark from the beginning of the quest. To locate the Ark, he must first locate her. Abner Ravenwood, Indy's former mentor, owned the headpiece to the staff of Ra, key to the location of the Ark. But ten years before, Indy had an affair with Marion, Ravenwood's daughter, who was then a teenager, causing a falling out between the teacher and his prize pupil. Indy has seen neither since. Before he begins his quest, Indy has the following conversation with his friend and boss, the archaeologist Marcus Brody:

Suppose she'll [Marion] still be with him [Ravenwood]?
Possibly. Marion's the least of your worries right now. … I mean that for nearly 3000 years man has been searching for the lost Ark: It's not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It's like nothing you've gone after before.
Marcus, what are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. … I don't believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance. You're talking about the boogeyman.

Indy here sounds much like Han Solo in Star Wars, the man who believes only in his gun and not in the power of the Force, but who will later learn otherwise. What particularly interests me in their conversation, however, is the conjunction of five anxiety-provoking topics which are all perhaps unconsciously linked: Abner Ravenwood, Marion, the Ark, Indy's mother, and the boogeyman. Later, Marion tells Indy that the late Abner “loved you like a son.” What alienated Abner was Indy's seduction and abandonment of Marion, who says, “I was a child! I was in love! It was wrong and you knew it! … Do you know what you did to me? To my life?” Marion, like the Ark, is a prize “not to be taken lightly” and surrounded by taboo (“it was wrong and you knew it”). Seducing the daughter of a man who was like a father to him could be considered symbolic incest.

Significantly, Indy is warned against tampering with the Ark by two good father figures, first Brody and then Indy's Egyptian friend Sallah (father to an enormous brood of children). Like Brody, Sallah warns of the danger of violating taboo: “It was something man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.”

Marion is so often closely associated with the Ark that the two are almost interchangeable; they are both treated as valuable prizes, objects of barter, constantly stolen and recaptured, passing from the hands of one man to another. Marion's fate is linked with the Ark's. Like the Ark, she is surrounded by danger and hidden away in a remote location (Indy finds her running a bar in the mountains of Nepal); she wears around her neck the headpiece that is the key to the Ark's location; she comes along with the headpiece to Egypt. The scene in which Indy unseals the Ark in the Well of Souls is crosscut with Belloq's attempted seduction of Marion (she too is “unsealed”; Belloq watches in a mirror as she undresses): as a religious taboo is being broken, so is a sexual one. After the Nazis lift the Ark out of the Well, they throw Marion down into it, as if she were its replacement. When they take the Ark off Katanga's ship, they also take Marion. Later, Indy threatens to blow up the Ark unless Marion is freed; again, the two are treated as equivalent. Finally, Belloq tells Marion, “You are beautiful” and says the same thing later about the apparition of a woman who appears out of the opened Ark: “It's beautiful!” Significantly, the beautiful ghost changes into a death head.

Indy's dual quest—for the Ark and for Marion—is a way of repeating his original Oedipal crime and at the same time undoing it. He is both protecting the Ark and violating it, in the same way that he is constantly rescuing Marion and yet putting her at great risk by associating with her. Says one critic, “Poor Marion suffers a great deal of pain in the film (she is bound and gagged repeatedly, slapped around, threatened with a fiery poker). I first thought the filmmakers were indulging some kind of weird SM fantasy” (Asahina 19).

Indy originally violated taboo by stealing Marion; symbolically, he also killed Ravenwood. Now he will break a taboo once again: gaining the Ark will reunite him with Marion and make amends to her and her father for the injury he did them; he will also complete the unfinished quest of his dead mentor. In Freud's theory, one way to see the totem object is as “a surrogate father.” In their relation to it, the tribe attempts “to bring about a kind of reconciliation with the father” (Freud 144).

It might seem confusing that the Ark is connected both with the father (Abner Ravenwood, Moses, the Ten Commandments, the power of God, and the boogeyman) and the mother (Marion and Indy's mother). Yet the totem is really symbolic of both parents; the ambivalent emotions surrounding taboo combine veneration of the parents with the horror associated with thoughts of incest. The refusals to touch the totem or to violate the taboo are intended to reassure the father that the mother will remain sacrosanct.

Indy's violation of taboo is thus ostensibly an act of obedience: he will rescue the totemic object from the hands of evil (Nazi) fathers and deliver it into the hands of good (American) fathers. Yet his deepest anger in the film is directed toward father figures, and the Nazis and Belloq provide a convenient focus for his rage. At one point, Indy becomes depressed and starts drinking alone, believing he has unintentionally caused Marion's death. His depression turns to murderous rage when he confronts Belloq, whom he blames for what happened to Marion, and he is ready to die so long as he can take Belloq with him. And at the end of the film, he rages against the “bureaucratic fools” in Army Intelligence who take the Ark away from him. His repeated anger suggests that the action of the totemic plot, which according to Totem and Taboo is intended to bring about a reconciliation with the father, has not entirely worked out an underlying resentment of authority figures.

As a taboo object, the Ark is viewed with ambivalence as both divine and demonic. It is continuously associated with light and fire—a dangerous light human beings were not meant to look upon and a scourging, destructive fire (similarly, the Grail in Last Crusade can bring healing or everlasting life to the faithful but instant death to the unrighteous). The Ark is first seen in an illustration in an old book; from it emanate rays of light that Indy describes as “lightning, fire, power of God.” Men struck by the rays writhe in death agonies, foreshadowing the climactic destruction of the Nazis. Later, when Marion holds up the shining medallion, the headpiece to the staff of Ra, it is juxtaposed in the image with a candle flame. The medallion lies in the fire that consumes Marion's bar and becomes so hot that its pattern is branded into the palm of the Nazi who grabs it (again suggesting the taboo against touching). He screams in pain after grasping the headpiece, just as he screams later in the climactic scene when the Ark is opened and the Nazis burst into flames. When an Egyptian examines the medallion and translates its markings to mean “honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is,” the lighted lamps on his ceiling mysteriously begin to sway. In the Map Room, when sunlight hits the crystal on the headpiece, blinding beams of light shoot out, like the rays in the illustration of the Ark. The night that Indy and his helpers open the Well of Souls to reveal the Ark, lightning crackles in the sky. Indy fights with flaming torches the snakes who guard the Ark. The Ark itself is golden, glowing with an apparently sacred light. When it is crated up, heat from within burns the swastika off the crate. And in the climax, a scourging fire melts and incinerates the Nazis. Only Indy and Marion survive because they refuse to look upon God's holy fire.

The fire connected with the Ark suggests the idea of sinners in the hands of an angry God and of fire as ritual sacrifice, which occurs in Temple of Doom as well. The fiery, climactic scene of Raiders, a ritual at an altar, resembles a human sacrifice to avenge a wrathful God. As Freud writes, “the portion of the sacrifice allotted to the god was originally regarded as being literally his food … fire, which caused the flesh of the sacrifice upon the altar to rise in smoke, afforded a method of dealing with human food more appropriate to the divine nature” (33-34). The fiery sacrifice is meant to atone for the violation of taboo.

Thus I would argue that Raiders is not as lighthearted a romp as an initial viewing might suggest. It transcends the old action serials because it is deliberately structured as a coherent myth which taps into the power of religious awe, the occult, and things repressed, unconscious, and taboo. The object of the quest, the Ark, is not merely a “MacGuffin” (Hitchcock's term for the excuse for the action) but a holy icon which the film imbues with a genuinely spooky aura. Raiders has some of the chilling power of the uncanny, and all its humor and adventure help us to accept the breaking of taboo.


  1. Among the 1930s and 1940s serials which inspired Raiders are Lash LaRue,Tim Tyler's Luck,Tailspin Tommy,Masked Marvel,Spy Smasher,Don Winslow of the Navy,Commander Cody,Blackhawk,Zorro's Fighting Legion, and Secret Service in Darkest Africa. On the sources of Raiders, see Crawley 90-91; Scapperotti 49; and Ansen 60. Harmon and Glut describe an incident in the Republic serial Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939) which sounds like one in Raiders: in “The Descending Doom,” a huge skipdrum rolls down a mine shaft about to crush the hero (297).

  2. Jameson 116-17 discusses the “nostalgia film” such as Star Wars or Raiders which children and adolescents can take straight, while adults can respond to it nostalgically as a return to the aesthetic objects of an earlier period. On one level, Raiders is “about the '30's and '40's, but in reality it too conveys that period metonymically through its own characteristic adventure stories (which are no longer ours).”

  3. There is also an anthropological interpretation of taboo as a violation of the boundaries between such categories as male/female, human/animal, or self/world. See Douglas, Purity and Danger. Nevertheless, I find Freud's psychoanalytic explanation of taboo better able to explain certain aspects of Raiders.

  4. During the 1970's, Spielberg had been turned down as a possible director for a James Bond film. Lucas pitched Raiders to him as “better than Bond” (Crawley 90).

Works Cited

Ansen, David. Rev. of Raiders of the Lost Ark.Newsweek 15 June 1981: 60.

Asahina, Robert. Rev. of Raiders of the Lost Ark.New Leader 29 June 1981: 19.

Crawley, Tony. The Steven Spielberg Story. New York: Quill, 1982.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Ark, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo and Other Works. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 13 (1913-14). Trans. and ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1955.

Harmon, Jim, and Donald F. Glut. The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay, 1983.

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Story George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Screenplay Lawrence Kasdan. Exec. producers George Lucas and Howard Kazanjian. Music John Williams. Dir. of photography Douglas Slocombe. With Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot. Paramount, 1981.

Roth, Lane. “Raiders of the Lost Archetype: The Quest and the Shadow,” Studies in the Humanities 10.1 (June 1983): 13-21.

Scapperotti, Dan. “Lucas and Spielberg Revive Slam-Bang, Saturday Matinee Thrills,” Cinefantastique 11.3 (September 1981): 49.

Snyder, Thomas Lee. Sacred Encounters: The Myth of the Hero in the Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy Films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Diss. Northwestern U., 1984.

Sterritt, David. Rev. of Raiders of the Lost Ark.Christian Science Monitor 18 June 1981: 18.

Tomasulo, Frank P. “Mr. Jones Goes to Washington: Myth and Religion in Raiders of the Lost Ark.Quarterly Review of Film Studies 7.4 (Fall 1982): 331-40.

Richard Alleva (review date 31 January 1992)

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SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “Fantasies & Gimmicks.” Commonweal 119, no. 2 (31 January 1992): 25-7.

[In the following excerpt, Alleva regards Hook as an inconsistent and “half-baked sequel” to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.]

Sir James Barrie conceived of the Never Land as a truly wondrous place where British children of the Edwardian era could remain children, where irresponsibility and spontaneity could be preserved and not perish in the service of king and country or business and family, and where the only empire to be fought for was a “nicely crammed” island with lagoons and tree houses and pirates and Indians. But in Hook, Steven Spielberg's sequel to Peter Pan, the children are Americanized and are precociously hip as most American kids are. One can picture these Lost Boys back in the States: skateboarding, plugging away at video games, cruising shopping malls. But there are no video games in the Never Land, no shopping malls, and though there are a few skateboards, it's not as much fun riding one through forests as it is to hurtle through urban crowds. So, since these American kids on Spielberg's island aren't escaping Latin conjugations and canings in strict public schools but are rather being deprived of MTV, Walkman headphones, and pizza pie, they seem as underprivileged as children stuck in a summer camp long after the summer has ended. They are Lost Boys, indeed, dependent upon each other for entertainment and waiting for Peter Pan to return.

For it is the conceit of this film that Peter Pan, during one of his periodic visits to the aging Wendy, finally fell in love with Wendy's granddaughter, forsook his eternal youth, married, bred, and became a corporate raiding lawyer. Only after Captain Hook kidnaps his two children does this middle-aged Pan revert to his swashbuckling self and, even then, it's primarily to win back the admiration of his disaffected son and prove that he's not a workaholic zombie. (It seems Dad Pan has been missing too many Little League games.)

The scenes that set up this premise in the first twenty minutes are the best in the movie. They fill us with the happiness children feel on Christmas Eve: all joy is impending, all expectation delicious. Spielberg teases us with our memories of the book, the plays, and the movies. The adult Pan is afraid of flying, even on airplanes. The ninety-year-old Wendy, upon learning of her former playmate's Wall Street aggressiveness, tartly observes, “Why, Peter, you've become a pirate.” (And what an inflection the grand Maggie Smith brings to that line!) The Darling house in which Wendy still lives really looks like a repository of wonderful memories, and Caroline Goodall as Peter's wife really seems to carry the Wendy genes. The London that Spielberg has reconstructed looks as if it will revert to the Edwardian era at any moment, and the sky over it positively begs for flying children.

Then Peter flies to the Never Land and … well, the movie doesn't exactly crash but it certainly stalls, gets going again, stalls again, flips over, rises rapidly in altitude, sinks sickeningly, and so on.

The sets—pirate ship, island, lagoon—are enormous but much of the action on them is stale and tinny, and the gags performed on them are worthy of only a lesser installment of the old Carol Burnett Show. The various fights only rehash and diminish the stunts from an Indiana Jones adventure and the special effects wanly recall E.T.'s. The endurance of Barrie's play and novel, despite their self-caressing twee-ness, lies precisely in Barrie's exuberant inventions (Hook's paranoia about the crocodile, the crock's ingested clock, Mr. Darling's penitential consignment of himself to the kennel) and in the mythic resonance of the story. Spielberg proves incapable of adding to these inventions, much less outdoing them. He can only reminisce and parody. Hook and Smee still have their duets of hate/love but the exchanges lack the original's strangely masochistic humor (despite the good efforts of Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins). Tinker Bell still hovers about but Spielberg feels obliged to hold his camera on Julia Roberts's face long enough for her to register her usual self-adoring smiles. The crocodile has been stuffed but still manages to swallow Hook. Spielberg and his writers add some maudlin stuff about fatherhood and maturity (“to live will be a terribly big adventure”), but there is nothing fresh in the reversals and elaborations, no indication that Spielberg absolutely had to make this movie. Even Robin Williams's occasionally funny Pan is mostly a rehash of some of his past performances.

In the middle of Hook there is a brief flashback to Pan's babyhood and the beginning of his magical career. This is a raptly beautiful episode, reminiscent of Arthur Rackham's drawings but not at all static in execution. Its unforced magic made me feel that, for once, Spielberg should have been content with the role of adaptor rather than inventor, and that he could have made a super version of the original Peter Pan instead of this half-baked sequel.

Almost nothing in Hook bores because Spielberg keeps throwing stuff at us, but almost nothing he throws is truly engrossing. This movie was obviously very carefully planned, but I don't think it was envisioned.

Anne Billson (review date 10 April 1992)

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SOURCE: Billson, Anne. “Crocodile Tear-Jerker.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 197 (10 April 1992): 36.

[In the following review, Billson derides the crass commercialism of Hook, calling the film “a cynical money-spinning exercise full of lacklustre action and meretricious sentiment-by-numbers.”]

Once upon a time there was a little boy called Steven Spielberg who refused to grow up. One day he found himself in charge of the biggest train set in Never Never Land, and so he made some jolly exciting movies about friendly aliens, man-eating sharks, and an archaeologist who zoomed around the world thrashing Nazis. And a beezer time was had by all.

But there were clouds in the blue of Steven's sky. He was a wizard at appealing to everyone's sense of childlike wonder. He had brought pleasure by the bucketful to millions of people. But he had always failed to impress the grown-ups in Never Never Land: the ones who handed out the end-of-term prizes, and the folk who decided which movies were important and meaningful, as opposed to escapist fun for all the family.

So he had a go at making some grown-up movies, such as The Color Purple and Always—films dealing with heavy subjects such as relationships, conflict and bereavement. But Steven had a b-i-g problem, because he had spent his whole life in Never Never, a land not best known for its grasp of real life, and his idea of what went on in the world outside was limited to the hazy notions he had picked up … from the movies.

And so, whenever one of Steven's movies touched upon an adult theme, he was unable to link it directly to his own experience, because he hadn't any. Everything came out a little bit corny. He had drained all the childlike wonder from his grown-up movies, but the grown-ups were still sitting with folded arms and stony faces, unimpressed.

“Hey ho”, Steven thought. “What was the point of trying?” But he still had the run of the train set, so he decided to return to the jolly exciting stuff about pirates and fairies, all rolled into a rollicking family film called Hook. Alas, no sooner had he started than he realised it was no longer what he wanted. Times had changed; there was a worldwide recession on, and in the meantime Steven had got married, become a father, and got divorced. Maybe he had grown up without ever realising it.

But it was too late. The train set was already chuffing out of the station, so Steven decided to take everyone along for a ride. The story was about Peter Pan, another little boy who refused to grow up, except that in Steven's film, by some inimitable twist of illogic, he has grown up. And he has forgotten all about the Lost Boys and how to fly, until his own children are kidnapped by his old adversary Captain Hook. Tinkerbell helps Peter get to Never Never Land so he can rescue them.

Steven decided that if he couldn't come up with a definitive artistic statement to impress the grown-ups, then at least he could impress them with the definitive bank statement. At the same time, he could make lots of pocket-money for himself and his best friends Robin (Williams) and Julia (Roberts) and Dustin (Hoffmann).

Robin was Peter, and Julia was ickle-bitty Tinkerbell, with pointy ears and a pixie tunic, and Dustin was Hook, with a curly moustache and a cod English accent. Dustin won. His was the only character in the film you didn't want to see garrotted.

The designers designed a terrific pirate galleon and a thrilling Lost Boys' hideout. But, no matter how much Steven made his camera swoop and glide and giddy-up around the sets, he couldn't stop them from looking like boring old panto scenery, especially since the galleon never put out to sea (which would have been too mega-expensive), and the Lost Boys' camp was crammed full of Starlight Express-style skate-boarding tracks.

As for the Lost Boys, they were cast from a politically correct mix of ethnic groups and blimp shapes, and zipped around in funky MTV gear and Mohican hair-dos, spouting street jargon. Poor old Steven: he wasn't to know that, while he had been busy trying to make grown-up movies, the trendiest kids had gone off Michael Jackson and the Ninja Turtles and transferred their allegiance to metal-headed dipsticks such as Bill and Ted, or Wayne and Garth from Wayne's World, the year's hotsiest hit-flick (which comes down your way in May).

But he drew the line at including gurls, because gurls were less than zero—J. M. Barrie had the right idea there. Wendy (played by Maggie Smith plus wrinkly make-up) has to stay in the Wendy house, while grown-up Peter forgets all about his kidnapped daughter, and concentrates instead on the more important business of bonding with his kidnapped son.

Steven threw in lots of baseball, and tinkle-plunk John Williams soundtrack, and finished it off with one enormous Big Hug. And, just in case anyone wanted a Regarding Henry message, he threw in one of those as well: don't be a workaholic yuppie asshole, don't lose sight of the child inside you, and don't miss any of your son's Little League matches. Barf-o-rama!: bring back Jack Torrance from The Shining.

But, in the end, Steven didn't mind at all when discerning folk puked up all over the loathsome Lost Boys and complained of dangerous levels of heartwarming brought on by an excess of Robin Williams. So what if Hook was a cynical money-spinning exercise full of lacklustre action and meretricious sentiment-by-numbers? Just because it was all those things, Steven knew it was also proof that, after all these years, he was really and truly one of the grown-ups.

Henry Sheehan (essay date May-June 1992)

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SOURCE: Sheehan, Henry. “The Panning of Steven Spielberg: Chapter One of a Critical Cliffhanger.” Film Comment 28, no. 3 (May-June 1992): 54-60.

[In the following essay, Sheehan traces Spielberg's early development as a director, noting Spielberg's dominant thematic concerns in such films as Duel, Jaws, 1941, and The Color Purple.]

The romance between Steven Spielberg and most of the country's film critics officially fell apart this past Christmas, affections irrevocably alienated by Hook. That was the only sour note in the film's release, since it went on to earn unimaginably large heaps of money. And it points to one of the anomalies of Spielberg's career. By far the single most powerful and influential filmmaker in Hollywood, he has always been considered artistically marginal, even by his fans (and certainly by his peers, who annually refuse to give him any awards). Critical praise for Spielberg tends to start out in purely cinematic terms, then leap the rails into more generalized pop-cult appreciation. Enthusiasm for the uplift of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the kinetic force of Raiders of the Lost Ark gives way to gingerly admissions that, in and of themselves, the films “didn't really amount to much.” Spielberg's vaunted connection with the American temper, it is explained, was the source of his importance. Like those of Elvis and comic books, the director's champions always seek validation in the cultural marketplace.

It's natural that Spielberg has been defined as much by his weakness as by his strength; what's striking is that rarely has a filmmaker so often had one confused with the other. Not only Spielberg's box-office preeminence but much of his critical reputation was solidified by a series of glib, manipulative thrill rides that slyly used the cover of “entertainment” to downgrade the expressive possibilities of the cinema. Spielberg dared anyone to bring intellect to bear on his work by launching preemptive strikes of easy irony, monumental sentimentalism, and stylistic virtuosity. Too often, however, even these minor virtues have been lacking, replaced by mere kitsch and panicky technique. Thus, so dubious a venture as Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its sideshow tricks and moral evasions, was hailed not just by hordes of cash-wielding ticket-buyers but also by susceptible commentators willing to substitute a self-serving nostalgia for a cooler regard of history, filmic and otherwise.

How much more gratifying, then, that over the last five years, starting with Empire of the Sun, Spielberg has been embarked on a rapid, if largely unheeded, rise to artistic maturity, an ascension that reached its culmination in Hook. Here, for the first time, Spielberg pulled together the many different thematic strands, visual motifs, and character types that had been haphazardly scattered through his first 15 years of work, and patterned them into a rich, coherent whole. He came to terms with the nature of his material in a profound way and produced a work of astonishing beauty and eloquent resonance. With Hook, Spielberg establishes himself not just as a mere commercial force but as a major artistic personality and a legitimate aspirant to greatness.

To fully recognize the achievement of Hook, one must go back over the whole of Spielberg's career, a trip made considerably easier simply by first recounting Hook's story. For in fragments, that story is the story of nearly every Spielberg film.

At the center is Peter Banning, a grown-up in every superficial way—job, clothes, social position, paternity—but a man deeply unsure of his own manhood. His children are kidnapped in a mysterious, indeed almost telepathic fashion that befuddles Banning; nevertheless, at the insistence of his step-grandmother, partly for the sake of his wife, and with the help of a female fairy, he manages to fly after them into a strange, yet familiar, world. Once there, he discovers the evil figure, Captain Hook, who has seized the children, as well as the Captain's gang—burly, costumed pirates who possess the rough-and-tumble masculinity Peter so painfully lacks. Given the chance to rescue his kids, Banning fails, but vows to go off into the wilderness to prepare himself to fight.

In the wilderness, Banning finds another gang, this one made up of anarchic children, the Lost Boys. The fairy Tinkerbell insists that Peter is actually Peter Pan, an ageless boy who could fly and who had great success fighting the pirates. While visiting a hollowed-out tree, the site of long-ago rendezvous, Peter suddenly remembers his past; and by confronting both his past and his present, he learns once more how to fly high above the landscape that has come to physicalize his own internal problems. Although his son is nearly seduced into a life of piracy by Captain Hook, Peter shows up in time to effect a rescue and flies back to a happier hearth and home and a more secure and emotionally open masculinity.

The figure most consistently to be found throughout the Spielberg oeuvre is Peter, the boy/man, whose origins in the director's work stretch back as far as 1971's Duel. In that remarkable debut—a TV movie that was released theatrically in Europe—Dennis Weaver plays a businessman hitting the road the night after he disappointed his wife by refusing to challenge a friend to a fistfight over a perceived insult. Out on a desert highway, he somehow arouses the homicidal ire of a trucker, who—while remaining unseen to Weaver, and the audience, throughout the film—repeatedly tries to run him off the road. As the two duel across the sandblown asphalt, Weaver's increasingly frantic and teary office worker fails at a succession of male heroics: most notably, when he can't help a busload of schoolkids stranded along the highway (although the trucker can and does), and in another scene when he gets slapped around by some beefy coffee-stop patrons after he has provoked a fight.

After Duel, the other Spielberg protagonists quickly fall into line: Clovis Poplin (William Atherton) of Sugarland Express is a convict henpecked into escaping from a minimum-security prison; en route to rescuing his baby son from unworthy adoptive parents, he soon has a caravan of police trailing along the road behind him. Amity police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), in Jaws, goes shark-hunting with the piratical Quint (Robert Shaw) only after he has failed to stand up to the local mayor and proved unable to protect his own son from a roving giant shark. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss's Roy Neary is a harassed husband and father who runs away from his family and ends up traveling off in a floating island of a spaceship populated by pint-sized, childlike aliens.

Even the barely organized 1941 has a Peter Pan figure in the person of Bobby DiCicco's Wally, the kid who can dance but can't cut it as a soldier. Indiana Jones is the Peter Pan figure par excellence, stammering and off-balance in front of classroom Juliets, but brave and deadly in far-off lands. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is the Peter Pan story told from the point of view of a Lost Boy (Henry Thomas's Elliott), with the wrinkled/diminutive, old/young E.T. figuring as Peter, while government scientists (like those in CE3K [Close Encounters of the Third Kind]) fulfill the pirates' role. And Spielberg's vignette in Twilight Zone: The Movie, about a gaggle of senior citizens who become children one magical night, features one ex-oldster who elects to stay a kid and goes flying out a bedroom window, à la you-know-who.

Despite Spielberg's attempts to break with his past work and do something “adult,” even The Color Purple—which caps a portion of the director's career—bears evidence of Pan in the person of Danny Glover's Mister Albert. For all his cruelties to his wife, Mister is treated as a child by his father and bossed around by his lover and, eventually, even by the wife herself.

Persistence of vision is one thing; clarity, something else again. From the very beginning Spielberg displayed extraordinary raw talent, particularly an ability to compose in depth that echoed past Hollywood masters. In Duel he harnessed these gifts and turned a genre project—and a TV genre project at that—into a pictorially striking contemplation of man, machine, and landscape. The vast blankness of the California desert becomes a claustrophobic nightmare: Weaver the quarry finds nowhere to run, whereas the truck(er) finds endless warrens in which to hide. Distant perspectives hold no hint of respite, but suggest myriad threats of torment. Weaver's neurotic performance effectively translates the metaphysicalized environment into human terms.

If Duel demonstrated how willing Spielberg was to push conventions, Sugarland Express ('74) was evidence that he was equally ready to rein in potentially subversive material. Road movies had become a staple of the explosive youth market in the five years since Easy Rider and were generally potent, if ofttimes vague, expressions of restlessness, rebelliousness, and rock 'n' roll. Two Lane Blacktop,Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,White Line Fever, even Death Race 2000, all came out within a year or so of Sugarland Express, and it's striking how Spielberg's picture lacks the emotional focus, the sense of urgency, that these other films, whatever else their qualities, possess in spades.

Part of the reason for Sugarland's tame temperament was that it was made at Universal, the Hollywood major that most nearly defined the term “mainstream” during the Seventies. It was there, at the home of the Airport series, that Spielberg had served his apprenticeship on series episodes and TV films. To be sure, Sugarland did not originate within the Universal bureaucracy; it has an original story by Spielberg and contemporaries Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who wrote the screenplay, and it is graced with a buoyancy that seems the natural manifestation of youthful enthusiasm.

But an enthusiasm for form: never had a director made himself so at home on a busy highway as Spielberg does here. To the shifting geometry of characters trying to speak to each other from variably speeding cars, he brings an aplomb other filmmakers could hope to match only on the safety of a stationary soundstage with rear projections. The young director gets maximum effect from his fashionable use of distance-flattening long lenses (the cinematographer was Vilmos Zsigmond), making police cars appear and disappear to often hilarious effect—reworking Duel's menace into comedy.

Yet nothing important ever feels at stake. Sugarland Express is, in fact, a work of cooptation. Amazingly, this story of an escaped convict on the run from the law in order to reclaim the child immorally seized from his wife has absolutely no political content. The combined police forces chasing Clovis (who is a kind of shmo), his wife Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn), and their chummy hostage, Officer Slide (Michael Sacks), across the Southwest are embodied in the avuncular character of Ben Johnson's Captain Tanner, who virtually coddles his perpetrators. Even Clovis's looming death, which seems increasingly inevitable as the movie progresses, is undercut by constant interpolation of Hawn's atmosphere-deflating, ditsy-cute dialogue. The one shootout in the film is played strictly for laughs, a duel between local yokels and the Poplins, who have somehow managed to cut loose from their huge escort for a night. Exigency hangs over much of the action, and again and again the possibilities of virtuoso technique overrule the logic of motivation. Only the gag elements linger on after the final credits.

If nothing else, Sugarland Express demonstrated to Universal executives that Spielberg could handle a logistically complex shoot, and the young filmmaker moved on to Jaws ('75). That film's screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb, wrote an amusing book about the unforeseeable disasters that repeatedly interrupted the production and provided Spielberg with a readymade excuse for the mismatched shots that dog the action, particularly when it is at sea. If we see Brody talking to Quint against a cloudless sky, and then see Quint framed by cirrus gray, well, that's just the breaks. Spielberg should probably be congratulated for working around the problem as persuasively as did.

Unfortunately, Jaws was the film on which Spielberg learned the benefits of emotional overkill. Val Lewton's dictum about keeping monsters offscreen is turned on its head; Spielberg leans heavily on a mechanical shark for, not suspense, but mere shock value. Even in the scenes in which he manages to do without the beast's presence onscreen, he indulges in visual overstatement—as in the hydraulic buffeting of the girl swimmer whose death opens the film. For the most part, though, lulling dialogue scenes are topped with sudden shots of the shark suddenly peeking its head into frame as if to shout “Boo!” Momentarily effective, but crudely utilitarian.

The pulp-fiction characterizations also manage to be vague—and in the case of the alternately brave and wishy-washy Brody, contradictory. As a character, Quint is absurd, an out-of-place Englishman boasting of his blue-collar fishing background while operating a sports-fishing charter and—despite his avowed respect for the sea and sharks—smashing his ship-to-shore radio in an inexplicable fit of rage.

These are telltale signs of a panicky determination to “entertain,” with entertainment defined as an essentially passive, consumer activity. (Who eats whom?) In other words, a typical Universal product of the period. Nevertheless, the phenomenal box-office success of Jaws allowed Spielberg to go ahead with a project of his own—at another studio—and to define himself more on his own terms.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind ('77) certainly has all the earmarks of a personal project, and asserts a personal style unlike any being offered by the increasingly standardized studios at the time. Starting off with a two-track narrative, the movie features a panoramic, deep-focus, globetrotting adventure, starring François Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, a scientist heading an international team of UFO hunters. The other story, more intimate and small-scale, but based on the same compositional principles, stars Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, unhappy power-company employee, husband, and father.

The Lacombe episodes offer a marvelous display of Spielberg's most persistent and redoubtable talent, the ability to field several planes of action within the same frame. In CE3K, this approach implants an effective sense of mystery, as ominous elements—from abandoned WW2 bombers to masses of Asian pilgrims—make dramatic entrances in unexpected ways. Spielberg almost never introduces characters or important pieces of decor by letting them penetrate the framelines, by cutting to them, or by panning over to them. (Spielberg, in fact, rarely pans at all, and when he does it's usually part of a larger, more complex camera movement.) Rather, he prefers to shift the elements within the frame, so that important features suddenly emerge (think of the shifting sandstorm at the beginning) or by tracking and/or craning. Spielberg uses camera movements to enlarge his visual field, rather than to follow a character or introduce new information to the characters. It is the viewer, not the cast, who is pulled into a larger world by such movements. Lacombe isn't daunted by the vast number of Indians that fill a valley he is crossing—he's right in the middle of them, after all. It's we who are impressed. When Spielberg holds his camera perfectly still, his characters tend to be in for a surprise; when he moves it, the audience usually is.

Spielberg's visual coups are not limited to the Lacombe tale. Neary's first encounter with the alien craft, which features nothing more than a man in a truck cab, moving sets of lights, and a lonely railway crossing, is a nifty piece of work. The problem with the film is entirely thematic, with Spielberg's eye constantly having to rescue his tongue.

All the action in Close Encounters—including Lacombe's obsessive worldwide trek, but especially Neary's compulsive escape from his family—could be explained most richly in psychological terms. However, the film refuses to provide any direct internal motivation for its characters; the motives here are all external, provided by the self-limiting vision of the spacecraft and its Pied Piper-like melody. That's why most critical and popular speculation about the film centered on the exact nature of the huge Mothership and its crew, because if the audience couldn't assign some—any—symbolic value to them, then the film was nothing more than an amiable but emptyheaded adventure story.

If Lacombe never amounts to much more than a diminished figure in a large landscape (unlike Neary, he rarely gets to be the only human onscreen), Roy Neary is more complex, though less fleshed-out than filled-in. Roy is defined largely, and once again externally, by his sitcom family. In true TV style, it's Roy versus the rest of them, with Teri Garr (who would affirm the pattern of slim, wan-faced, tremolo-voiced moms) standing with the kids, rather than by her man. No wonder Roy starts building mashed-potato models of structures that turn out to be a mountain, but could also depict a volcanic island.

Close Encounters was lauded as a film about hope, but what it promotes is the hope that a man could escape the responsibilities of his family and job. Roy Neary is depressed and unhappy before he ever gives a thought to interplanetary travel. One of the most telling images in the film is of Neary frowning and concentrating on something below frameline in the foreground as the kids squabble in the space behind him. There seems to be no exit for Roy until he meets up with the spacecraft.

After his close encounter, the imagery in Roy's portion of the film abruptly shifts to a more stylized, though familiar, level. The country roadway where he and a few other selected humans gather to watch a trio of advance craft zoom by looks a lot like a crossroads from The Wizard of Oz. As they stand on a corner marked with the silhouette of a fence and cornstalks, the chosen observe the brightly lit craft arrive from below the brow of a hill behind them, coming into view from within the frame. Spielberg uses offscreen space not just to extend the action laterally—though he does that, too—but to extend the background into an unseen infinity. In other words, Roy's exit magically appears.

As the film becomes more and more occupied with his story, Roy takes that exit, making a crosscountry journey through unknown territory, escaping from a crew of security guards and penetrating the interior of the secret government installation where the Mothership lands. He successfully returns to childhood. But Spielberg resists the notion of psychological regression as motivation.

The Mothership has been accruing meaning as Lacombe has been going around the world gathering evidence of its arrival. Every bit of evidence contains some larger cultural connotation. The abandoned WW2 aircraft invoke a traditional American patriotism; the Indian masses and their guru, a preoccupation with other ways of knowing; each a form of idealism. The Mothership, with its musical communication, both absorbs and informs these events, which suggest it has a strong cultural component. And given the opening-night klieglights that adorn its shell, it's an easy leap to identify the Mothership with cinema, or at least Hollywood, itself. However, it's a leap one must make without Spielberg's help. Only with Neary's story does he care to be specific; Lacombe's becomes lost in vast generalities. Ultimately, the stories never cohere.

It's easy to consider 1941 ('79) a mere footnote—albeit a very expensive one—to Spielberg's career. Perhaps because his writers had such strong personalities of their own—Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote the screenplay, while co-exec-producer John Milius contributed to the original story—Spielberg's voice is only the loudest of several. Even the characters seem to assign themselves to particular writers' visions: Treat Williams's belligerent GI, Sitarski, acts like a symptom of Milius's John Ford preoccupation, a specific variation on Lee Marvin's “Boats” Gilhooley in Donovan's Reef; whereas the continuing episode featuring homeowner Ned Beatty's backyard anti-aircraft battery, though as shrill as the rest of the film, anticipates the gentle, Middle America satires in which Zemeckis and Gale would specialize shortly thereafter. Spielberg's weaknesses also march front and center here, particularly his uncertain historical sense and his poor grasp of time and place. Its title notwithstanding, the film doesn't evoke its period for a minute.

Yet for all its lack of organization and perspective, 1941 does continue Spielberg's preoccupation with the Peter Pan story. Once again, a group of pirates appears, and this time they're even on board a ship, the Japanese submarine helmed by Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee. And certainly John Belushi's “Wild Bill” Kelso, the apparently unaffiliated flyboy whose anarchic presence is enough to throw any already disruptive situation into further chaos, is the lostest Lost Boy ever.

Most fascinating is the character played by Robert Stack, the real-life General Joe Stilwell, who does virtually nothing during the whole film but watch Dumbo in a largely empty movie theater. Despite his attraction to this putatively childlike entertainment. Stilwell is the most mature, the most manly, character in the teeming cast. He brushes off reports of the riots building in intensity outside the theater until, finally provoked, he goes out and, with a few barked orders, brings sudden, silent order to the noisy tumult. Yet while he watched the film Stilwell had laughed and cried with abandon and without embarrassment. Here, finally, is a Spielberg character who had escaped to his childhood, yet returned, utterly sure of his adult status.

Spielberg recovered from the box-office disappointment of 1941 in spectacular, even historic fashion to direct two of the biggest commercial successes in film history: Raiders of the Lost Ark ('81) and E.T. ('82). To my mind, Spielberg bottomed out with Raiders, which, in its preoccupation with the deliberate and mechanical manipulation of the audience, is one of the most un-human, inhuman, and anti-human movies of all time. It uses its evocation of old-time serials as an excuse for incorporating all kinds of racist caricatures, yet at the same time (thanks, probably, to producer George Lucas's fondness for the questionable theories of mythologist Joseph Campbell) insists, by constantly framing its hero in larger-than-life terms, that its mundane derring-do has some sort of crosscultural significance. And just as it elevates the mundane to the pseudo-profound, the film trivializes the Ark of the Covenant, reducing it to a multiple-head ray gun.

The “Boo!” tactics of Jaws reappear with a vengeance; a typical idea of terror is to have Indiana Jones thrown into a huge nest of snakes in a buried desert vault. Not only are such thrills crude, their touted effect overrides every other consideration, including dramatic logic (what have those snakes been subsisting on all these years?). No sense of drama, logic, detail, or character consistency is to interfere with the enforced enjoyment of each discrete thrill.

These prevarications infect every aspect of Spielberg's style in Raiders. In one stunning shot he shows us the Nazis' huge archaeological dig, constant activity drifting back and forth across the big screen, while drawing our attention to the far distance where, silhouetted against an orange sun, Indiana Jones and his small crew dig away at their own find. Beautiful, but overinflated and completely dishonest. There are far more native workers and Nazis than needed to complete the task at hand—they are there simply to make a good “scene”—while Jones's conspicuous actions, made all the more obvious when he dons his trademark fedora, should attract the attention of even the least sentient passerby, never mind a battalion of eagle-eyed Nazi sentries.

Criticizing such lapses amounts to nit-picking because the film is almost exclusively composed of nits. Perhaps more revealing is the much-praised scene in which Indiana gallops up to a roaring German truck on horseback, climbs aboard, overpowers the guards, and takes the wheel—only to have to fight off enemy vehicles that crash into him, and an acrobatic Nazi who in turn clambers aboard the truck, dislodges Indiana, and forces him to repeat his original actions all over again. The scene plays much better than it should, thanks to the performance of Harrison Ford as Indiana. Ford is in the tradition of great American action stars, introducing grace notes of humor, surprise, and frustration without ever undermining the essentially serious approach to his character. But the rhythm of the scene pays no mind to character at all. From the moment Indiana leaps aboard the truck, the film is cut in an unvarying, fast-forward monotony, without any of the modulations that would reflect Indiana's emotional responses to the situation. The rapid clack-clack-clack reduces all the dramatis personae to mere cogs in a high-speed machine.

Spielberg handles the spatial context with the same delicacy with which he crunches the temporal. Although the chase nominally takes place in a desert, the landscape surrounding the speeding truck changes according to the dictates of various gags. It's unfortunate, but forgivable, that in consecutive shots the roadway should be alternately paved and unpaved; logistics can dictate shortcuts. But for the background scenery to rush from desert sands, to forest trees, to rocky cliffs, and back and forth among all three, shows nothing but contempt for the action. Indiana Jones, in such a context, isn't mastering his fate, he's enjoying a thrill ride with its preordained safe conclusion. Spielberg is displaying a carnival barker's ethics.

Indiana Jones is the dark side of Peter Pan, the boy who won't grow up because nothing he experiences, no matter how melodramatic, causes him to undergo any sort of change. Adventure is as fungible as the baubles he steals from Third World temple sites, something to be enjoyed and consumed and then discarded. Adventure isn't an experience, it's a commodity.

Raiders threw Spielberg off his artistic stride and it took a while for him to regain it. With E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial he remained committed to the hard sell, pushing sentiment on the audience with the same determination with which he had pushed shock in Jaws, wonder in CE3K, comedy in 1941, and thrills in Raiders. However, E.T. is the first film in which Spielberg directly confronts his thematic preoccupations.

With its recurrent Pan figure reduced to an all-but-mute, walking nub, E.T. becomes an examination of both what Spielberg's Pans flee from and what they escape to. The three kids at the film's core have been abandoned by their father, who's run off to Mexico with a lover, just as Peter Banning has neglected his children and later run off with Tinkerbell. E.T. has left home, too, of course, even if inadvertently, and he both joins the kids in their anarchic urge—getting young Elliott telepathically drunk—and gives them a group purpose, even if that is just getting him home, rather than slaying Hook. E.T. leaves his new friends only because his very life is at stake; he cannot survive physically on their world, just as Peter Banning, despite loving the Lost Boys, cannot survive emotionally in Never Land.

The reversal of the classic story's point of view is useful in throwing Spielberg's preoccupations into relief, but as far as the movie itself goes, it narrows the range of available emotions. Spielberg seizes upon every melancholy notion that drifts across Elliott's psyche—notably loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned—and pumps it up.

Once again, though, his uncanny visual sense often saves him. The opening sequence, in which dark, hulking men with flashlights hunt for a frightened E.T. in a dark forest, is the truest moment of terror Spielberg had yet produced. And for all their hysterical buildup, the flying scenes have a powerful wish-fulfillment lift to them, as first Elliott and E.T., and then the two of them plus Elliott's friends, fly over an adult world of strife and cross into their own forested Never Land.

Spielberg's next three directorial projects—the second segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie ('83), the sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ('84), and The Color Purple ('85)—found him wrestling with the relationship between his material and his technique.

Although the most grossly sentimental of his efforts. Spielberg's Twilight Zone episode is also among his most delicate (in part because of the cinematography: Allen Daviau worked on some of the director's most beautiful films, E.T.,The Color Purple,Empire of the Sun). His cast of senior citizens start out as stereotypes, but Spielberg films their interchanges in patient long takes that humanize them considerably. And the story's conclusion—that it is better to retain the memory of childhood than long to relive it—anticipates Hook's.

Temple of Doom is, after 1941 and Hook, Spielberg's most critically disdained film. It is something of a mess, largely as a result of the collision between his increasing thematic complexity and the rigid demands of the Indiana Jones structure and its inherent racism, here at its most disgraceful. And Spielberg's crude attempts at grossouts (serving crabs and snakes at a dinner) wouldn't have passed muster in a primitive two-reeler. However, the much-deplored violence—most infamously, cult priest tears beating heart from sacrificial victim—lends the otherwise precious and baldly arbitrary action a keen edge. (Just incidentally, Temple's violence has never inordinately disturbed any kids I know.)

It should also be noted that this “off” entry contains one of the most revealing scenes in Spielberg's canon and an acknowledgment, thanks once again to another superb Ford performance, that the Indiana Jones character has a disturbing, evil side. At one point Indiana has been tied up and drugged by the cultists—another swarthy, all-male group—and forced to drink blood, which turns him into an obedient zombie. Forced to work an apparatus that will feed his nominal girlfriend, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), to consuming fires, Indiana is deaf to her screams for mercy. It is the little Chinese boy, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), who, by accidentally poking him with a (inadvertent or not) highly symbolic burning stick, awakens Indiana from his trance and thus saves the day.

A wild fight ensues, but Indiana and Short Round do manage to embrace and assure one another of their undying devotion, a rapprochement far more passionate than the one between Indiana and Willie. Add an evil boy maharajah who walks about in effeminate attire and jewelry, and it almost seems that Spielberg is introducing a homoerotic element into the action. But given that a Spielberg hero is once again championing a bunch of boys (villagers enslaved in a mine) against a bunch of men (the cultists), and considering Spielberg's theretofore-characteristic avoidance of any serious mention of sex, the scene is more complex, if less titillating, than that.

Tempted by the violent cruelty of adulthood, Indiana is called back to childhood's innocence by his surrogate son. If as a result he ignores Willie, that's a better fate than the pinioned death that was in store for her. What's more important is that he abandon the corrupt world of adults and once again affirm his essential child-ness. The film even closes with a shot of Indiana and Willie—happy, it seems, at being a mom—being engulfed by a tide of laughing children.

Childhood is solace, even in Spielberg's version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. That film opens with a sumptuous view of two girls playing in a field of high flowers. The view needs no explanation; the explosion of color, the camera's joyful tracking, brim with pleasure that is both immediate and nostalgic.

From there, it's more or less all downhill, and in a most predictable way. Spielberg had never demonstrated any knowledge of history, or even life as it is lived off a movie screen, and he utterly fails at drawing a convincing portrait of rural African-American life during the first half of this century. Nobody's life has any texture; how various people got where they are, and what they do to stay there, is never made clear. The actors most likely to indulge in caricature—notably Oprah Winfrey—dominate their scenes, turning them into one-note set-pieces of sentimentality. Danny Glover, whether with Spielberg's connivance or not, never stops trying to soften his character, an essentially cruel and unfeeling man, until he becomes so soft he no longer makes any dramatic sense. The musical score (Quincy Jones doubled as producer) is anachronistic; at one point a character listens to a jazz record years before the first one was made.

Yet as jumbled as the film is, it has moments of tremendous beauty and, more important, beauty crossed with seemingly contradictory emotions. When, early on, Celie has her infant son seized from her by her incestuous father and carried off into a snowy night, the scene, which extends from Celie's bedside, through a cabin, and out a door to the ominous figure of the father, brings forth startling echoes of, of all people, Griffith. The tenderness in the foreground is shadowed by lurking cruelty, and an abrupt shift in emotions is translated into physical action by the entrance of the grasping father. It is melodrama, all right, but in the highest sense, and the emotions, as boldly stated as they are, ring true. Love, hate, despair, and hope all coincide in a single shot.

Nothing like that recurs in The Color Purple. But it did point ahead to the next four films, films that would mark the eventual emergence of Steven Spielberg as a great filmmaker.

Henry Sheehan (essay date July-August 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5137

SOURCE: Sheehan, Henry. “Spielberg II.” Film Comment 28, no. 4 (July-August 1992): 66-71.

[In the following essay, Sheehan continues his critical appraisal of Spielberg's oeuvre, focusing on his films released after The Color Purple and placing particular emphasis on Hook.]

No critic has ever distinguished more harshly, or more narrowly, between the notions of “entertainment” and “art” than official Hollywood; a mere glance at the Academy Awards nomination lists over the years will confirm that. If you want recognition from Academy voters for something other than longevity or public charity, the best way to get it is to propose a glib cinematic resolution to a fashionable social problem, preferably (and safely) from the recent past—something Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, to name two non-Best Director winners, never did.

The Color Purple, with its tale of a rural black woman victimized by sexism, racism, and poverty, fit the Oscar bill to a tee and was duly rewarded with twelve nominations, one in virtually every major category. Except Best Director. If Steven Spielberg had never understood he was marooned on an intellectual island before, he surely must have realized it then. A keen student of Hollywood's cinematic prescriptions, he had followed the formula for Oscarhood exactly, yet wasn't adjudged worthy to be among the five finalists (Hector Babenco, for Kiss of the Spider Woman; John Huston, Prizzi's Honor; Akira Kurosawa, Ran; Peter Weir, Witness; and winner Sydney Pollack, for Out of Africa). And this despite the fact that The Color Purple, in its early reels at least, had passages of Griffith-like beauty. In Academy minds—if you'll pardon the expression—Spielberg was firmly positioned in the “entertainer” category, and no amount of artistic kowtowing was going to budge him.

How this slight affected Spielberg, an insider to the core, is impossible to judge. But it is a fact that after The Color Purple his movies—even a putatively by-the-numbers Indiana Jones sequel—became increasingly less formulaic and more complex, less selfconsciously virtuosic and more personally expressive.

The first half of Empire of the Sun ('87) was the most venturesome filmmaking Spielberg had essayed till then. The adaptation of J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel was carried out by playwright Tom Stoppard, with some uncredited help from Menno Meyjes, who had adapted Purple. It is unusually faithful, not just in plot terms but also, unlike Purple, in tone and attitude. But though there was an intersection of interest among Spielberg and the British ironists Ballard and Stoppard, the director made his own particular adjustments. Instead of using the character of a boy as a vicarious vessel of feelings, he actually invited the viewer to step back and examine rather than identify. The adventure was not just mounted for affect, but scrutinized for effect.

The boy in question is 12-year-old Jim Graham (Christian Bale), a member of the Western elite ruling the industrial-commercial precincts of prewar Shanghai from the comfort of their exclusive community. Jim's security is forever violated when the Japanese invade the city. He is separated from his parents and, following a period when he roams the streets and works with a pair of American freebooters (John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano), he and they end up spending years in a prison camp. Jim's captivity—and the film—reaches a climax following a long death march, at the end of which he is given the choice of going off with his piratical Yank friends or starting his return trip to his parents.

Aside from once again repeating the broad, overarching Peter Pan structure, Empire of the Sun also contains Spielberg's heaviest use of flight since E.T. However, for a change, the protagonist himself doesn't fly, he watches others fly; and it isn't so much flying, as the idea of flying and its metaphorical possibilities, that dominates. What matters is the sense of freedom and escape that aircraft represent to Jim, who has decorated his room to ensure that as he drifts off to sleep, models of airplanes are the last things he sees.

More importantly, Spielberg brings a profound ambivalence to these heretofore unambiguously presented notions: freedom from what? escape to what? This reconsideration is crucial in an early scene that also develops a major plot point. While chasing a glider during a party on the grounds of one of his parents' wealthy friends, Jim stumbles across a gully full of Japanese soldiers. This is a brilliant sequence in which, typically, Spielberg—working once again with Allen Daviau—presents us with a huge landscape in gorgeous deep focus. It looks as if we must be seeing everything for miles around when, suddenly, new elements—the Japanese soldiers—appear in the middle of the frame and turn the dramatic situation completely on its head. We have come a long way from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when such revelations served only to wow the audience, since the characters in the frame already knew the true nature of the landscape. Here, Jim learns for the first time what the actual nature of his and his family's predicament is. Even more significantly, the stylistic flourish informs the film thematically: increasingly, things that appear obvious and straightforward will turn out to have hidden, even inexplicable, meanings. Jim can propel his glider into the air, but he cannot control its flight.

For Empire also comes to terms with ways of not-knowing. After having indulged himself with racial stereotypes in the Indiana Jones movies, Spielberg suddenly presents the intellectual and historical origins of those stereotypes: colonial domination. As Jim is chauffeured through downtown Shanghai, he gazes safely out the windows of his limousine at the crowded masses surging through the streets; later, with similar detachment he looks out at the beggar who resides at the foot of his mansion's driveway. We look at Jim looking more than we look at what he looks at. We don't share his viewpoint, we examine it.

These opening sequences, when Jim's world falls apart, are far superior to the prison-camp episodes. Having indicated the metaphorical importance of the airplane, Spielberg overworks it with scenes of Jim worshipfully watching Zeros take off from an adjacent airfield. These passages plunge quickly into bathos (though later scenes of P-51s buzzing the camp and bombing the field are so technically accomplished that they reinvest the image with some belated exhilaration).

Worse are the prison camp's GIs, impossibly cocky weisenheimers who act like overdrawn rejects from wartime propaganda—a far cry from the more realistic figures in Ballard's novel. They do retain some value, however, by serving as counterpoint to the film's other band of prisoners, the English civilians of Jim's old neighborhood. Both groups react to imprisonment by retreating to childish behavior. The Americans become naughty Lost Boys, ever plotting against their brutal Japanese warders. The English are still more perniciously infantilized. They become passive, whiny, dependent on whoever is willing to do them a favor or kindness. As he briefly did in Twilight Zone, Spielberg now depicts reversion to childhood as something less than the unmitigated joy it is in his other films. The swaggering exaggeration of the GIs' personalities, one of the major divergences from Ballard, suggests that Spielberg particularly wanted to emphasize this ambivalence.

Sex intrudes into childhood more directly, if only briefly, than ever before. Although, Pan-like, Jim leads a separate existence as the camp ragamuffin, he is nominally under the charge of a proper English couple, the Victors (Peter Gale and Miranda Richardson). From his nearby cot one night—and many other nights too, for all we know—Jim surreptitiously gazes on the couple as they begin the arduous struggle of locking their starved bodies together in love. Mrs. Victor, a waspish version of the slim, wan-faced Spielbergian mom, catches Jim at it and quickly puts an end to the proceedings.

The film's most disturbingly beautiful moment also refers indirectly to Jim's perceptions of mother. While still free on the streets of Shanghai, he had lured his shady American benefactors back to his house, holding out the lure of forgotten cash left inside. Arriving at night, Jim glimpses revolving figures dressed in what looks like chiffon silhouetted behind the windows of his home and assumes his old way of life has rematerialized as suddenly and mysteriously as it disappeared. Jumping off the Yanks' truck, he runs joyfully to the door, shouting to his mother; the door bursts open and gowned samurai run out to seize him and his friends. The scene plays as dream sliding into nightmare, and points ahead to the increasingly neurotic preoccupations that will underlie Spielberg's late films.

After Empire of the Sun, Spielberg returned for a final adventure with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ('89). Clearly dissatisfied with the series at this point, Spielberg and his writers tried to broaden the character of their hero, with a prologue of his derring-do adolescence and the presence of his father as a major character. As ever, though, idiocies competed hot and heavy with the now-superlative technique. Indy's father (Sean Connery), a Moses-like figure of knowledge and instruction, totes what looks for all the world like a Jungian dream-book. Unfortunately, this record of recalled oceanic memory is a guide to an unholy conflation of the Grail myth with the actual history of the Crusades, a combination that stays mired in the pulp in which it was born. And the Nazis, in a return engagement as the bad guys, are more out of Clampett and Jones than Sturm und Drang.

On the other hand, a scene in which Indiana has to scramble around the outside of a speeding tank, though rhythmically monotonous, at least adheres to a realistic, and consistent, physical environment. And Indiana has more than a treasure at stake; he wants the respect of his father. Most intriguing is the fit of sexual jealousy Indiana experiences when he discovers that his father has already slept with a woman whom Indy covets; that the woman (Alison Doody) turns out to be a Nazi who betrays them both only adds to the Oedipal mix.

A sense of relief hangs over the final image, surely the longest ride off into a sunset ever put on film. As Indiana and crew canter toward the horizon, it's easy to imagine Spielberg standing next to his camera, waving goodbye and making sure they're gone.

For if Last Crusade was deliberately outward-looking, a calculated audience-pleaser, Spielberg's next film, the 1989 fantasy Always, would be the filmmaker's most idiosyncratic. It is a film that can be appreciated only on its own terms, lovingly crafted in an archaic Hollywood language nearly forgotten now but classical in its time. Watching Always is like witnessing the liberation of a consciousness, as the film skips gracefully back and forth between ideas about friendship, death, inspiration, art, imagination, and love. The tone ranges nearly as far, its medley of humor, nostalgia, wistfulness, and poignance shifting in emphasis from one unsettling moment to the next.

Aside from being so damn good, Always is also an anomaly in Spielberg's oeuvre, the most thematically and stylistically distinct of his works. And so it might appear tangential, even inconveniently so, in an essay devoted to continuity in the filmmaker's output. However, in terms of character, emotional realism, and an appreciation of ambivalence, it is absolutely key—the leap in sophistication that would make Hook's eloquence possible.

Building on the Forties romantic fantasy A Guy Named Joe ('44)—with Dalton Trumbo's screenplay reworked by Jerry Belson and Diane Thomas—Always tells the story of Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss), the star member of an elite corps of firefighters who douse forest fires with water and chemicals from low-flying, converted B-26s. Pete has just succeeded in bringing his long-simmering romance with air controller Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter) to the brink of marriage when, following a night of prenuptial love, he dies performing spectacular heroics saving the life of his best friend and fellow pilot, Al Yackey (John Goodman). In death, Pete is returned to Earth where he serves as guardian angel and inspiration to Ted Baker (Brad Johnson), a clumsy and tongue-tied would-be pilot. Pete not only saves Ted from flunking out of firefighters' flight school, now being run by Al; to his chagrin, he also helps direct handsome Ted into the arms of a mourning Dorinda. His dander up, the dead pilot uses every considerable trick at his disposal to hold on to Dorinda's now-impossible love until an angel, Hap (Audrey Hepburn), upbraids him for his selfishness. In the climax, Pete guides Dorinda through a suicidal firefighting run, helping her not just to save the lives of trapped firemen on the ground, but also to regain the will to live and love again.

This fairly detailed plot synopsis evokes a likely Spielberg project, complete with the familiar wish-fulfillment fantasies and adventures. Yet none of his other films' climaxes had ever pivoted on a change of heart by the hero; to the contrary, previously everyone and everything else might change but the hero's essence was set in concrete. In Always, Pete undergoes a profound spiritual change—in death, to be sure, but nonetheless triumphant for that.

Even the most apparently modest action sequences are richer, more expressive, and consequently more beautiful. In one scene Ted and Dorinda are driving to town on an errand. Dorinda still doesn't know what to make of the good-looking but clunky pilot and has been keeping him at arm's length, despite an inchoate attraction. As they motor along, Ted tries to soften her up, indulging in a pisspoor John Wayne imitation while the spirit of Pete sits in the backseat and alternately comments on and encourages Ted's gaucherie.

Up ahead of the car, Ted and Dorinda see a school bus veering all over the road. They pull past it and, as it stops, rush back to see the driver stumble out and, clutching his chest, fall to the ground. As Ted provides CPR, the driver's double—obviously his spirit—suddenly appears standing next to Pete. Pete congratulates him on pulling the bus to the roadside in time to save the kids on board. But the body on the ground begins to stir. The spirit disappears, the driver comes back to life, and Dorinda, who has witnessed Ted performing competently for the first time, gazes at him with new admiration.

By the end of this scene, the relationship among the three principals has undergone a sea-change, all accomplished through an economically limned bit of action. Whereas earlier Spielberg might have pounded us with shots of terrified kids on the bus, here he respects the points of view of Pete, Dorinda, and Ted, never wandering from their perspectives; he shows us the kids just enough to indicate that the bus is full. Initially, the tone is set by the needling dialogue and the easy manner of its delivery, then shifts to confusion, terror, anxiety, poignance, excitement, and relief—a veritable record for Spielberg. Most of all, the scene has no meaning except what it derives from the participants; they imbue the action with significance, not the other way around.

However singular an achievement Always is, it does clarify ideas and motifs that Spielberg had been grappling with and would pursue in Hook. For one thing, love is depicted as a potentially dangerous and selfish emotion, as destructive as it is nurturing. And in the presence of women, men are childish, almost willfully so. Action is no longer enacted for its own sake, but as an indication of some internal change. And finally, although he had at least temporarily abandoned the attempt to re-create historically or sociologically accurate environments, Spielberg had discovered that fantasy was a fit setting for psychological insight. Indeed, as the settings and actions in Always—and then Hook—become progressively more fanciful, the characters and the emotions they express become more acutely human.

Having discovered the sense of psychological realism necessary to make his fantasies not just plausible but, in a larger sense, true, Spielberg next took on the modern-day fairy tale that had been the central animating motif in his work. (A note here: I have an immense aversion to the way the word myth has been so glibly abused and cheapened in discussions about film; at Hollywood lunches it's probably the most frequently uttered word after “money” and its synonyms, while in criticism it has become indistinguishable from “stereotype.” So, while the Peter Pan story may have some mythic resonances for Spielberg—in the sense of revealing an aspect of the world or explaining a natural phenomenon—fairy tale,children's story, and fantasy are more than adequate terms for the matter at hand.)

Our serialized format obliges me to recapitulate the plot here: Peter Banning (Robin Williams), successful head of a mergers-and-acquisitions firm, has been unable to take time from work to give to his children, Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott). Together with his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall), he takes them on a trip to London and the home of the woman who was his first foster mother, Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith). While Peter is giving the keynote speech at a dinner honoring Granny Wendy—who has spent her life helping orphans and who, as a child, was one of the children for whom J. M. Barrie spun his tales—his kids are mysteriously kidnapped. The police can find no clues—disregarding as a hoax a note signed “James Hook”—and Granny Wendy tells a disbelieving Peter that he is in fact Peter Pan, and that his children have been seized by his arch-nemesis Captain Hook. Finally, Peter is surprised in the nursery by the fairy Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts), who transports him to Never Land. There he confronts Hook (Dustin Hoffman), meets the Lost Boys, and, after much deliberate work and some accidental inspiration, recovers the memory and magic—he can fly—of his childhood as Peter Pan. He fights Hook to regain his children—whom the Captain is trying to brainwash into becoming his wards—and, bidding adieu to the Lost Boys, brings his family back together.

As we have seen, the plot itself is enough to throw every previous Spielberg film into an overarching pattern. Here, in one form or another, is every characterization, every story structure, and every emotional development from Duel ('71) to Always. Yet what strikes the eye at first is how different Hook is from earlier Spielberg. After plumbing the most distant depths of deep-focus cinematography with Mikael Salomon in Always, the director, here working with cameraman Dean Cundey, gives Hook an unprecedentedly, pointedly flattened visual field.

Not that things begin that way. Using closeups and open-ended compositions, Spielberg commences the action with a scene of parents and children enjoying a school production of Barrie's Peter Pan. A series of shots that start from the back of the stage unites the smiling audience with the amateur performances until Peter Banning comes into view, answering the portable phone in his pocket and literally turning away from the stage. Throughout the film, art, in its various guises, is depicted as part of life's very foundations: school plays, children's stories, and ornamental decor are some of its overt manifestations, but shadowplay, dress-up, and make-believe also adorn the action. Peter's growing ability, or willingness, to engage in these activities is part of his salvation.

Far from being a toughminded entertainer, in Hook Spielberg reveals himself as a radical aesthete. Banning, who has had extraordinary problems tolerating, never mind enjoying, his children, can do so unconsciously through the screen of art. Before he goes off to the testimonial with Granny Wendy, he finds the old woman huddled under a sheet with his Jack and Maggie in the nursery. They're huddled around a lamp, their shadows forming distinctive silhouettes against the white sheet—something like figures on a movie screen—and Peter, who had screamed at the children to leave him alone not long before, smiles in teary affection. Not that that stops him from taking Granny Wendy away.

When Wendy fruitlessly tries to persuade Peter that he is Pan, not Banning, she holds up a copy of one of the Pan stories turned to an illustration in the style of (if not actually by) F. D. Bedford. The striking, foregrounded figure of Peter, arms akimbo, stands against a fuzzy, somewhat impressionistic background. When Peter gets to Never Land, that make-believe world looks exactly like that: foregrounded figures boldly colorful, backgrounds smeary and in quieter tones.

When Peter tumbles from the sky into Never Land, he ends up underneath a burlap cloth and peers out through a convenient hole, one that looks exactly like a peephole in a stage curtain. And no sooner does he come to, than Tinkerbell has him costumed, dressing up and acting as a pirate.

This preoccupation with art comes to suffuse every detail of the film. One of the key transformations is Peter's ability to imagine, as the Lost Boys do, a make-believe feast. After the food, or the illusion of food, appears, Peter and the boys get into a food fight; what they throw are not actual morsels but brightly dyed handfuls of something with the consistency of mud—fistfuls of pure color, as it were. And when Peter has finally vanquished Hook and, after a bow, takes his leave of Never Land, he vaults off into the sky. As he disappears, an invisible dissolve and a track back reveal the sky to be the illustrated wall panels of his children's nursery. Peter, who could not even look at a play before, has merged with art's memorial power. After his return, the focus begins to deepen once again, to become more naturalistic, more “real.”

But art's therapeutic value is not the only, or even the principal, concern of Hook. Peter Banning's problematic relationship with his kids is only the most overt and undesirable symptom of a deeper problem.

Although Spielberg's films are usually described as warm or even exhilarating and euphoric, their most prevalent temper is anxiety. Every Spielberg hero from Duel onward is, to one extent or another, worried that he is failing at some essentially male role, either lover or father. In Hook these twin fears are merged in Peter, who is plainly a poor father and who, less conspicuously, wants to retreat from the issue of sex in general.

We never see Peter Banning in a home where he is the head of the household. We do see him at the office, running late for one of Jack's Little League games; there he is acting like a child in a mock game of quick-draw. And we see him in an airplane, all nervous with fright. When he does enter a house it is Granny Wendy's. Greeted at the door by the maid, he blusters into the hallway barking out orders to his kids until suddenly the camera tilts up. There, looming at the head of the stairs, is the dimly lit Granny Wendy saying “Hello, boy.” In one small camera move, Peter changes from a dominant to a subordinate player; with one line of dialogue he goes from a man to a child.

Not that he seems to object. Earlier, his lapses as a parent were mainly failures of omission: showing up late for a ballgame, not paying mind at the play. In the home of his stepmother these become sins of commission: Peter pulls, pushes, yells at, and actively rejects his kids. In fact, the whole purpose of his trip is to commemorate his childishness by speaking at Granny Wendy's testimonial. There, in a huge banquet hall barely lit by spooky green table lamps, Peter addresses a roomful of middle-aged adults, all of whom glory in their status as children—former wards of Granny Wendy. And Peter is the pet, the most loyal and effusive of all.

But of course, Peter cannot be a child while he is also a parent. So back at home, Peter's kids are done away with, vanishing on the wind that heralds the arrival of Captain Hook. That wind also blows in on the testimonial dinner, throwing an alarmed Granny Wendy to the floor, but not seriously disturbing a giddily happy Peter.

Jack and Maggie are gone because Peter has wished them gone. Hook is merely the agent of Peter's most secret, repressed desires, and as such is his mirror image. When Peter first confronts Hook and is taunted by the mustachioed pirate into attempting a rescue, his failure to do so is deeply ambiguous, the result partly of physical shortcoming but also partly of nerve and, hence, desire. Tinkerbell brings Peter to the island of Lost Boys, where Peter Banning should remember his youth as Peter Pan. That memory should restore his powers.

Although Peter attempts a physically exhausting initiation into the Lost Boys' company, what finally provokes his childhood memory is that food fight. It begins when Peter and the head Lost Boy, the suspicious and foulmouthed Rufio (Dante Basco), get into a shouting exchange of scatological invective. The fecal consistency of the thrown food confirms the combined regressive/progressive nature of Peter's development.

But the topper comes later still, after Peter has been hit on the head by a long-traveling baseball he had earlier witnessed Jack hit in a buccaneer baseball game. After seeing his childhood image reflected back at him in some water, he stumbles over to a thick tree where he finds his long-ago hideaway. Inside, with the help of Tink, Peter casts back to the days when Wendy wasn't Granny Wendy but Wendy Darling. He remembers leaving his mother as a baby and being unable to fly through her bedroom window when he tried to return to her as a boy. But he found Wendy's bedroom window open, and for years played with her, until the time when he suddenly realized she wasn't his age anymore, but a grandmother. Immediately upon learning this, he had turned to a bed in her room and seen a girl sleeping there—Wendy's granddaughter Moira, Peter's future wife. Seeing her, he kisses her and his childhood comes to an end.

Wendy had always represented mother and lover to Peter, a conflict that kept him locked in an eternal prepubescent childhood. But the discovery of Moira, a veritable double for Wendy, puts him in the best of all possible worlds, one in which his lover is the mirror image of his mother. The discovery of Moira enables Peter to begin his untroubled passage into sexual maturity; he leaves Never Land forever. In fact, he entirely forgets his life as a child and his ambivalent, yet innocent, love for Wendy. However, Moira's position as Peter's mother/lover is upset when she has children of her own. Not only must they evoke in Peter a vague memory of troubling feelings—they usurp his privileged position in his own household. His trip to Wendy's house, and his subsequent aggression towards his children, is an attempt to reassert that position. For before he shows up in London, he had not seen Granny Wendy for ten years—or virtually the entire lifetimes of his children.

This time around, Peter comes to terms with his sexuality. By remembering his childhood at the same time he realizes he is a parent, he is able to fly again, to soar over his problems and acquire the power that will eventually allow him to rescue his kids. And when the boyish Tinkerbell assumes humansized dimensions and offers herself as a playmate for a whole new eternal childhood, Peter declines, announcing his preference for Moira's more adult and womanly charms.

Hey, but Hook doesn't just have sex—it has death, too.

After an ersatz suicide attempt, staged to provoke mothering by his first mate Smee (Bob Hoskins), Hook gazes in an array of mirrors and muses aloud, “After all, who can imagine a world without Hook?” Well, anyone can imagine a world without Hook, unless of course he is Hook. A world without oneself is no world at all.

This emphasizes Hook's role as Peter's dark double; Never Land is the world of Peter's unresolved desires, and Hook, who wants to steal Peter's children, and thus relieve him of the burdens and reminders of his and especially Moira's parenthood, is as surely a projection of Peter as the rest of the psychic landscape. As long as Peter exists in this unresolved state, Hook must exist as well.

Hook is an obsessive enemy of time. Once literally hunted by time in the form of the crocodile that had swallowed a ticking pocketwatch, Hook has erected a museum of smashed time-pieces, all forever halted. Hook knows his very existence depends on stasis, on stopping Peter's emotional clock, so that he remains a symbol of fixed adulthood. As the head of a band of muscular, rough-and-tumble pirates, he embodies potent masculinity, and in pursuit of that embodiment he spends an inordinate amount of time on his appearance, waxing his mustache, caring for his highly polished hooks, and brushing dust from his clothes. Even when he tries to demoralize Jack and Maggie with stories of how they annoy their parents, it is by contrasting the parents' carefree youth with their careworn child-caring years.

In fact, during his climactic duel with Peter, Hook turns out to be a very old man indeed; his aging is a function of Peter's actions, which reflect his own internal growth. And Hook's death finally comes in the jaws of that very crocodile, now stuffed and mounted in the shape of a clock tower.

In the naturalistic way symbols interact with characters, the way landscape and decor both define the people within them and serve as projections of the interior states of those people, and in the way the camera glides through the action with a somnambulist's dreamy vision, Hook recalls the work of Vincente Minnelli. Spielberg definitely shares Minnelli's conviction that truth is to be found in dreams and hallucinations, that plain truths are to be discovered in extraordinary states.

What Hook,Always, and Empire of the Sun tell us is that what we want is what we have; that no matter how frightening or impossible or extravagant our desires may appear to be, we can manage to fulfill them without harm if we maintain a generosity of spirit.

Peter Banning did have a great and wonderful adventure, but it took a flight of fancy to assure him that he had it in the nursery, in the bedroom, and in the family rooms of his own households. By revisiting a classic children's tale, Spielberg has shown how what is born within us as children guides us through maturity, if we are just willing to use art to remember and to reconcile. And that is a theme rich enough, and put so eloquently, as to be worthy of any artist.

Jonathan Romney (review date 16 July 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095

SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “Little Monsters.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 4143 (16 July 1993): 34-5.

[In the following review, Romney identifies the major thematic concerns of Jurassic Park.]

One of the most memorable images in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park comes when a Tyrannosaurus Rex rears up in triumph and a banner flutters down, reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth”. It's a nice self-congratulatory touch, reminding us how far saurian cinema has come in sophistication since the 1969 film of that name. But it also points out that now is the time when the big scaly ones reign supreme. Much of Jurassic Park is charged with messages—not so subliminal either—directly concerning the film's own status as an unvanquishable monster.

It was a foregone conclusion that the huge marketing industry attached to the film would make Jurassic Park and its subject matter a worldwide preoccupation. So it's tempting to suggest that Jurassic Park isn't really about dinosaurs at all. Perhaps the dinosaurs are simply the incarnation of whatever it is that the film's really about: the unthinkable, the sublime, or maybe just the downright bloody huge. It's certainly plausible to see them as the latest manifestation of that transcendental object of awe that keeps appearing in Spielberg films: the shimmering phantoms released at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the angelic aliens in Close Encounters or, more portentously, the Hiroshima mushroom cloud that the young hero of Empire of the Sun mistakes for a soul rising up to heaven.

There is indeed a brief transcendental moment in Jurassic Park, but it comes towards the beginning, when the scientists visiting the dinosaur theme park run by jolly billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) gape in awe at a herd of long-necked saurians grazing in the sun.

Their immediate reaction, and ours, is “Can such things be?”; then we think “How do they do it?” and the spell is dissipated. We know we're dealing with a special effects demonstration, and the only question is what other tricks the film will go on to pull (remarkable ones, as it happens, not least a thundering herd of ostrich-like gallomimuses).

But there's no real sense of awe in Jurassic Park. Nothing's unveiled as it is in the other films (remember the excruciating slow buildup of Close Encounters?). There's something oddly casual about the film, like a mountebank revealing the Eighth Wonder of the World, then showing you a bigger, better one. It has a curious agenda; it knows its job, which is to present breathtaking illusions, but it also wants us to know they're illusions so that we don't get too impressed and forget the other more serious topics on its mind.

Foremost among those are, of course, questions of the environment and of nature. At heart, Jurassic Park is an old-fashioned science-gone-too-far movie, and the role of its scientist heroes (Sam Neill, Laura Dern and chaos theorist Jeff Goldblum) is to wave a warning finger about how you just can't mess with nature. At one point, it's discovered that the dinosaurs on Attenborough's island, cloned from DNA and designed to act artificially, are spontaneously doing odd things such as changing sex, thus eluding their programmed behaviour. Horror of horrors, they're turning natural. So Jeff Goldblum was right when he fulminated, “Life will not be contained! Life finds a way!”

In case we're not sure what kind of life the film has in mind, there are plenty of children on hand to remind us. Early on, Neill's character, a confirmed infantophobe, lectures a boy on the horrors of being eaten alive and cautions him “Have some respect”. For the rest of the film, he's obliged to swallow his child-loathing and protect Hammond's cute, computer and fossil-literate grandchildren.

The film's real story is about his learning to love kids: to stop being a big kid himself and become a daddy, tender, protective and in touch with nature. Clearly, this is a complex running through Spielberg's films. As in his irksome Peter Pan fantasy Hook, they always scratch at the itchy problem of boys becoming men.

Of course, you always know that Neill will get in touch with the daddy within. You can tell right from the beginning when he's carping away about how he hates kids, and Laura Dern gives an indulgent little smile, because she—his destined mate—knows him better than he knows himself. And when the final image of the film is a redemptive flight of storks, you hold your breath waiting for the nappies to be unpacked. (An ornithologist friend points out that they are in fact pelicans. That may be true, but I recognise a symbolic stork when I see one.)

Curiously, though, Neill also confesses to hating computers (which kids, of course, love). The film itself hates technology, too. It can't wait to jettison the computer graphics and hardware and get to grips with the thrill of prehistory. Paradoxically, everything that's modish is condemned as old-hat, commonplace sci-fi stuff.

What makes the film “new”—hyper-modern—is its embrace of the ancient. There's another similar distinction at work between the unimaginably huge dinosaurs and the inconceivably small scale on which they're created. These monsters are the product of microgenics, cloned out of DNA taken from the blood of prehistoric mosquitoes.

In fact, Spielberg's monsters are created in much the same way. Many of these lumbering titans are actually computer-generated—built out of thousands upon thousands of minuscule pixels, artfully manipulated just as Hammond's scientists manipulate the DNA chain. So the film is supremely conscious of the process of its own making, which it reproduces in its subject matter. But it's also curiously embarrassed. Like Neill, the film hates computers, although it's obliged to use them.

Wouldn't it be better, it implies, if this all were real? Hammond himself, reminiscing about a flea circus he once ran, says he created Jurassic Park because he wanted to show the world “something that wasn't an illusion”; to which Dern retorts, “It still is a flea circus … It's all an illusion.”

Hence the film confesses to its own rather pathetic bad faith. Jurassic Park marvels at its own image-making, but hates the means it uses to achieve it. It revels in the act of creation, but despairs at the idea that it's all bread and circuses. Making artificial monsters is no kind of creation, the film suggests; natural reproduction is. Spielberg gives us the time of our lives treating us like impressionable kids; but at heart he feels we should be concerning ourselves with more adult business. His next film is about Auschwitz.

Mark Amory (review date 17 July 1993)

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SOURCE: Amory, Mark. “Bronto Buster.” Spectator 271, no. 8610 (17 July 1993): 37-8.

[In the following review, Amory provides a mixed assessment of Jurassic Park, concluding that the movie is predictable and exhibits a lack of energy and imagination.]

You haven't read the book, you never wore the tee-shirt, you missed the comic, the ice-cream special and the not-so-cuddly toys, now you can skip the movie. Jurassic Park was designed to make money, it has taken more in one day than any film has ever done before and is heading for the world record, so it is perfect. Also it is on purpose: Spielberg has achieved the film he wanted. Criticism will be about as effective at stopping the advance of this monster as arrows bouncing off a triceratops.

Still, for the record, the structure is odd. Part of Spielberg's great talent is that in his adventure films he gets the tone right: what we are seeing proclaims itself as tosh, but the best, the most confident, the most exhilarating tosh. Films about dinosaurs are certainly tosh and nothing else. Forget scientific discoveries: if we wanted those we could find them in some learned journal. What is required is some probably British actor (Jonathan Pryce would be fine if Kenneth Branagh is away), possibly wearing a beard, to say, ‘By George! I do believe we have cracked it at last.’ Instead of which we get over 40 minutes of lecture about DNA and genetic engineering, which is in any case incomprehensible.

There is a story that Ken Russell at one of the lower spots of his tenacious career was offered the script for Alternative States by the prestigious Paddy Chayevsky but told that he must not change or cut a word of it. So he made the actors shout it at one another as fast as possible while laying on exotic visuals and it all worked well. Here the script could have simply been junked. The hype holds us expectant of wonders to come, while we take in the people.

When Sam Neill appeared in My Brilliant Career he seemed destined for one of his own, but it never quite happens. This time he is allowed no characteristics except the welcome one in a Spielberg film of disliking children; naturally he ends up with his arms round two little mites and a smile on his face although he is up a tree feeding a brachiosaurus at the time. His romantic interest, Laura Dern, is quite pretty. Richard Attenborough, a possible last resort for mad scientist, twinkles lovably, which is inappropriate as the obsessive billionaire who is ruthlessly using science for his own ends, a course disapproved of by the equally surprisingly cast Jeff Goldblum, who mutters about chaos theory and the awesome power of genetics. His forebodings are pointless, though, as we all know that the monsters are bound to rampage all over the island where they have been conjured up to make a theme park.

And eventually they do and they are very convincing and, I am sure, better than anybody else's and there are lots of them and it is all fairly exciting but utterly predictable. A couple of nasty medium-sized ones chase some children round a sort of high-tech kitchen but I rather think you can guess whether they catch them. Just as in lesser monster movies, the effects are so special that there seems to have been little energy or imagination left to think of something to do with them.

Spielberg's speciality used to be childlike awe and we get some here but it is watched not felt. The actors have to stand around registering amazement over a sick monster while we just think that this one is a bit plastic-looking. There is a suggestion that some creatures may turn into birds and fly off into the sunset and Jurassic Park 2, which presumably will be worse.

Still, Spielberg remains the master even when his imagination does not seem engaged and I should record that there was applause at the end. There is little blood (except for a routine severed arm) and my seven-year-old daughter said it was the best film she had ever seen and has not had nightmares. So 5 from me and 9 from her.

Richard Alleva (review date 13 August 1993)

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SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “Big Stupid Fun.” Commonweal 120, no. 14 (13 August 1993): 18-20.

[In the following excerpt, Alleva argues that Jurassic Park demonstrates Spielberg's skill as a gifted entertainer but asserts that Spielberg “is losing the human touch” of his earlier films.]

“Big Fun” is what a children's librarian I know promises to the kids who join her summer reading club. Yet what does she give them once they turn in the lists of books they've read? Rubber spiders, plastic bracelets, sea-horse combs, free ice cream, connect-the-dots puzzles, paperback books, and magic shows performed by apprentice prestidigitators. It doesn't matter. The kids read diligently, turn in their lists proudly, and revel in their measly rewards. Conviction carries the day. Because she believes in the importance of the program, so do the kids. And Big Fun is had by one and all.

Of course, these same kids know where Really Big Fun is to be had during the summer. At the movies. This summer the designated megahits are Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park and the John McTiernan-Arnold Schwarzenegger Last Action Hero.

Jurassic Park is all about dinosaurs, and for most kids dinosaurs are the very definition of Big Fun. Spielberg's are wonderful. It's not so much that you take them for real as that you marvel at the deftness of the manufacture. At the end of the movie, the paleontologist-hero played by Sam Neill, having survived several dinosaur attacks, bemusedly gazes at a bird flying past his vehicle. You sense what he's thinking. So this is what's left of the awesome monsters: gentled by evolution into harmless birds. But when I drove away from the theater, it wasn't birds I was rediscovering. Instead, I found myself registering faint waves of unease each time I pulled in or out of the paths of trucks. The noise and power of rigs kept reminding me of what Spielberg had evoked on screen: not the strangeness of ancient animal life but the crushing monstrosity of big machinery. Watching monster vehicles grind each other to smithereens is entertainment for some people. Jurassic Park is a slightly upscale version of those destruction shows.

Did it work for me? Not quite. Oh, I enjoyed myself, and I still think of Spielberg as a gifted entertainer. He is never content to merely photograph the amazing saurian inventions of his engineers but insists on investing his moviemaking with its own delights. He is a master craftsman who knows how to foreshadow, counterpoint, encapsulate, build a crescendo, manage a decrescendo. And so certain moments linger in the mind: the sight of water trembling in a glass just before we hear the footsteps of the tyrannosaurus rex; the screeching of a car's wheels turning over in a rut suddenly answered by the remarkably similar sounds of the king dinosaur's cry; a smaller but equally vicious raptor wavers for a split second in its onslaught on three humans and actually seems to grin as it decides whom to attack first.

And yet this movie sadly confirmed for me the fact that Spielberg is growing more and more careless and even callous in his storytelling. When he isn't wowing us with cliffhanging suspense and unusual images, he is often bungling details of action and characterization. As befits a movie that features both the huge brachiosaurus and the much smaller coelophysis, there are both macro and micro stupidities in this movie.

Macro examples, first. The basic idea of a park filled with huge, infinitely dangerous monsters controlled merely by computers (those neurotic and unreliable machines!) and only partially charged electric fences seems the brainchild of a peculiarly self-destructive crackpot. Yet the entrepreneur of Jurassic Park, as written by Michael Crichton and winsomely played by Richard Attenborough, is meant to be basically sane, feyly charming, wholly benevolent. And it is this jolly old Santa Claus of a capitalist who gleefully allows his beloved grandchildren to be the first tourists in the park even after he's been warned that the more intelligent of the saurians have been testing the fences for nonelectric segments! And why would a millionaire with his pick of the best computer experts in the world hire an obviously sleazy, mercenary, and uncaring slob to cybernate his potentially lethal amusement park? (I've recently learned from readers of Crichton's novel that the book's millionaire is a greedy megalomaniac. Now that makes sense!)

Now, micro examples. If the hero knows that dinosaurs are attracted to movement, why does he bolt from the adequate shelter of a large rock in order to run away in full view? Why do monsters who can't hear the loud chatter of humans hiding in a kitchen with echoing acoustics suddenly hear the drop of a ladle to the floor? Why does the hero, who has just discovered his fatherly instincts while protecting Attenborough's grandchildren, pretend in full view of the kids, who are understandably in a state of near-shock, to touch a live wire and suffer death by electrocution? The moment is meant to be funny but comes across as sadistic. And what has happened to Spielberg's skill at directing children? The young actors here are allowed to bicker so obnoxiously that I finally wanted to see them become saurian snacks. All this demonstrates that Spielberg no longer knows how to put real toads in his imaginary gardens. He is losing the human touch that made the fantasies Close Encounters and E.T. convincing and poignant as well as eye-popping.

None of this makes any difference whatsoever to the thousands of kids who have lined up to see the movie. They have come to see big beasts on the loose making mouthfuls of us little, less interesting beasts. And that is exactly what they get. Jurassic Park is Big Fun all right. But some of it is just Big Stupid Fun.

Leon Wieseltier (review date 24 January 1994)

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SOURCE: Wieseltier, Leon. “Close Encounters of the Nazi Kind.” New Republic 210, no. 4 (24 January 1994): 42.

[In the following review, Wieseltier counters the prevailing positive critical reception of Schindler's List, contending that the film is self-conscious and glib and fails to fully grasp its subject matter.]

One must have a heart of stone to watch Schindler's List without crying; but it is also a part of Steven Spielberg's achievement to have fulfilled every director's dream, which is to make a film that will bring about a collapse of criticism. All the adulation somewhat astonishes me. What is at stake, it begins to seem, is the honor of Hollywood. Here is a big and grim movie about the biggest and grimmest subject, and its final frame says “For Steve Ross.” Gravity has made peace with the grosses. Of course, gravity in Hollywood is a random force: a few years ago the American people were instructed with moral and visual eloquence that Lyndon B. Johnson conspired to murder John F. Kennedy. So we have a little luck to be thankful for. This time the subject was right for the eloquence.

But there is a sense in which the American people was owed this film. For no figure in American culture has worked harder to stupefy it, to stuff it with illusion, to deny the reality of evil, to blur the distinction between fantasy and fact, and to preach the child's view of the world than Steven Spielberg. In the years when filmmakers and poets and novelists and painters and composers were wrestling with the possibility, or the impossibility, of treating radical evil in art, Spielberg was teaching actors to sculpt mountains out of mashed potatoes in anticipation of their redemption by cuddly visitors from another planet. Oh, it was well done, and it was enchanting. But the inverse proportion between the maturity of the technology and the maturity of the worldview was so great that finally Spielberg's work came to seem like a genial cynicism, which is Hollywood's cynicism of choice.

Now the critics, almost every one of them, are demanding that we celebrate this man's late passage into adulthood as a turning point in the culture. They say that he has made a “masterpiece.” Does none of them see how hale and self-regarding Schindler's List is? Its renunciation of color is adduced as a sign of its stringency; but the black and white of this film is riper than most color. (The Ghetto of Madame de …, I thought during its first hour.) The glints and the gleams are smart. The edges of the frame are faded. (The film is designed to look like a restored print of itself.) The shadows are exquisite. The darkness of this film about darkness, in sum, is gorgeous. And its gorgeousness gives it away. For it is a sign that Spielberg has not grasped his material, that the old relation between skill and understanding still obtains.

I refer not merely to the film's mistakes. (Its Jewish mistakes are the most annoying ones: when they enter the ghetto, for example, the Jews of Kraków greet each other in Israeli Hebrew.) I refer, rather, to the complete absence from this film of any humility before its subject. This is not material, after all, that is easily mastered. Traces of difficulty, therefore, are signs of seriousness. But there are no traces of difficulty in Schindler's List. Very robustly Spielberg just barrels through. His camera confidently follows naked Jewish women right through the door of the “showers” at Auschwitz, which turn out to be, in this case, showers. This sadistic trick was played on a cousin of mine, who walked into, and then out of, the gas chamber at Auschwitz. I have reflected a long time on her experience, and I must say that there is a point beyond which my mind has failed to follow her. The point is the door.

The power of realism in art is owed to the continuity between the world which it makes and the world in which, and for which, it is made. For this reason, the realistic depiction of radical evil must end, if it is to stay honest, where the continuity ends. The smooth segue of Spielberg's camera from life outside the door of the gas chamber to life inside the door of the gas chamber shows that no discontinuity has been observed. No limit has been met. No rupture has reared itself. The mind of the movie-maker has not hit a bump. But there is a more egregious example of Spielberg's inausterity, of his misplaced David Leanism. In 1944, as the Red Army approached, the commandant of the concentration camp at Plaszow was ordered to open the mass graves and exhume the bodies of the thousands of Jews who were murdered during the liquidation of the ghetto in Kraków in 1943 (the liquidation of the ghetto is the most unforgettable passage in Spielberg's film) and to burn the bodies in pits. Anybody who has seen photographs or films of these fiery, open-air charnels knows that the camera has probably never recorded a sight more obscene. But here was a director, and wardrobe and makeup, poring over the tone of charred flesh, the hollowing of rotted skulls, the disposition of mangled bones, to get it right. What on earth did they think they were doing? Do they really think that they got it right?

The scene is chilling, but the scene is a facsimile; and so the greater the verisimilitude, the lesser the verisimilitude. There are facsimiles that are chilling merely for having been made. Schindler's List proves again that, for Spielberg, there is a power in the world that is greater than good and greater than evil, and it is the movies. He is hardly alone in this cineaste's theodicy. Thus, a few weeks after the film opened, a good and learned friend of mine remarked that it opened not a moment too soon, with “Holocaust revisionism” loose in the land. I retorted that it is wrong and abject to believe that the Holocaust needs “proving,” even if The New Yorker recently published an essay, bizarrely called “Evidence of Evil,” and more bizarrely called, on the magazine's cover, “Bringing Auschwitz Back to Life,” in which it acclaimed the discovery by a penitent Holocaust revisionist in France of the “one single proof” that an impenitent Holocaust revisionist in France had demanded. The discussion about “Holocaust revisionism” is not a “debate” between a “view” that it happened and a “view” that it did not happen; it is a war between a truth and a disease. More to the point, Spielberg's movie does not “prove” a thing, since it is only a movie. In the matter of the Holocaust, too, Hollywood must not be mistaken for history. It will be a good thing if Schindler's List brings down the number of Americans who wonder whether the Holocaust really happened, but it will not be a great thing.

I do not doubt that the glibness of Spielberg's film (though there is nothing glib about Ben Kingsley's or Ralph Fiennes's performance) is glibness in a good cause. But Americans are quickly moved. There is something a little exhilarating about all these tears. I'd prefer a bit more stunning into silence. Americans escape easily from reality and they are not easily returned to it; and Schindler's List dispatches them in both directions. It transports its audience to the basest moment in history and calls it a wrap.

David Bromwich (review date 14 February 1994)

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SOURCE: Bromwich, David. “Schindler's Secret Revolt.” New Leader 77, no. 2 (14 February 1994): 20-1.

[In the following review, Bromwich elucidates the strengths and weaknesses of Schindler's List, noting that the film is “a story of great magnitude that ha[s] the added virtue of being true.”]

In Cracow, near the start of the Second World War, two men are talking. One is a Jewish businessman, the other a wealthy German. Why, asks the Jew, should we take you on as a partner? Look around, says the German. You do good work but you can never sell your wares. What do I offer? You supply the product, I supply—Presentation. At the last word, he frames in his hands an unseen object of indescribable potency.

That is not our first glimpse of Oskar Schindler, the hero of Steven Spielberg's new film [Schindler's List]. In the opening scene, he is dining alone at a fancy club and spots a Wehrmacht officer with a woman at a table nearby. He sends over champagne with his compliments, then joins them as they are joined by a band of officers, and contrives to have his picture taken with the men of power. The shadows of average corruption pass over Schindler at many points; he has a large relish for the smaller vices.

He belongs, in fact, to a type that fascinated a great chronicler of those years, Bertolt Brecht. The character, for Brecht, was always a servant in secret revolt against his masters. Oskar Schindler is a master in secret revolt. Often, in his unaccountable partnership, he will risk his life to save “Schindler's Jews,” giving as a reason that it is good business to keep your workers alive.

It is no use fancying that Schindler was a saint. He utterly lacked the moral focus and the premeditation of the saint. A touch of palpable melodrama at the end of the film, where he is made to fall to his knees reproaching himself, wishing he could have saved even one more Jewish life, drops the story down a whole level because it is an irrelevant application for sainthood. We are interested in his story because his goodness has the miraculous quality of an accident. Schindler, if you like, was an odd confluence of moods and events, but his name stands for a blessing to many thousands. Who would pretend to explain him?

The man who desired, for just a moment, the company of the glamorous officers in the club, was doubtless as real as the man who staked high odds in a card game with a military bureaucrat to rescue a worker from the death camp. Losing any of his workers would be a terrible setback to the war effort, he says.

While he gave his protection, the Holocaust was grinding on, and Spielberg has taken this as part of his subject. He draws out an immense scene, with the widest possible resonance of terror, to show the gutting and burning of the ghetto, as if to declare: “Here are the violences, from which no shelter was permanent.” Some who have seen the film, and some who never will, say the depiction of the slaughter is a betrayal since it can only serve to reduce the experience to a manageable size. They are certainly right, and right about more than this film. I do not see how any treatment of the subject can avoid a betrayal. Yet the alternative is the omission of any story whatever, as in Paul Celan's “Ice, Eden” or Geoffrey Hill's “September Song.” Commit yourself to a story and you are bound to lean on conventions, each of which carries a history of uses and stock responses.

Spielberg in his previous movies was a relentless showman in total command of a metier I would gladly see abolished. He was a technician chiefly of one emotion: fear. You can see what the skill is made of, what it is and is not good for, in his 1971 TV movie Duel, an important early success. A big truck hunts a little car up and down a mountain road. In the car is a person too primitive to be supposed a character, and the affective interest is held to zero; but the fear is genuine, it stays and spreads. His later and more expensive films have been no less programmatically morbid. They displayed a command of one new trick: how to shift the weight of the fear with a final climactic rush of relief.

These vices have not mysteriously vanished, changed their valence, or been sublimated in Schindler's List. They are traceable elements in the occasional weakness of this film, too. But showmen are rarely as simple as they look. They may busy themselves perfecting machines to squeeze tears out of children, but they are not themselves children; that is why it is fair to resent them. Spielberg, from the first, exhibited a grown-up pride in the sheer craft virtue of a performance every whit as good as the promise of the materials. His plots have been pretexts: plot-lines for stringing together squibs, effects, visual or auditory gags and shocks. With Schindler's List, however, he found a story of great magnitude that had the added virtue of being true. He commissioned and kept a good script by Steven Zaillian, and he gave the big parts to real actors with complicated faces.

A residue from his truckling earlier practice is the music here by John Williams, a Tiomkin-like, confusing tide of unrealized melody that churns for three hours without respect for the audience's right to sit and think. Another choice is reported to have been made in response to a challenge by Fred Schepisi (director of The Russia House), who said “Let me direct the film. You won't have the courage to do it without a crane shot.” Spielberg is obedient to the admonition. Not only is there no crane shot, there is hardly a wide-angle shot of any kind. The single exception is a panoramic view of the Cracow ghetto being torn apart by the Nazis, seen from the perspective of Schindler and his mistress on a hill above the town.

Everything else is close-up or medium, and often a hand-held camera shoves the viewer into the tumult of wrecked lives. Yet the impression of a constant and stifling intimacy itself grows quickly conventional. And the result is no less presumptuous than a wide-angle shot, with its supposed illicitness of detachment. A calculable effect of giving up the classical technique is that the film will be easily translatable to TV, where viewers are used to the dizzying crush and press of action 10 or 20 feet away.

These choices troubled me while I was watching Schindler's List. But at the heart of the film is a story its makers had the patience not to tamper with; a study of the contrast between Schindler and the work camp commandant, Amon Goeth, who controls the destiny of all the inmates, including Schindler's workers. The camp is a sort of shantytown built by temporary survivors to house themselves, a labyrinth with one mouth and no exit. Goeth commemorates the destruction of the ghetto and the innovation of the slave dwellings in a brief sententious speech about the power to unmake the past. He concludes, in an encomium to himself, “This is history.” His house overlooking the camp he calls his “villa,” and the camera shot from there, to which the film returns unsettlingly, bears the emphasis of a trap shutting again and again.

From his perch, after a restless night, Goeth is free to aim his high-powered rifle and pick off one prisoner after another. He keeps a Jewish woman as his servant—once almost making love to her, before he beats her as he has beaten her before. On the patio of his house, he converses amiably with Schindler, whom he would like to fathom (his interest in getting to the bottom of things is much greater than Schindler's). They talk about life, and about power. “Power,” says Schindler, “does not come with saying I punish you. It comes with saying, I pardon you.”

Goeth rather likes that idea. He flirts with himself in the mirror, tenderly repeating “I pardon you.” He tries it out on the Jewish boy who washed his bathtub with soap instead of lye: “I pardon you.” The boy walks away bewildered, a ponderous silence hangs over the camp, then we hear a shot and the boy is dead. One reflects that an order of so much planned violence is at once a cause and a consequence of these struts of casual violence. There is a class of killers that only starts to know itself in time of war. It is not that any man could have become Amon Goeth. It is rather that Goeth, in an ordinary time, would have passed for an ordinary man.

Ralph Fiennes plays this dark and commonplace character with a brave delicacy, at an edge of things where a wrong step would lift him to an unmeant poignance, or plunge him into mere monstrosity. He gained weight for the part—rightly seeing, not in evil itself, but in this example of it a hidden motive of self-indulgence. In Schindler's company, Goeth has a boyish smile, the other side of the snarl the prisoners know so well. He is an irritable, pleasure-loving man, and his talks with Schindler (another hedonist) are a piece of experience one might live long without ever getting to see. They are two halves of the moral world touching in one place; and it happens as unremarkably as two persons laughing at a joke for different reasons.

Jokes, bad jokes, ironic jokes by victims and the cruel jokes of executioners, cruel to the point of opacity—all are much in evidence throughout the film. People who laugh at wretches in anecdote are apt to share the fun when the wretches of actual life are set upon. Coldness to the sources of such laughter may be one token of a character still somehow accessibly generous. And yet, Schindler does craftily share the humor of the wicked. When he hoses the cattle cars of a train to keep the prisoners alive inside, the lolling officers mock him savagely; Schindler, pausing, joins the vulgar laugh, and keeps on running the hose.

Both Fiennes as Goeth and Liam Neeson as Schindler move and talk and appear to think like Germans, each with a different blend of the national traits. In Fiennes you have the hitches, the evasions, the proffered conformities of emphasis, with an uneasy margin for explosive rage. Neeson, on the other hand, commands any scene he is in with a curious largeness of gesture, an assurance that stops just short of arrogance. His gruffness and his fluency lead unexpectedly back to each other. He has the natural dignity unfairly given to the man born bigger than his neighbors.

The real Oskar Schindler could not have done what he did had he not been an attractive, a confident, and a very wealthy man. A 1946 photograph of him with some of “Schindler's Jews” has already acquired a separate fame. He embraces them on both sides, in the manner, strong and somewhat proprietary, that a large man can handle with no loss of warmth. Maybe the impression comes from his having to bend a little to hold them all in the picture. Liam Neeson acts as if he had studied that photograph, and as if he evolved from it a face, a voice, a way of moving native to one person, a life of thoughts partly spoken and thoughts withheld.

Bryan Cheyette (review date 18 February 1994)

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SOURCE: Cheyette, Bryan. “The Holocaust in the Picture-House.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4742 (18 February 1994): 18-19.

[In the following review, Cheyette praises the ambition and power of Schindler's List, asserting that, despite its limitations, the film is an “outstanding achievement.”]

It is tempting to think of Steven Spielberg's magnificent but flawed Schindler's List as the triumphant culmination of his more serious films. His adaptation of Thomas Keneally's novel Schindler's Ark (1982, published in America as Schindler's List) is, in these terms, merely the same type of work he made of Alice Walker's The Color Purple and J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, only at a higher level. But it would belittle Schindler's List to regard it in this way. Over more than a decade, Spielberg has thought a great deal about, and taken first-class advice on, the making of this film. He has, moreover, learnt some of the important lessons from the essential memoirs of Auschwitz-Birkenau death-camp (especially those of Primo Levi) and, more audaciously, he has attempted to incorporate the best cinematic account of the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, into his own rendering. This, then, is much more than just a “serious” Hollywood film.

If Schindler's List is flawed, that is primarily a consequence of relying too heavily on Keneally's “novel”. Keneally's Schindler's Ark glibly assimilates an unimaginable past in a breathtakingly untroubled manner. One need only contrast this with the many moments of pained hesitancy in Levi's writing—when either his memory fails him or he suddenly distrusts his ability as a wordsmith to re-create his own history—to gauge the gulf between Keneally and Levi. Spielberg cannot possibly bridge this divide, although he has taken on board Levi's distinction in Moments of Reprieve (1986) between creating stories in “heightened” colour as opposed to unembellished “accounts”. Levi felt that he needed to be a “story-teller”, so that his words lived on the page, but this task was always in agonized tension with the absolute necessity of justly “accounting” for those who could no longer speak for themselves. Spielberg has, up until now, been a colourful “story-teller”, yet he has attempted in Schindler's List to produce a quasi-documentary monochromatic “account”.

More than in any other popular film, Spielberg in Schindler's List has struggled to turn into images that which was thought to be unrepresentable. We see, re-created, the kind of dwarfish cubbyholes that families—and especially children—were forced to use in the ghettos and camps to prevent them from being rounded up for the cattle trucks. We see them scurrying into pre-prepared hiding places in false walls and floors, pianos, cupboards, even latrines and sewers. The detail is staggering, but it is also reminiscent of similar scenes in E.T. or Jurassic Park. Since completing Schindler's List, Spielberg has spoken a great deal about the kind of adolescent anti-Semitic bullying that he suffered until his late teenage years. As his films are obsessed with people (often children) leaving comfortable homes only to encounter strange, incomprehensible forces, then it is possible to read Spielberg's biography back into his more accomplished popular movies such as Duel or Jaws. Such is the split in Schindler's List between Spielberg's autobiographical drive—which results in his remaking his own preoccupations in a multitude of forms—and his restrained impersonal “account”.

On one level, of course, Spielberg already has a compelling story in the figure of Oskar Schindler, a womanizing Sudeten German industrialist, who saved over 1,100 Jews from the gas chambers of Auschwitz who were on his “list” as a specialist workforce. Beginning with an enamel-ware factory in Krakow, staffed by local Jews, Schindler ended up in October 1944 relocating his workforce to a bogus armaments factory in Brinnlitz on the Polish-Czechoslovakian border. Keneally's fictionalization of Schindler's prodigious act of bravery—which included a visit to Auschwitz to release 300 women and children—provides both the inspiration and much of the story-line for Spielberg's film. Where the film improves on Keneally, however, is that it questions the unspoken and unquestioned arrogance in Keneally's “story”: that it can facilely remake the most intimate thoughts and horrific details of history. Schindler's List fails only when it, too, becomes a seductive and self-confident narrative at the cost of any real understanding of the difficulties inherent in representing the ineffable.

Not that Schindler's List surrenders entirely to this arrogance, and Steven Zaillian's shrewd screenplay is, as a result, a much greater achievement than the novel. Much of the film makes outstanding use of hand-held cameras, and Janusz Kaminski's largely impeccable cinematography goes so far as to triumphantly reproduce the Podgorze Ghetto in Krakow, the slave-labour camp in Plaszow, and, astonishingly, even Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Only the great Polish filmmaker Andrej Wajda, whom Spielberg consulted, has come close to this kind of cinematic reconstruction. Never before has the full panorama of genocide been given such a didactic yet popular form. That the ghettoization of the Jews in Krakow led to their enslavement in Plaszow, and their inevitable death in Auschwitz-Birkenau, is astonishingly illustrated in all its bureaucratic horror. Schindler's hastily typewritten “list” of the saved (drawn up with his accountant Itzhak Stern) is rightly seen to be only a part of a much larger “list”, typed up just as arbitrarily, of those condemned to die.

Much of the pre-publicity for Schindler's List has emphasized the extent to which Spielberg chose to film, where possible, in Poland. Krakow was left virtually undamaged during the war, and so Spielberg was able to forego his Hollywood studios and instead have as his backdrop the actual landscape of suffering. Schindler's List, to be sure, does have a genuine European feel to it, not least because nearly all of its impeccable cast of actors are non-American. In a further bid at authenticity, many of the actors are the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors or local Poles whose parents witnessed, to some degree, the events of the film. But this deliberate blurring of the borders between cinema and history generates a good deal of unease in the film. On the one hand, the film is framed by brief opening and concluding contemporary scenes, in colour, which undermine its over-riding claims to documentary truth. Schindler's List is, after all, not merely a film within a film, but it is also based on a version of a story within a story. Many elements of the film's visually authoritative interpretation of history have, significantly, been challenged by Schindler's understandably embittered widow, Emilie (whose story has not yet been told). Such interventions help us realize that the events of the film are not always quite as straightforward as either Spielberg or Keneally would have us believe.

The unresolved tension between this film's flawed sense of its own limitations and its all too evident powers of lavish historical reconstruction takes many forms. Spielberg (interestingly, for a seemingly neutral rendering) is not unselfconscious about his debt to other films and filmmakers. For example, in the switch from the opening scene to the film proper, present-day sabbath candles are transformed into the smoke of a 1940s railway engine; this key image, moving from God-given redemption to mankind's degeneration, is reminiscent of David Lean. More importantly, the opening ghost-like disappearance of the Jewish family who leave a set of empty chairs—which shrewdly become the absence addressed by the rest of the film—is the first of a number of notable references to Lanzmann's Shoah. If Levi's matchless humility is the yardstick for written accounts of the Holocaust, then Shoah is the cinema's equivalent of Levi's memoirs. And any serious cinematic account of the Holocaust which ignores Lanzmann does so at considerable peril.

At just over three hours long, Schindler's List is a mere third of the length of Lanzmann's unsurpassed documentary based on eye-witness accounts. Above all, and this is a substantial achievement, Schindler's List is a self-conscious and popular rejoinder to those who, like Lanzmann, emphasize the absolute impossibility of finding appropriate images to represent the past. In Shoah, an elderly Polish peasant shows how, as a boy, he used to slice his hand across his throat when the cattle-trucks passed through his village to indicate that those inside were heading to their deaths. In Schindler's List, a child actor imitates this scene, and we witness it once again through the eyes of those in the cattle-trucks.

But who is to say whether the privacy of unspeakable memory or its public expression in words and images is to be encouraged? Whereas Shoah is intellectually scrupulous and does not try to represent history in a facile series of cinematic tropes, Schindler's List attempts to give virtually every aspect of the apparatus of genocide a cinematic equivalent for consumption by a mass audience.

But even Spielberg, at times, is forced to recognize the limits of what can and cannot be achieved on the screen. In one of the most telling episodes of the film, the 300 women and children supposedly destined for Schindler's Brinnlitz haven find themselves mistakenly diverted to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They are brought to a delousing bath-house and made to take a shower. Like the women in the film, we are not sure if they are being locked into a real shower or not. Spielberg dwells a good deal over this scene, and the audience is horrified less by the actual events than by the thought that absolutely nothing is going to be left unshown in this film. Such is the fragility of Schindler's List that it is hard to tell whether this is a moment of welcome self-consciousness, or the limit of an overweening appetite. In the end, mere water flows from the shower-heads, and we remember Schindler himself dousing the cattle-trucks with hosed water in Plaszow (much to the amusement of the watching SS dignitaries) and the sensible Stern melting ice into water as he journeys in a cattle-truck with Schindler's men to Brinnlitz. Thankfully, such redemptive or baptismal images are few and far between in the film—although they dominate the ending with, to say the least, unfortunate consequences.

To be fair, Spielberg undoubtedly avoids the worst excesses of all other Hollywood versions of the Holocaust. Much potential crassness is eschewed by the welcome lack of individualization of the mass of Jews in the film. In a virtuoso exception to this rule, Spielberg, just for a few moments, gives a young girl in the Krakow ghetto a red dress, to indescribable effect. At its best, Schindler's List manages to tell a dozen horrendous stories with very little descriptive baggage. This fails only when there are set-piece scenes and individuals become representative types, or when Schindler is feebly psychologized (he's competing with his father). On a few occasions, the ensemble acting becomes a little sentimental and unreal. Only then are we reminded that everyone is slightly too cheerful and healthy-looking in this film and that not even women would be quite so helpful to each other when starving to death.

None the less, for the most part, Schindler's List is a triumph of architectonics and its three central characters, Schindler (Liam Neeson). Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) and Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) are superb. The tension between the story of Schindler's enigmatic compassion and the wider mechanics of genocide is judiciously held in balance. Much of the strength of the film also derives from its impeccable pace. From the leisurely opening scenes in occupied Krakow—where Schindler is indistinguishable from the SS men in the night club—to the brutally frantic liquidation of the ghetto, the main characters are deftly woven into and out of the broader topography of death.

Neeson's Schindler is just the right combination of inscrutability and ebullience. He begins as a potential Nazi (with an over-sized and ever-present Swastika on his lapel), and ends the film bundled into a car dressed in concentration-camp stripes. That neither the book nor the film can fathom this extraordinary journey is precisely what makes his story so compelling. Schindler throughout is a tabula rasa on which both the potential for good and for evil can be inscribed. For this reason, he is not always the central focus of the film. When Amon Goeth, the homicidal commandant of Plaszow concentration camp, appears, about half-way through the film, there is a subtle shift of emphasis away from Schindler. This is largely because Spielberg follows Keneally a little too closely in thinking of Goeth, who is gloriously played by Ralph Fiennes, as Schindler's dark double. Goeth and Schindler are both womanizers and drunkards, both ride horses and, in their different ways, have the lives of Jews in their hands. They are also meant to have a similar physique, which is emphasized in the film by camera angles which, ambiguously could refer to either of them. The problem with this interpretation of Schindler, however, is that the more the depths of Goeth's evil become apparent, the more Schindler is transformed into his benign counterpart. By the end of the film, Schindler, in response to Goeth, is in danger of becoming something of a Christ-figure (even to the extent of giving a final crypto-Sermon on the Mount in Brinnlitz).

Schindler's sentimental deification results in Goeth re-emerging as the sort of post-Vietnam degenerate who would not have been out of place in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (based on Conrad's “Heart of Darkness”). Goeth is Kurtz-like precisely because he is a cultured beast who once, presumably, acted like a Schindler. This inevitable shift from the victims to the perpetrators of genocide takes place on a number of levels in the film. One key dimension is the horrific and stunning use of music. At the end of the unforgettable liquidation of Krakow, an SS officer begins to play “either Mozart or Bach” in a deserted Jewish house. We not only have George Steiner's essays encapsulated in this moment but, at the same time, a reference to the kind of post-Vietnam decadence (which also took a musical form) depicted so memorably in Apocalypse Now. The authentic re-creation of Oskar Schindler is, in these episodes, forgotten or, more accurately, transfigured into something else.

By the end, Schindler's List veers dizzily between crass sentimentality in a tearful scene with Stern and its more usual self-conscious restraint. At its worst, the Schindlerjuden descend from on high to the Promised Land as if they were the cast of The Sound of Music. But this penultimate scene (taken ham-fistedly from Wajda's Korczak) is contrasted in the last frames of the film with a poised encounter with actual Schindlerjuden, which echoes Shoah. The gulf between the unbridgable loss of history and what we see on the screen once again takes precedence as the impossibility of fully ending any account of the Holocaust is skillfully realized. A film that can encompass such a massive range of possibilities is clearly a magnificent, if frustrating, accomplishment. That it is, unquestionably, the best film on this subject within its particular set of conventions is the measure of Spielberg's outstanding achievement.

Jonathan Romney (review date 18 February 1994)

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SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “The Poetry of Horror.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 4172 (18 February 1994): 33.

[In the following review, Romney commends certain aspects of Schindler's List but asserts that the film is caught between its aspirations to realistically portray the horror of the Holocaust and its “love of elegance.”]

There is a lot that you have to get through before you can even begin to see Schindler's List. First there is the sheer disbelief at the thought that Steven Spielberg, of all directors, has taken on the Holocaust. Then comes the scepticism on reading the Oscar-fuelling adulatory reviews that greeted the film in the US. Once again, before even the first frame of a Spielberg film, you have to contend with its status as phenomenon—it's just that, this time, the stakes are immeasurably higher.

So let me just say that, on many levels, Schindler's List gives ample cause to leave your scepticism at the door: it is a very fine film, a manifestly serious one, a film that may not entirely do justice to its subject (as if such were possible), but certainly honours it. I also found it exceptionally moving, and not just because its subject matter automatically hit the distress button. I came out of the film feeling silenced, as if hushed reverence was the only possible response. But that feeling subsides on reflection. I realised that the way Schindler's List moved me was akin to the way a funeral ceremony moves you; indeed, this may be the only film ever designed to elicit one single response—that is, mourning.

That purpose becomes clear at the very end of the film, after the story has concluded. The war ends, and we see the last of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson—shown above compiling his list with Ben Kingsley's help), the German businessman who saved more than a thousand Jews from the gas chambers by buying them as workers in his factory. Then the film shifts to the present day, out of fictionalised black-and-white history and into the real and colour. We see Schindler's grave being tenderly decked with commemorative rocks by the very people he saved, now frail and aged but very visibly alive, accompanied by the actors who play their younger selves. It's a brazen coup de théâtre, but quite irresistible, a moment of release that allows you to unblock the emotions that the film's monochrome sobriety has until now held back. It's one of many moments in which the film goes full out to impress us with the seriousness and restraint of its intentions, to dispel the slightest suspicion of Hollywood excess.

Spielberg rigorously expunges any sense of Hollywood and its conventions. But where the film nevertheless tends to sanitise is in its regard for beauty (which it seems to see as the “truth”), incarnated in Janusz Kaminski's fine-grained black-and-white photography. In one early scene, sunlight shines in through an office window in a perfect shaft, just so, and you realise then that the film will be fatally caught between its aspirations to the real and its love of elegance.

That contradiction comes out most strongly when Spielberg sets out to arrest us with moments of what you could call “true horror”. He'll suddenly stop the quasi-documentary flow of images, and make us look straight at a perfectly composed picture of awfulness. In one sequence, a boy takes refuge in a cesspool, only to find other children hiding inside; they tell him to go away, it's their place. It's an unthinkable, obscene image, yet Spielberg, even while heightening it, has to make it aesthetic—that is, anaesthetic. The surface of the mire is deadly still, the inside of the box enlarged by cavernous chiaroscuro, the boy isolated by a shaft of light from above. It's horror, but it's poetry also—and we can only feel discomfort at having both.

The same goes for an image that has already become famous. Schindler, mounted on horseback on a hill, looks down on the routs of the Cracow ghetto. It's a horrific scene of turmoil, as the camera scans every way, lost like Schindler's gaze, and ours, in the chaos. Suddenly, one figure is picked out—a little girl in red, her coat the only patch of colour in sight. Already we're blinded by the stridency of symbolism—the little girl is life, about to be snuffed out in this monochrome world. She will occur again—first, as she hides under a bed, with an earnest look of faith in her survival; later, with black inevitability, as a body carried off, in front of a mountain of corpses.

Why is this image so powerful, and why has it become the film's icon, even alluded to discreetly on the poster? Because it makes an immediate, irreducible point—red is also the colour of death; this innocent of innocents is both Red Riding Hood and sacrifical lamb.

But it's so powerful also, I think, because of what it allows us not to see. We're allowed to attach our feeling to this one image, which hides the mountain of nameless, faceless, dehumanised corpses. We're invited to cry for a dead child, and that allows us to elide the unmanageable enormity of death that's actually there in plain sight right behind her. Somehow, that seems part and parcel of the film's project. It is, after all, a film about survival, about deliverance from evil; we accompany those who were spared, rather than those who were not. There's a limit to how far Spielberg can allow himself to go; hence his decision to take on Thomas Keneally's book with its essentially redemptive thrust, rather than any more despairing vision.

Bearing in mind that this is the film's project, Schindler's List is remarkably dense and suggestive, even when Spielberg's innate tendency to underline points gets the better of him. He can't quite handle the parallel between Schindler and the SS commandant Amon Goeth, even resorting to matched shots of them in shaving mirrors; it's the exceptionally subtle performances of Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes that make it work.

What to make, though, of a film in which the Jews play second fiddle to the sexy man of action who saves them? The film seems to be less in love with Schindler's humanity than his “super-humanity”—his vast energy as an entrepreneur, a deal-doer on a cosmic scale, a very Spielberg of caritas. It's no accident that the film is dedicated at the end to Steven Ross, the late president of Time-Warner, not that Spielberg once ludicrously claimed that if Schindler were alive today, he'd be agency head Mike Ovitz.

Whatever its subject matter, Schindler's List is a big-budget spectacle. Whatever the subtler ramifications of the debate on visual versus verbal recounting of the Holocaust, I found myself worried on quite a pragmatic score. I've read the location reports and how many extras were used; and when I saw the Jews herded into cattle trucks, I couldn't help seeing the extras regimented and coaxed by hosts of production runners armed with walkie-talkies. No matter how well they were paid and how lavish the catering, I felt worried by the sense that somehow, however distantly, the same gestures were being repeated. I felt uncomfortable with this reaction, all the stronger for not being entirely rational. Would I have been as worried if I had been watching, not a Hollywood film, but a comparably ambitious theatrical reconstruction staged by a highly austere European director—a Tadeusz Kantor, say? I'm not sure.

It's true, there's nothing conventionally Hollywoodian about Schindler's List. But its very seriousness, its monumentality, seems to have been achieved at a certain cost—not of repeating Nazism's actions, which would be a frivolous accusation—but, in some way, of reproducing its production values. This eloquent and absolutely honourable film tries to live down its filmic nature and let us know that the Holocaust was not a movie. But I fear it succeeds at most in telling us that it was simply a special kind of movie.

Armond White (review date March 1994)

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SOURCE: White, Armond. “Toward a Theory of Spielberg History.” Film Comment 30, no. 2 (March 1994): 51-8.

[In the following review, White addresses Schindler's List as a work of historical realism and considers the film to be Spielberg's “most compromised” work.]


“Witnessing,” a term repeated in the most doctrinaire reviews of Schindler's List, actually happens only once in the movie. Steven Spielberg “witnesses” the tribute he has arranged in which survivors of the WWII Holocaust file past the gravesite of Oskar Schindler. It is a perfectly situated affirmation of the gratitude and humanity that a group of people express toward a man who saved their lives. The profound optimism—the goodness—of human experience has always been the subject of Spielberg's greatest art: Close Encounters of the Third Kind ('77), The Color Purple ('85), E.T. ('82)—each an ebullient fantasy. But there's no awareness of this sensibility in the widespread hurrahs for his latest drama.

Typically far from the mark is David Denby's praise of Spielberg's “anger”—imputing a petty vengefulness to the motives of the most benevolent filmmaker of all time. The tendency to turn Spielberg into Moshe Dayan (a Scheherezade into a sabra) suggests other frightening reasons for the movie's praise. With Schindler's List critics have reduced Spielberg's art to a hegemonic tool for promoting mainstream historical interest—an implicit policy as pervasive as the refusal of white critics to see the meaning in a Black story like The Color Purple. That film is Spielberg's most audacious feat of “witnessing”—a poetic act of revelation rather than partisan reportage. But the critical line on Schindler's List misrepresents Spielberg's artistry.

As a piece of witnessing, Schindler's List is almost as disingenuous as the Oscar-baiting statements Spielberg has made about growing up, expressing his Jewishness, etc. He gives in to contemporary social and historical mawkishness by pretending a special significance here. It's the typical middlebrow equation of solemnity with seriousness. Spielberg's skills see him through, but Schindler's List is weakest as history, strongest at evoking the emotionality of the events depicted. Of all the techniques he employs—fast cutting, chromatic shifts, emotive lighting—the most specious is the pretense toward documentary realism. It's a desperate, unoriginal tactic for a fabulist-stylist who became a legendary filmmaker by always surprising the audience, freighting a dinosaur theme park with ethical comment, putting irony into a kid's fascination with Mustang fighter planes.

Similarly, Schindler's List is a dream of the Holocaust. But its newsreel trope is too literal-minded; in the age of Hard Copy, audiences' need for an authenticating format can devolve into an ahistorical thirst for atrocity as spectacle. To look past the poetry in Spielberg's Holocaust is to see less in it. When Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski chose to shoot in black and white, they conformed to a somewhat fallacious theory that this particular historical event could not be adequately rendered in color. Spielberg's claim “I have no color reference for that period” forgets William Fraker's zesty re-creations in 1941 and Allen Daviau's luminous Empire of the Sun images in favor of newsreel “reality.” Kaminski's b&w, a superlatively achieved combination of documentary style, natural light, and dramatic stylization, actually serves a banal, reverential function. (Only the shifts to color for scenes of religious ritual, shots of the little girl in the red coat, and the final scene in Israel attest to Spielberg's postmodern interest in activating viewers' consciousness, and to his still-estimable creativity.)

If the film falters, if the director is anywhere untrue to his gifts, it's in the pretense to b&w realism. This confuses his private, inventive use of mythology with an absolute historical reality. Recreating the shock of genocide and discrimination, Spielberg adds nothing to the understanding about how pogroms happened within European political history. This may seem sufficient to those who simply want the fact of the Holocaust confirmed, but it is, imaginatively, a small accomplishment.


Never forget that Steven Spielberg proved himself a serious artist long before he took 35mm b&w cameras to Poland for Schindler's List.Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ('89) addressed history intelligently, elegantly: revisionism and fun in one. Crossing the globe with newfound respect for previously dominated cultures (Indy's Western belief in museum curatorship is opposed with his father's Faith), Spielberg opened up his view-finder to wonder. He gave serious attention to the WWII era and the fascist thrall of Nazism in personal, original ways. Although critics have been reluctant to admit that the farcical tone of the Indiana Jones trilogy and 1941 ('79) were worthy of their admiration, those movies went to the heart of the pop imagination.

Spielberg accomplished a postwar, postmodern miracle in those films—criticizing the political gestalt of the virtuous, victorious, prosperous West with the pop ethos of Hollywood fantasy, the tradition of which he is the truest heir. Schindler's List may fulfill an obligation Spielberg felt as a Jewish American—and tributes from industry Jews such as Billy Wilder suggest he has kept a faith with the Jewish founders of the industry. But that's a false, biased assumption. 1941's devotion to the pre-WWII sense of pop culture as wild, racist, naïve—unmandated except by the principles of capitalism and pleasure (i.e., Americanism; i.e., Hollywood)—shows Spielberg shrewdly deflating cultural sovereignty at every turn; indeed, he opens the film with an impious spoof of Jaws ('75).

1941 astutely turned homey, U.S. imperialism (and the world's subordination to it) into a satirical jamboree—a first, important step toward changing popular attitudes about Hollywood prerogative. Spielberg made the change memorably in The Last Crusade's inspired incident wherein Adolf Hitler autographs Indy's father's personal diary. It unexpectedly summed up the psychic, historical weight that the fascist legacy exerted on the pop imagination. (An indestructible Nazi insignia is a significant “Never Again” motif throughout the trilogy.) Such clever business didn't necessarily identify Spielberg as Jewish, or as a history scholar, but it evidenced the wit, the political preoccupation, and the sensibility of an auteur.


Spielberg is the rare Hollywood plenipotentate not to settle for the status quo practices of the industry—until now. That means Schindler's List, rather than being his greatest work, is actually, in some poignant, infuriating way, his most compromised. Surely an artist who works unfettered—and magnificently—in the Hollywood system, who can portray an industrialist's saintliness (and dedicate that sacrifice to the late Warner Bros. president Steve Ross), is aesthetically at home in genres that define the emotional life in hugely popular, sentimental terms.

In fact, the terms by which The Last Crusade can be recognized as a great work of humane and artistic contemplation were explicated 30 years ago by Andrew Sarris's manifesto “Toward a Theory of Film History” in The American Cinema. Sarris's important distinction between expressive art and sociological entertainment is the kind of critical clarity that advocates of Schindler's List have almost completely muddled. Reviews of that film, whether pro or con, aggravate the current disaster of debased popular taste. As Sarris prophetically suggested, Schindler's List is being foisted upon us tendentiously. It's this decade's Gandhi.

It isn't only Spielberg's integrity that these Schindler's List reviews demean through he's-finally-grown-up cliché or he's-still-trivial myopia. Schindler's List itself has been misread, misunderstood, “appreciated” (which is to say, trivialized) for the wrong qualities. It's as if obviousness were an artistic advance. The Nation provided the best twist: “Spielberg has in fact converted his incapacity into the virtue of restraint.” Can the man who directed the most splendid, heartfelt Hollywood entertainments of the past 20 years accept that praise, that dismissal of his life's work, as reasonable? Do critics who think Spielberg incapable of passion and intelligence genuinely credit Schindler's List's historicity?

Answers may lie in that widely disapproved climax when Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) has delivered 1,100 Jewish political prisoners to safety after protecting them under the ambivalent wing of capitalist patriarchy. He confounds the Nazi régime's extermination plan by insisting that his workers are essential to its wartime productivity. The ploy is expounded throughout the film in a number of deceptions and a series of last-minute rescues culminating, once the Allies reach Poland, with Schindler releasing his workers. In response, the grateful Jews with mostly middle-class skills who have toiled as laminators, machinists, and foundry workers, forge a ring for Schindler out of their gold teeth-fillings and he accepts it with a tearful speech. Though the contrite language is plain, it's a Shakespearean cry of humility. It's also the most purely Spielbergian moment in the film.

Not to dismiss several memorable scenes that imaginatively convey surprise, shock, pathos, but Schindler's expression of gratitude transcends the familiar catalog of misery. It's a concretely plausible show of decency. Until then, Neeson's performance is rather opaque. Schindler's transformation is only revealed in this speech: materialist Schindler, a vain, devious man, holds to a bourgeois sense of reason, but his apology and self-accusation redeem it. Critics who reject this scene as overly sentimental fail to understand how it works morally—like the climaxes of all Spielberg's films. It is a spiritual moment. Spielberg avoids the insulting concept of a great man's noblesse oblige; Schindler's humbling becomes a sign of grace bestowed upon his beneficiaries and the audience of moviegoers who observe its reenactment.

For two decades now, Spielberg has explored the emotional, thus spiritual, essence of movie spectacle. Audiences have often been right there with him, recognizing and appreciating moments of grace. The box-office success of The Color Purple proved the public's readiness for advanced Hollywood fiction, and Spielberg's radical deployment of generic tropes. Critics' aesthetic awareness should have been excited by this sign of the director fulfilling a fragmented public's hunger for unifying emotional revelation; making a successful Hollywood movie about a Black lesbian confirmed Spielberg's auteurist consistency as a crowd-pleaser par excellence.

Think back: A grown man's trepidation intercut with the slapstick tragedy of a drive-in Road Runner cartoon—The Sugarland Express ('74); a panicked mother distilling her frustration through artful renditions of mountains—Close Encounters; a Japanese sailor weeping at the (mistaken) thought he has demolished Hollywood—1941; elderly sisters regaining paradise and innocence by playing paddycake—The Color Purple; a lonesome boy's sensory remembrance of his father's aftershave lotion—E.T.; a woman's bicycle race to proclaim the fragility of her love without waiting for the (unseen) response in kind—Always ('90); and a group of adult orphans finding themselves in the moment they pay tribute to a woman who cared for them—Hook ('91). These scenes are among the many trenchant episodes in Spielberg's cinema that critics have rejected as fanciful. Lacking sensitive, imaginative eyes, they can't recognize Spielberg's poetic distillation of human experience, his respect for emotion as the evidence of spirituality. The plots that get dismissed as utopian optimism are sincere expressions of a generous sensibility that constantly redefines human experience in pop terms.

The Holocaust-movie concept of Schindler's List gets in the way of Spielberg's visionary expression; it keeps some from seeing Schindler's speech as remarkable. Despite epiphanic scenes directed with Spielberg's impeccable narrative rhythm (a boy's quick life-saving game with luggage left in a street), his experiential mystery (the unkillable factory worker), and multilayered visual splendor (the snowy-ashy nighttime arrival at Auschwitz), they fit into a construct that is, frankly, less compelling than Spielberg's usual working through fiction to claim the essence of a moment or expand its meanings.


No scene in Schindler's List is as great as the letters sequence of The Color Purple, which explored narrativity in popular dramatic, rather than academic, terms. Working in montage, Spielberg combined the story's Southern U.S. setting with images of Africa that illustrate a series of letters sent to Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) by the sister, Nettie (Akosa Busia), from whom she has long been separated. One startling cut from Celie, in Georgia, looking behind her, to a shot of an elephant coming through the trees in Africa, conveys her engrossed, transported interest. The parallel construction is similar to the letters sequence of John Ford's The Searchers in the way the story moves forward in two directions at once, but it's more culturally and politically enlightened. The Color Purple serves a timely social function by metaphorically connecting Celie, an uprooted descendant of slaves, with a newly revealed heritage—a fresh and by no means common Hollywood endeavor. The letters sequence, a genuine act of deconstruction, was itself an auteur's demonstration of rare heroism. It showed how the dissemination of history—witnessing—involves practices of imaginative rendering as well as historical recall: a leap of faith as extraordinary as Oskar Schindler's.

This great sequence provides the movie with a modern, multicultural purpose; the action in the African scenes implies the historic intrusion of Western industry and Christianity. Crosscutting between African musicians and an American chain gang of Black prisoners chanting a work song sums up one of the American holocausts. Spielberg's transitions epitomize the social displacement and cultural continuity of diaspora. It may not be his personal story or that of white and Jewish film critics, but it is emotionally and historically comprehensive.

Advancing from the political conservatism of The Searchers, Spielberg explores the communication of ideas and history that is central to the modern awareness of ethnic representation and the uses of pop culture. His methods are so ecstatically vivid that critics mistook this for condescension. It was anything but. In The Color Purple Spielberg attempted a first—applying Hollywood's entire fictional apparatus to create a romance about African Americans, all the while adhering to the pop-feminist politics that marked Alice Walker's novel as a modern work. The Color Purple is the most successful example of the Eighties' interest in cultural signs and signifiers of African-American and Hollywood history that there is in mainstream American cinema, and is the quintessential example of Spielberg's sophistication. He expanded on it in The Last Crusade's self-reflexive, accordion-like compression of the Indiana Jones series' play with history, anthropology, and colonialist lore (not for nothing do the recurrent religious rituals in Schindler's List involve play with light).

A degree of this postmodernism may inform Schindler's List, including the impulse to change American movies' anti-German conventions. But it has been further submerged by hegemonic criticism that turns the director's vision of the Holocaust back into a more conventional, vague view of history. This is why the pseudo-documentary style—so less inspired than the pop didactics of The Color Purple—is suspicious. The b&w austerity claims an objective truth, whereas the Technicolor, symphonic The Color Purple—daring to present Black Southern life as something other than Walker Evans docutragedy—challenged audience preconceptions. At the top of his game, Spielberg counteracts conventional social mythology through a revivifying of genre; the docudrama pretext of Schindler's List loses that narrative anchor.

Acclaim for Schindler's List presumes that only now does Spielberg show an interest in history; it still denies his interest in revisionism. In truth, reviewers are congratulating Spielberg for making a historical movie that, unlike The Color Purple and The Last Crusade, does not disturb their view of the past or upset their perspective on pop culture. The films' few detractors resent (as they resented The Color Purple) his powerful spiritual-political suasion.


For those who know Spielberg's work, Schindler's List seems less expressive than Close Encounters,E.T.,The Color Purple,The Last Crusade,1941, and Empire of the Sun ('87) because its story is circumscribed, not by the factual requirements of history or Thomas Keneally's book but by the culture industry that has accumulated around the subject of this century's European Holocaust. The surreal, visionary Empire of the Sun and the hellzapoppin 1941 seemed more personal reimaginings of the Second World War partly because their child's-eye-view is Spielberg's unique, legitimate purchase on human experience.

Unfortunately, much of Schindler's List fits prescribed Holocaust lore, the kind of thinking Pauline Kael once ridiculed in the phrase “Nazi junkies.” A pornography of suffering—and revenge—that sneaks into movies on this subject can be read between the lines of the film's rapturous notices. (Spielberg told the New York Film Critics Circle their reviews “were not like reviews, they were like personal essays.”) Even the waterfall of acclaim for Ralph Fiennes's charismatic performance as Commandant Amon Goeth smacks of Nazi-junkie masochism. Dreamy-eyed Fiennes could be one of the stars of the porn film Mein Cock, but his acting is not more skilled than Ben Kingsley's nuanced portrait of bookkeeper-listmaker Itzhak Stern.

Like E.T., the other film on which Spielberg eschewed storyboarding, Schindler's List pares down the director's visual dynamics. Though this pleased his detractors, he ought to remember that their objection to his style is basically a distaste for what makes movies exciting. One moment in the film has a legitimate cinematic thrill: the sequence when mothers are separated from their children epitomizes Spielberg's genius for connecting emotional purposes to compositional vectors. As with the Orphans of the Storm separation of the sisters in The Color Purple, this scene recalls Griffith's command of primal emotions and narrative vigor. The Spielberg twist (and plus) comes with the very Hollywood principle of “proportion.” A single mother separated from a child is usual. (It was acted definitively by Madge Sinclair and Leslie Uggams in Roots and has since been used as a bogus, dull cliché in Sophie's Choice.) But 200 mothers running after their abducted children belongs to a most powerful artistic vision. It's a moment in which Spielberg has successfully reimagined the terror of the Holocaust in an original way. In that scene, the literal rush of emotion kills you without the nicety of taste and “truth.” It is passion made essential, kinetic, made into cinema.

Call that scene a magnanimous gesture. Its primacy is the kind of thing most Hollywood directors can't do or do badly, and so turn Hollywood filmmaking odious. Spielberg is often cursed by a critical establishment that can't see the difference between his élan and a hack's blatancy. Those mother-child emotions needn't be trivialized or disdained—Spielberg employs them honestly (familial emotions are not simply manipulated but well understood), and his sense of Hollywood inflation contains a sensible assessment of the Holocaust experience. He restores dignity to the undignifying effect of a pogrom wherein individuals are reduced to faceless numbers, routed en masse. Spielberg's insistence on primal emotions in this scene ranks with Gillo Pontecorvo's at the climax of The Battle of Algiers; the masses become undeniably human despite the effort to dehumanize them.

Complaints such as Leon Wieseltier's in The New Republic and Frank Rich's op-ed in The New York Times that Schindler's List celebrates the 1,100 Jews Schindler saved without a thought for the 6 million killed is fatuous mathematics and narrowminded ethics. They miss the fundamental fact that the movie interprets the mass experience of Jewish oppression. It's not a story of individual suffering, and Spielberg would be as fraudulent as Nazi junkie Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) if he pretended to describe that torment singularly. He relays the Holocaust as it comes to him: as a people's tragedy. The little girl in the red coat who triggers Schindler's compassion is a perfect Spielberg symbol for humanity, but he reenacts “personal” Jewish history without specific differentiation. Schindler and Goeth stand apart as stylized, slightly awestruck visions of the German Other—angel and devil portrayed as ambivalent human extremes. But the Jews are ennobled when called upon, in the end, to display nobility as opposed to piously asserting it.

Not even Spielberg's personal Holocaust interpretation has satisfied those “Never Again” drumbeaters who want a movie that parcels out sanctimony and guilt. That's the other side of the hegemony Spielberg dangerously plays into when he affects “seriousness” and “realism.” Such naïve Holocaust politics beg to be misconstrued; Schindler's List might have been an even stronger movie if it clarified itself as a version of history rather than a document of the real thing. All those awards showered on the film but not on the man who made it directly show a higher regard for the subject than for the artistry.

But Schindler's List is best experienced as something other than a Holocaust history. Steven Zaillian's script is not nearly as politically sophisticated as the John Milius-Larry Gross outline of genocide and racism in Walter Hill's Geronimo. Zaillian's lucid charting of events—from ghetto mandate to prison transport to Schindler's factory ruse—is substituted for any analysis of class or the dialectic of policy vs. experience that brings a political history to life. Spielberg rivals The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in early scenes that show middle-class Jews shocked into awareness of their third-class status, but the complexity of ethnic oppression is never focused except to be simplified as mundane evil, cut off from social/political design.

Certainly the way Spielberg emphasizes emotion and morality is about as fine as Hollywood has ever managed on this subject. But it has led to some gross, polemical exaggerations. David Denby's claim that “rage brings out [Spielberg's] intelligence” projects the critic's own responses onto the film's political reticence; Schindler's List has nothing like Kurosawa's informed, masterfully tempered anger in Rhapsody in August—a view of WWII critics chose to ignore. Even Swing Kids was politically savvier: director Thomas Carter used the Third Reich era as an analogy to contemporary cultural racism. Swing Kids brought home to the era of hiphop censorship the dilemma of fascism—politics as people commonly perceive and practice it—in terms Schindler's List achieves only once: when Nazi troops storm a Jewish apartment building, ransacking homes while one soldier sits at a piano and delights his comrades with his playing. “Bach? Is it Bach? No, Mozart!” Spielberg slyly mocks the Germanic tradition in that instant—a demonstration of the political uses of art, flirting with post-WWII skepticism without resorting to mere castigation. That brief, brilliant moment touches on the tension between culture and nationalism that is a guiding principle of Spielberg's creative intelligence.


Schindler's List falls into the not-always-artful but often sanctified tradition of Holocaust movies even though Spielberg enhances that tradition by finding a story that is hopeful rather than accusatory and despairing. He returns the “favor” Spike Lee paid in Malcolm X—when the Ku Klux Klan rode off into a bright, full E.T. moon—by emulating Lee's modern-day documentary coda. And as usual, Spielberg does the unexpected. The memorial sequence of Schindler Jews and their offspring laying stones on Schindler's grave carries the moral conviction Lee hoped to get from Nelson Mandela's appearance at the end of Malcolm X. Lee's polemicism failed because he never showed a simple connection between the living Mandela and the dead Malcolm X. However, Schindler's List is very much about the connection between a member of the Nazi party and the European Jews. Victims and victimizers all discovered a spiritual commonality. The European Holocaust was but one of history's atrocities, and Hollywood's dealt with it before. The real-life evidence of gratitude, of love given and returned, testified to in the coda is something new and overwhelming. Spielberg's intuitive dramatization of boundless ecumenical faith, hope, and charity extends, as always, to the way he updates Hollywood genres to meet the most contemporary emotional needs.

Now that Spielberg has played his trump card, it will be interesting to see if critics respect him when he goes back to the subjects he knows best.

Michael André Bernstein (review date summer 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2568

SOURCE: Bernstein, Michael André. “The Schindler's List Effect.” American Scholar 63, no. 3 (summer 1994): 429-32.

[In the following review, Bernstein asserts that Schindler's List has affected “the way our culture understands, historically orders, and teaches how the Holocaust should be remembered—and effects like these require a sharp-eyed and unembarrassed resistance.”]

Tact is the discrimination of differences.

—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

There is little pleasure in being troubled by what so many have found deeply moving. For several months now, scarcely a day has gone by without a chorus of impassioned voices, recently augmented by New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley and California Governor Pete Wilson, publicly testifying to the profound impression Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List made on them personally, while insisting on the movie's educational value for our society as a whole. Skepticism about the entire phenomenon of attributing such edifying power to a Hollywood movie must seem simultaneously blinkered and ungenerous: blinkered since it is bound to be condemned as elitist snobbery, and ungenerous since what it hesitates to applaud is so earnestly intended to be both individually uplifting and communally responsible. But the earnestness of the movie's ambition, far from excusing its intellectual and moral blind spots, only makes these all the more disturbing. Schindler's List is not just an ambitious but flawed movie; it is a work that manipulates the emotions raised by the enormity of its historical theme in order to disguise the simplistic melodrama of its actual realization. The surprising thing, surely, is not that this film should demonstrate all the sentimental facileness of its director's other works, but that, when applied to the Holocaust, the inappropriateness of these same techniques should not have raised more widespread and serious misgivings.

Perhaps the most succinct way to register the kinds of qualms with which I left the movie theater is simply to ask why Schindler's List is so complicit with the Hollywood convention of showing catastrophe primarily from the point of view of the perpetrators. For long stretches, the film's energy derives chiefly from the battle between Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth, the commandant of the Plaszów labor camp. The stakes of the contest are, of course, the lives of “their” Jews, who are depicted as a largely anonymous mass from whose midst an occasional figure emerges to show his individuality by the shuffling fervor of his gratitude for Schindler's aid. Repeatedly, Schindler's List seems to turn into an allegory about the nature of the German soul, with its “good” and “evil” aspects embodied by Schindler and Goeth, functioning as each other's symbolic double.

As though the film's commitment to high seriousness could be expressed only through the moral conventions of the Hollywood films of another era, throughout Schindler's List evil is directly connected with sexuality and physical pleasure. A contrast is regularly drawn between decadently carousing Nazis and starving Jews (whose lethal hunger Spielberg wisely omits trying to represent, no doubt because it is technically beyond the resources of even the most adroit makeup experts). And even Schindler's own enigmatic journey from cynical opportunist to heroic rescuer is portrayed as joined to a gradual renunciation of any sensual interests. As his concern for the Jews under his protection increases, Schindler stops the rampant womanizing and extravagant living that had marked his earlier existence and rejoins his wife in what is represented as an essentially asexual union. (Emilie Schindler's rather different recollection of her husband is conveniently set aside, both in the film and in Thomas Keneally's novel from which Spielberg's screenplay was adapted.) To underscore still further the movie's link between virtue and asceticism, the one Jew who is particularized at any length in the movie, Itzhak Stern, an accountant who becomes the agent of Schindler's moral awakening, is completely indifferent to everything carnal.

So intent is Schindler's List on its didactic simplifications that it can only show morality as always absolute and homogeneous. In the rarefied universe of the movie, there is no hint of the “gray zone” about which Primo Levi wrote with such lucidity, no awareness of the agonizing choices and ethically intolerable alternatives that Jews were compelled by their tormentors to confront moment by moment as part of staying alive in the camps. Desperate with hunger and fear or not, the Jews in Spielberg's account have to continue to help one another at every turn and without exception, because, in a film whose representation of good and evil is so simplistic, only by being completely pure can they function as appropriate objects of our sympathy.

But life finds it extraordinarily hard not to be on the side of whatever pulses with energy; and the passivity of the film's Jews and the increasing sentimentalization of Schindler have the curious effect of making Amon Goeth the most compelling figure in Schindler's List. Ralph Fiennes plays Goeth brilliantly (just as Liam Neeson plays Schindler himself, and Ben Kingsley plays Itzhak Stern), and what we might call the viewer's affective identification, the focus of his fascination and attention, is directed toward Goeth in much the same way as it fixes on Iago whenever he enters a scene in Othello. Moral lessons need moral density in order to move one at all, and it is the absence of that density that vitiates Spielberg's film in spite of, perhaps even as a direct result of, its zealous efforts to construct a morally unequivocal story.

It would be easy to put together a detailed catalogue of the film's most embarrassing moments, including lengthy set pieces like Schindler's virtual apotheosis as a modern Christ figure in his sermon to the awestruck Jews looking up at him from the Brinnlitz factory floor (a direct crib from every Hollywood sand-and-sandals epic, from The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur to Jesus Christ Superstar), or the clumsy literalization of George Steiner's meditations on Nazism in the scene of an SS officer sitting down to play “either Mozart or Bach” in a room “cleansed” of its Jews only moments earlier during the savage annihilation of the Kraków ghetto. But such a catalogue would be curiously beside the point, if only because many of the film's passionate advocates have already noticed—and quickly excused—each of the lapses it contains. Virtually every laudatory discussion I have come across has been careful to register some criticism of the very scenes I have just mentioned, but without permitting that acknowledgment to temper its overall praise beyond the briefest of hesitations. For me, one of the most disturbing of all the film's effects is this readiness to suspend critical judgment, with its implicit premise that any work that aims to make accessible to a large audience even a portion of so crucial a story ought to be exempt from careful evaluation because of that intention.

Part of the general reluctance to think critically about Schindler's List arises, I suspect, because in the face of suffering on as great a scale as the Holocaust, there is a general freezing up of normal intellectual discriminations. Yet these moments of confrontation with the monstrous require more, not less, clarity and demand a greater measure, rather than an abdication, of the ability to concentrate on fundamental distinctions. If there is an elitist position in this whole discussion, I believe it is represented by those who recognize the film's evasions and simplifications but are willing to overlook them because of their hope that it will teach people about the Holocaust who otherwise would never take an interest in it. It is this kind of condescension, the conviction that while “we” may read Primo Levi or see Claude Lanzmann's Shoah for our knowledge of the Holocaust, “they” could never be expected to do so, that seems to me deeply arrogant. Hence, when as intelligent a reviewer as Bryan Cheyette celebrates Schindler's List in the Times Literary Supplement because it is “the best film on this subject within its particular set of conventions,” the hollowness of such praise is especially demoralizing. “Its particular set of conventions” is precisely what makes it impossible for Schindler's List to succeed in any more than the most trivial of ways, and by now the triviality of those conventions has rippled outward from the film to debase the terms within which the Holocaust itself is discussed.

For the moment at least, the most audible public discourse on the fate of European Jewry under the Nazis is being framed by the context of Spielberg's movie. The worrisome question is how long this moment will last. There is a cultural version, as well as an economic one, of “Gresham's law”: “bad money drives out good,” and in the ways a society takes up and defines the issues that engage its attention, the success of an appealingly facile articulation can set to the side, or even silence altogether, more complex and troubling expressions. This is also why to speak about a “Schindler's List Effect” is by now perhaps more useful than to concentrate exclusively on the film. Among the most vertiginous of these effects is the way the Holocaust is currently at risk of being presented, if only in people's first exposure to the subject, chiefly as the factual “basis” for Steven Spielberg's movie. The Mallarméan boast that “everything in the world exists in order to end in a book” has reached an abject incarnation in the more contemporary notion that only what has been presented on screen can continue to have significance today, that for us either “everything in the world exists in order to end up in a popular movie” or it will lose its hold on our interest altogether. Aided in this by both Democratic and Republican political leaders, as well as by an eager contingent of high school teachers, Steven Spielberg has encouraged free, and often even mandatory, showings of his movie for students in ethnically mixed school districts throughout the country, because, in the filmmaker's words, “this is a story about tolerance and remembrance, and it is for everyone. … [It] represents racial hatred everywhere in the world.” At present, there appears to be widespread official support for the assumption that screening a film about the horrors inflicted on European Jews will improve relations between African-Americans and Jews in this country, especially in urban high schools and universities.

Spielberg has insisted repeatedly that his movie is as pertinent to the Bosnian Muslims or African-Americans as it is to Jews. In an inconsequential sense, he is right, because in spite of all its scrupulous specificity in the matter of local props, settings, and details, Schindler's List is so conventional and formulaic at its imaginative core that it actually engages no real historical catastrophe—and hence excludes none either. This eagerness to interpret the Holocaust as a parable of universal suffering—when its very essence was a deliberate, systematic, and, if such a word can be permitted in this context, “principled” denial of even minimal humanity to those it condemned to genocidal extermination—bespeaks a characteristic American urge to find a redemptive meaning in every event. This is why, then, Spielberg decided to concentrate on a small group of Jews who survived and on the good German who aided them, rather than on all the millions who did not live and the millions of Germans and German sympathizers who did nothing to help.

Beyond the transparent grotesqueness of trying to extract an uplifting meaning from the Holocaust, the attempt to use it as a sort of emotional and moral object lesson to foster racial tolerance has been derisively challenged by many of those to whom these lessons are specifically directed. Although Castlemont High School in Oakland received the widest coverage in the national media, it is not the only school in which a showing of Schindler's List clearly did not lead to any rapprochement in its student body. Instead, it helped trigger a bitter controversy, as different ethnic groups competed over whose history had been more traumatic. After more than sixty Castlemont students who had been taken for a required viewing of Schindler's List (on Martin Luther King Day!) were ejected from the movie theater because they continued to talk and laugh throughout some especially brutal scenes, the predictable but still disheartening accusations of black anti-Semitism versus Jewish ignorance about the suffering of African-Americans reverberated throughout both groups.

The whole notion that whatever hostility and misunderstanding exists between two ethnic groups living in the United States today could be diffused by showing that one of them had, in another time and country, suffered catastrophic persecution, appears both psychologically and historically naïve, willfully so. In spite of such pious wishes, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that the sight of Jews being brutalized by the Nazis will do anything to change the ways in which American Jews are viewed today. Such a project testifies to only two things: the longing for quick and painless solutions to complicated social problems, and a radical confusion between the box-office success of a movie and its capacity to make people re-evaluate their prejudices.

Predictably enough, when Spielberg himself visited Castlemont High, he enthusiastically endorsed a new program instituted as a result of the controversy that followed the initial screening of Schindler's List. The title of the new course is “The Human Holocaust: The African-American Experience.” Clearly, in a culture as wedded as ours to the notion that victimhood endows one with special claims and rights, the scramble to attain that designation for one's own interest group is as heated as any other race for legitimacy and power. But victimhood, as this conflict over ownership of the term holocaust makes clear, is not a fixed category, and there is something depressing in the clamor of competing voices to prove whose distress has been more persistent and devastating, and whose claims to compensatory rectification are therefore more worthy. But because any sense of identity as constituted primarily by victimization is an extraordinarily problematic basis for either an individual or a group to build upon, what we need to do is question the centrality of the category itself, not simply apply it with more ecumenical generosity.

At the level of its explicit didacticism, Schindler's List is deeply complicit with the sentimentalization of victimhood as a guarantor of inner nobility, while at the level of the affective identification that it triggers, the film is equally complicit with the fascination exercised upon our imagination by the spectacle of absolute evil and power. Yet there is no dialectic, no inner struggle between these two contradictory impulses in the film: they coexist effortlessly because each is represented entirely within the most familiar moviemaking conventions. Spielberg's real talent has been to use the Holocaust as a plausible backdrop so that he can invoke both of these conventions simultaneously for their emotional charge while seeming to offer us something morally probing and original.

In my local video store, there is now a shelf of films about both the Holocaust in particular and World War II in general. Its label reads, simply: “Videos in the Category of Schindler's List.” A small manifestation, no doubt, but one that seems to me an accurate gauge of the “Schindler's List Effect.” Spielberg's movie does not merely, in Claude Lanzmann's devastating phrase, “fabricate archives,” it is already beginning to affect the way our culture understands, historically orders, and teaches how the Holocaust should be remembered—and effects like these require a sharp-eyed and unembarrassed resistance.

Susan Aronstein (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Aronstein, Susan. “‘Not Exactly a Knight’: Arthurian Narrative and Recuperative Politics in the Indiana Jones Trilogy.” Cinema Journal 34, no. 4 (summer 1995): 3-30.

[In the following essay, Aronstein argues that the Indiana Jones trilogy uses the traditions of “medieval chivalric romances” to construct a film hero who represents a modern American knight.]

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas's [Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade] culminates as the trilogy's much-belabored hero succeeds in his quest for the Holy Grail. Although Indiana informs the Grail's chivalric guardian that he is “not exactly” a knight, his achievement of the Grail makes him just that—and not just any knight, but the best knight in the world. Indiana Jones's triumph over the Grail Temple, a triumph that, in the words of earlier Grail legends, “brings his adventures to a close,” exposes the generic roots of all three films.1 The tales of Indiana Jones are tales of knighthood, modernizations of medieval chivalric romances in which America stands in for the Arthurian court, the Third World becomes the forest of adventure, and the Nazis or Thuggees function as hostile knights to be defeated in an effort to recuperate and reaffirm America's cultural destiny.

While many critics have persuasively discussed the Indiana Jones films as “Reaganite entertainment,” part of Lucas and Spielberg's attempt to restore the individual citizen's faith in America as the “promised land,” sanctioned to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors by its divine mission and moral superiority, these critics generally analyze the films as action/adventure stories and thus fail to take into account the trilogy's Arthurian roots.2 Yet, while it is true that the films owe much of their setting, plot, and suspense to Lucas and Spielberg's tribute to the action/adventure serials of their childhood, the films' Arthurian roots are also essential to an understanding of both the films' political and ideological agenda and how they function as story. In particular, the trilogy's Arthurian context informs the way in which it accomplishes its revitalization of what Peter Biskind has called the “consensus of the center” for a post-Vietnam generation.3 Without this context, most critics proceed from the assumption that Indiana is, like the hero of the action/adventure story, an unproblematic representative of Western culture, a properly constructed subject already interpellated into the dominant ideology.4 Yet, when we place the trilogy within its Arthurian context, it becomes clear that Indiana does not begin as a properly constructed subject; instead, the trilogy, as do all Arthurian romances, uses the process by which Indiana Jones, as hero, allows himself to be hailed and recognizes his place within the structure of the tale's dominant “American” ideology to affirm that ideology.5

In addition, discussions of the films as action/adventure stories assume them to be discrete units, a “trilogy” only in the sense that they belong to the same genre, deal with similar themes, and revolve around a common hero. However, the Indiana Jones films, as Arthurian saga, form a trilogy in a much more literal sense. These three films, taken together, comprise a typical chivalric “vita”—from a knight's interpellation into the Arthurian court, through his demonstration of that interpellation by such actions as rescuing maidens and annexing kingdoms, to his final turning to the spiritual values of the Grail quest. In addition, they retell the history of the Arthurian court—from its successful conquest of outlying kingdoms, to its divine sanction to rule, to its ultimate affirmation and dissolution in the Grail quest—as American history.

In this article, I examine the ways in which viewing the Indiana Jones trilogy not as a series of action/adventure films but as Arthurian romance clarifies the saga's political and ideological implications. This examination begins with a discussion of the historical function of the Arthurian legends as works of crisis and redefinition. I then explore the ways in which Arthurian romance reintroduces a positive vision of authority in times of cultural crisis through both its successful construction of the ideal subject and its identification of the court at the center of the romance as the locus of historical and typological privilege. Finally, I analyze each individual film's reworking of Arthurian themes and storylines and the trilogy's retelling of Arthurian history. This analysis focuses on the films as a trilogy and places the apparent disjunction in theme and tone between the first two films and the third in both a narrative and historical context. First of all, the standard Arthurian narrative, with its penultimate Grail quest, requires a shift from the active to the contemplative world. More important, however, the political events of 1986 and 1987 motivate the trilogy's final turn to the Grail quest as it moves from the first two films' construction of the proper American knight and that knight's redemption of the American ideological court to The Last Crusade's displacement of that court in favor of a spiritual reality.

That the Arthurian genre and its themes should appeal to Spielberg and Lucas is not surprising. This genre is, both historically and thematically, the ideal vehicle for reintroducing—or redefining—a positive vision of authority in times of crisis, a vision that corresponds to what Biskind has described as these directors' desire to present their audience with a “world of back-to-basics, black-and-white, heart-over-head, fighting-over-talking fantasy” in which, according to Kolker, “all individual acts are done in the service of returning or bringing the self and the world into a state of calm protected by a patriarchal force.”6 Arthurian romance, from its inception in the twelfth century to its latest resurgence in the 1980s, has presented its audience with such a vision. It originated as a distinct genre in twelfth-century France, the product of the French aristocracy in what Howard Bloch has called “a culture in transition, struggling, against deep-seated historical interests, to redefine itself” in the face of an increasingly centralized monarchy, new systems of law and justice, and the move toward a money-based economy.7 These original romances sought to rehabilitate the passing feudal order by integrating its values into the new centralized monarchy, a process that at the same time served as an attempt on the part of the feudal aristocracy to control that monarchy. Thus, while these tales do indeed depict the “good old days” as a time in which individual knights found their worth as members of Arthur's court, they also remind their audience that Arthur's glory invariably depends upon those knights. These stories focus on this interdependence as they define the ideal knight as the aristocratic warrior subject, a polished version of the old aristocracy, and the ideal court as the place in which those knights gather. From this feudal origin, Arthurian romance develops into a religious genre as later Grail romances devalue the court in favor of religious authority, redefining knighthood in terms not of physical prowess but spiritual prowess, a development that, not surprisingly, corresponds to the Crusades and the Church's attempts to control an increasingly unruly secular authority.8

The introduction of the Grail into the Arthurian cosmos, combined with the thirteenth century's fascination with history and saga, both fixed the basic Arthurian story in the compendium of Arthurian history known as the French Vulgate Cycle (which became the foundation of the Anglo-American Arthurian tradition when Malory translated it in the fifteenth century) and built a persistent pull toward conservative and authoritarian values into the legends. To seek the Grail is to seek God and a single ultimate meaning, and the Grail, variously defined, becomes the symbol through which a text confirms the natural (indeed divine) rightness of its ideology. Arthurian romance may have originated as a genre that allowed for exploration and redefinition, but the fact that the thirteenth-century chronicles, with their emphasis on Arthurian history, built into the genre the necessity to include a Grail quest in that history forced the genre into an authoritarian construct in which a single view of the universe and social order must ultimately triumph, backed by the power of God.

These early medieval chronicles, with their final turn to divine authority, fix the basic Arthurian story; later centuries merely retell the earlier tales, sometimes with new twists and new settings, but always depending upon their audience's knowledge of the standard traditions. What is fascinating about the postmedieval Arthurian tradition, however, is that these legends invariably reemerge when a society is, as was twelfth-century France, in transition. At such times, the Arthurian court again becomes the locus of negotiation, a place for either the playing out of new values or the reassertion of established mores.9 For instance, in nineteenth-century Britain the Arthurian genre can either, as does Tennyson's Idylls of the King, proclaim the glories of Empire and establishment or, as does the work of William Morris, serve to argue for the “return” to a simpler and less-regulated life.10 In both cases, however, and at its heart, Arthurian legend is always concerned with defining an ideal (usually the Grail), and this concern leads even the more “revolutionary” texts to conservative, authoritarian answers. In fact, in the late twentieth century, this concern has increasingly functioned to create a nostalgia for the days of clear-cut morals and benevolent patriarchy as exemplified by the works of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and a host of mass-culture science fiction and fantasy writers. All of the Spielberg-Lucas blockbusters capitalize on this nostalgia, and many of them owe something to the Arthurian genre, from the explicit connection made in the Indiana Jones trilogy, to the knight vs. dragon theme of Jaws, to the Celtic Otherworld experiences of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to the young-boy-finds-wizard-sword-father-kingdom-destiny plot of the Star Wars series.

Arthurian romance introduces its nostalgic “ideal,” an ideal that proposes a resolution to political and ideological crisis, by chronicling the process by which individual knights agree to become subject to the Arthurian order. This ongoing narrative, through its definition of the perfect knight and his relationship to the political and social structures around him, “teaches” its hearers/viewers (often themselves in the same position as the knight at the beginning of the romance) also to construct themselves in terms of the values represented by the dominant Arthurian ideology. Thus, Arthurian romance, as it shows the process by which the hero himself recognizes that the Round Table provides him with what Kolker, speaking of Spielberg and Lucas's use of the genre film, has identified as “an encyclopedia of desire, a locus of representations to which [he] wish[es] to be called,” provides, in many ways, a more effective “hailing” device than more static narratives in which the hero himself has already been called.11 In addition, this chronicle allows the genre to highlight the fact that “order” depends upon proper subjects; Arthurian romance argues that all knights must participate in Arthur's order not only for their personal glory but also for the sake of keeping the forces of chaos at bay. Conversely, the romances also show that the Round Table depends upon its ability to construct and retain the chivalric subject. The ideal government controls the ideal knight, and the knight that refuses to be so controlled threatens both its dominance and its “natural” authority.

Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval ou le Conte du Graal provides a clear example of this interdependence between the properly constructed knight and the ideal court.12 In fact, the trajectory that Perceval follows, from his integration into the Arthurian construct, through his aborted (in Chrétien's text, anyway) attempt at the Grail Castle, bears a startling resemblance to Indiana Jones's own development as an American knight. At the beginning of Perceval, the hero is unnamed and unconstructed, amazingly strong and somewhat dangerous, but ignorant in the ways of knighthood. As the narrative progresses, Perceval is taught the various ways of the chivalric life, learning to fight properly, rescue maidens in distress, and send his defeated enemies, properly humbled, off to join Arthur's court. At the same time, however, Perceval's acceptance of Arthur's court as “home-base” redeems the court, rescuing it from the confusion in which he had found it, a confusion that stemmed from the Red Knight's theft of Guinevere's cup. The properly constructed knight defends Arthur from such insults, and without him the king is helpless, reduced to stunned silence, as he is when both Perceval and the audience first encounter him.

The romances' vindication of the Arthurian construct, however, extends beyond this interpellation of the hero as ideal subject and that hero's defense of the central court. These tales also assert the “natural rightness” of their dominant ideology by arguing both historical precedent and typological significance. Arthurian romance, by displacing a problematic present with an ideal past, endows its resolution of contemporary cultural crises with the authority of that past. It argues that the new order the romances propose is actually the old order, the world of an idealized past to which the present must be compared and found woefully wanting.13 Furthermore, only by returning to this ideal past can the culture in question—whether twelfth-century France, thirteenth-century Wales, nineteenth-century Britain, or twentieth-century America—find its divine mission and heavenly vindication. For Arthurian history is typological history and, as such, recognizes the Arthurian court as the proper heir to the objects and privileges of a divine genealogy. This “family tree,” as the thirteenth-century Queste del San Graal reminds us, branches from Adam to Abraham to Moses to Solomon to Joseph of Arimathea to Galahad, and, now, to Indiana Jones as each of these men in turn inherits the sacred artifacts (the wood of the tree of knowledge, the Ark of the Covenant, the sword of Solomon, the Grail), an inheritance that, in turn, marks their cultures as the new “chosen people.”14

The way in which the Indiana Jones trilogy carries out its redemption of America on these two interdependent levels, by first chronicling the process by which Indiana allows himself to be hailed as an American subject and, then, through his successful interpellation, establishing America's privileged place in the time-line of typological history, sets the films apart from more standard action/adventure narratives and identifies them as specifically Arthurian. While the action/adventure film begins from the assumption that its audience accepts its cultural values, the Indiana Jones films, like the Arthurian romance, assume that the audience needs to be brought to that acceptance. As do the Arthurian narratives, the films begin their persuasion of the audience by displacing the problematic present with an ideal past. The trilogy returns America to the time when the Allies fought against Nazi Germany, free from the shadow of Vietnam and as secure as ever Arthur's court was in the moral right of its cultural code.15 Once Indiana has recognized the authority of the American cultural code and constructed himself in terms of it, the films can then proceed to the second step in their redemption of America, the vindication of the American way through the establishment of the nation's typological privilege and divine mission as Indiana and, through him, the American government, inherits the Ark of the Covenant.

The trilogy's use of the Arthurian romance in its attempt to “reestablish the consensus of the center” extends, however, beyond this thematic narrative of the construction and acquisition of the ideal knight and the concomitant valorization of the dominant court or ideology. In fact, the exposition of this theme depends upon the films' exploitation of familiar plots and storylines and their violation of generic expectations. While it could be argued—especially in light of Spielberg's own discussion of the work of Joseph Campbell and the fact that (in spite of the overt references to the genre in The Last Crusade) neither director has specifically acknowledged in interviews his debt to Arthurian romance—that Indiana's exploits as a hero simply follow the generic outline provided in Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, all three films adapt specifically Arthurian manifestations of this outline. In fact, not only do the films play with the standard Arthurian structure, but each of the films reworks key episodes in the overall Grail narrative. In addition, Indiana's own progress toward the American “court” in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well shall see, bears a marked resemblance to that of Chrétien's Perceval, while his education and success in The Last Crusade follow Perceval's similar experiences in the thirteenth-century Queste del San Graal. This combination of internal references, basic plot, standard motifs, and specific comparisons argues strongly for the trilogy's Arthurian connections.

James Schultz, in The Shape of the Round Table, provides an outline of the paradigmatic Arthurian romance.16 Since the ways in which the Indiana Jones films follow and violate this paradigm is crucial to both my assertion that the films belong to the Arthurian genre and my analysis of their political and thematic implications, I will take the time here to provide a simplified version of the complete paradigm; specific movements in this paradigm will be discussed in more detail in the analysis of the films themselves. The standard Arthurian romance adheres to the following plot structure:

hero established at court (feast/tournament/religious festival) = challenge to court's or hero's authority = hero leaves court = hero defeats enemies (monsters or hostile knights) and either kills them or sends them to court, usually rescuing a maiden and abolishing an evil custom along the way (several repetitions) = hero returns to court in triumph (generally with a bride) for a triumphal feast and/or coronation.

Most romances then repeat this plot in the genre's characteristic “double course” structure.

In addition to the films' adaptation of this general paradigm, the episodes with which each film fleshes out the bare bones of the plot are, as I discuss in more detail later, specifically connected with the Grail story, particularly Perceval's participation in that story. [Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom] narrates The Hero's Encounter with the Otherworldly Wasteland, Raiders of the Lost Ark revolves around The Imprisoned Maiden motif, and The Last Crusade recounts The Quest for the Holy Grail.17

Indiana's performance (or nonperformance) as hero in this standard Arthurian plot and these key episodes emphasizes the process by which he learns first to assent to and construct himself in terms of the American court's values—values that demand the benevolent patriarchal intervention in other cultures—and then, ultimately, to abandon these values in favor of a spiritual reality.18 Over the course of the first two narratives, Indiana Jones develops from a successful mercenary—an individual knight without a court—into the representative of an idealized American government, a government that is ultimately vindicated as the Ark “chooses” Indiana and America in Raiders' apocalyptic light show. The third film shifts the terms of Indiana's proper construction as it focuses on spiritual rather than political authority and Indiana, like all the Grail knights before him, must abandon his early chivalric code and learn to reread the world around him in terms of spiritual truths that go deeper than skill with a sword—or, in Indy's case, a whip. Like all Grail romances, The Last Crusade is of necessity a last crusade, because, in achieving the Grail, Indy goes beyond the code that both occasioned and ratified his previous adventures.

Lucas and Spielberg's Arthurian trilogy properly begins in its second film, The Temple of Doom, which chronologically occurs first—1935 as opposed to Raiders of the Lost Ark's 1936.19 In Temple, Indiana appears as an individual, a knight without a court, whose services are for sale in two currencies, the monetary currency offered by Lao Che and that of “fortune and glory” found in the quest for the Ankara stones. This Indiana, far from being the ideal subject, is adamantly nonconstructed, dangerously individual. His sole ideology seems to be the one he reminds Lao Che of as he presses his knife into Willie's side: “anything goes,” a code that leads to the chaos of the opening vignette. This vignette shows Indiana for what he is—a mercenary out for his own gain, uninterested in “right” and uncontrolled by any sort of chivalric or cultural code, as evidenced by his treatment of Willie. The Temple of Doom is an Arthurian romance without Arthur and without a court; the story of an uncontrolled knight, like the Red Knight of Chrétien's Perceval, bashing other knights, of a knight, like Perceval, in need of a court.

The narrative of The Temple of Doom educates both Indiana and the film's audience to recognize the inadequacies of the code with which its hero begins, a code embodied in the film's opening song, “Anything Goes.” “Anything goes,” the attitude of an individual (or nation) interested only in personal comfort and glory, leads also to a policy of laissez faire, a policy that the film explicitly reveals to be irresponsible. The hero has a duty to be the cultural savior, to restore order and fertility to the Third World wasteland—to protect the natives from their own, defeating the Lao Ches of the world, not working for them.

Indiana's lesson in cultural authority and responsibility begins as the film retells the standard Arthurian story of a knight's adventures in an Otherworldly Wasteland. The narrative's use of this story allows it to define the proper relationship between the “Otherworld/Third World” and the dominant Arthurian/American-British culture.20 It shows the Otherworld's need of the outside hero to restore fertility to the land: An Arthurian knight in an Otherworldly Wasteland is there for only one reason: to defeat the internal enemy and establish proper order, an order that brings back the rain and the harvest. Without him, as Perceval's own failure at the Grail Castle shows, the Otherworld is helpless; its people doomed to starvation.21

The film explicitly transforms Third World into Otherworld in the sequence in which Lao Che's pilots abandon Indiana and his group in their own get-away plane. The magic vessel (usually Morgana's enchanted boat) betrays its inhabitants and sends them careening into a hostile country—through mountains and over water, crossing the traditional borders of the Otherworld.22 Once our heroes have crossed these borders, they find themselves in the Wasteland, a brown and gray land of dust and wailing, starving people who greet the approaching knight as their savior, “Shiva sent you.” Indiana, however, at this point does not agree. He is nobody's savior, merely a mercenary on his way to Delhi. “Our plane crashed,” he insists and repeats his request for a guide to Delhi. He remains unmoved by the people's story, the type of story that always leads the standard Arthurian knight, as it does Perceval himself in the “Blanchfleur” episode, to beg gleefully to do battle on the beset people's behalf: “The wells dried up and the rivers turned to sand. The crops dried and the cows turned to dust. One night there was a fire in the fields. … The children. They stole the children.” While Indiana may be vaguely appalled by this story, he feels no need to interfere, to set things in their proper order. He only agrees to go to Pangkok Palace when he realizes that there is something in it for him. An escaped child brings a fragment of parchment back to the village, part of the story of Shiva and the Ankara stones. When Indiana reads this fragment, he informs Willie, “We're not going to Delhi. We're going to Pangkok Palace.” “What's in Pangkok Palace?” Willie whines. “Fortune and Glory,” Indiana replies. “Fortune and Glory.”

Indiana's quest for fortune and glory takes him into a world that exemplifies the issue at the heart of the first two movies: the proper relationship between the dominant culture and those not so fortunate, the correct attitude of the “white man” to his “burden.” Spielberg and Lucas's audience, a generation disillusioned by the white man's role in Vietnam, tended to argue that America's role in these cultures was to stay out of them. The Temple of Doom shows that this attitude is untenable. Although the exchange between the British captain and the Pangkokian prime minister upon Indiana's arrival at the palace may seem to expose the cultural arrogance of Britain's empire in a right-thinking 1970s way, the film's later events show that this arrogance is necessary for the protection and prosperity of the native people. When Indiana comes into the palace he meets the prime minister, a “civilized” native with an Oxford degree, and Captain Blumberg, the British officer come to inspect Pangkok. The prime minister explains this inspection: “The British are so worried about their Empire. It makes us all feel like well-cared-for children.” While at this point the audience accepts the prime minister's implicit irony, as the film progresses this smug acceptance is discredited; the children indeed prove in dire need of care—of protection from their native elders.

Indiana is, at the moment, entirely uninterested in colonial policy. He has come to seek the Ankara stones and the fortune and glory that they will bring him. When he discovers that the natives have reinstituted the Thuggee cult with its appalling brutality and blood sacrifice, Indiana feels no desire to rescue the land, to put things back in their proper, well-cared-for order. After witnessing a man brutally murdered—his heart wrested, still beating, from his body by human hands and his living body incinerated against a background of primitive chants—Indiana remains unmoved. This scene offers a clear example of the Arthurian motif of the “evil custom,” a motif in which a passing knight encounters a castle in which a knight or knights perpetuate heinous practices. In this situation, a proper Arthurian knight, for instance, Erec in Chrétien's Erec and Eneide, strides into the melee, offers single combat, defeats the hostile enemy, ends the “evil custom,” and integrates the kingdom into Arthur's empire. Indy, however, merely waits for the celebrants to leave and then declares, “I'm not leaving here without the stones.” Willie, no more properly constructed than Indiana, protests, in defense of her own hide, “You could get killed chasing after your damned fortune and glory.” “Maybe,” Indiana replies, “but not today.”

He almost does get killed today, but not as the result of his personal quest. The danger to himself occurs as the result of an uncharacteristic action—his decision to save the children from slavery. This decision marks the beginning of Indiana's slow conversion from mercenary to proper knight. He may be able to ignore what the adults of another culture do to each other, but he recognizes a responsibility toward the helpless children (and, as we have already been informed, the whole Pangkokian kingdom consists of children in need of benevolent fathers). His recognition of this responsibility leads him, for the first time in the film, to behave as a proper knight and to accept the role of divinely appointed savior that he denied in the village. He will return their children—and their fertility—to them. In order to do so, however, he must first do two things: become a participant in the dominant cultural order and revise his own definition of the Ankara stones.

His rescue of the children and, by extension, the people of Pangkok situates Indiana on the side of the British Empire. In fact, his ultimate success depends upon the backing of the British army. In the final scenes of the film, as Indiana and the high priest fight for the right to the stones, it looks as though Indy may be picked off by the native archers; however, just in time, the Brits appear on the scene and, using their properly constructed natives, the well-cared-for children, rescue Indiana from the Empire's improper subjects and leave him free to accomplish his final task, the hero's restoration of the Wasteland.

Indiana accomplishes this task not by merely returning the stone but by putting a moral code before his own mercenary's code of fortune and glory and, by so doing, recognizing the stones as artifacts to be protected, not objects to be plundered. Instead of grabbing the Ankaras and running, he abolishes the “evil custom” of Pangkok Palace in a properly chivalric fashion, choosing to concern himself with the affairs of this culture. As the village's wise man points out, fertility was restored before the return of Indiana or the stone: “We knew you were coming back when life returned to our village.” Indiana's triumphal return to a village now teeming with life—green fields, blue skies, brightly dressed citizens—brings the Arthurian story-type to a fitting close, with one exception, the hero's return to court. Indiana has accepted cultural responsibility only in this individual case; he still refuses to subscribe to an established court or its code of ethics, as the final dialogue in the film indicates. When Willie asks, “But what about your fortune and glory?” Indiana shrugs, “Who knows? Anything could happen on the way to Delhi.”

The film does not end, as do all Arthurian romances, with Indiana in the court at the traditional triumphal feast, the feast that indicates that all is well with the Arthurian/American order. It does not even end with him on the way to that feast. Instead it closes with him on the way to Delhi, motivated by the same code with which he began the film, the search for fortune and glory under the banner of “anything goes,” and, indeed, that is how the audience finds him at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While The Temple of Doom shows the danger posed to other cultures by the dominant culture's laissez faire attitude, the narrative of Raiders exposes the danger faced by both the culture and the individual when a subject refuses to be constructed and controlled by the proper authority. As an individual who bows to no cultural code and owns no master, Indiana is dangerous. He plunders and destroys. As a potential mercenary, he could fall into the wrong hands; without a higher morality to guide him, he, as the movie repeatedly reminds us, could become Belloq, a tool in the hands of the “evil power” or, in Spielberg and Lucas's own terms, the “dark side.” The film's opening vignette emphasizes both Indiana's improperly individualistic stance and the danger that stance poses both to himself and others. While Arthurian romance typically opens at court with a scene, usually a feast, religious festival, or tournament, that establishes the order of the court and its hero's place within that court, the first scene of Raiders focuses on Indiana alone, his shadowy back silhouetted against the South American jungle. In this first adventure, he works for no one; his goal is to defeat—by fair means or foul—the other shadowy men who also seek the idol. His first words emphasize this stance; coming across a dead body, he looks at it indifferently and then identifies it: “My competitor. He was good. He was very, very good.” But not, it is implied, as good as Indy himself. In fact, within this vignette nothing but bare success distinguishes the competitors, success at any cost as exemplified by Belloq's treacherous triumph. None of these men sees himself as anything but a treasure-hunter, a plunderer of another culture, a self-construction that these scenes expose as flawed. Indiana Jones, as an uncontrolled agent, destroys the very cultures that America is supposed to protect, leaving the temple in ruins and the natives in chaos as he escapes. In effect, he is no better than the Germans, who will later occupy center-stage as the film's bad guys. In fact, as Biskind points out, at the beginning of the movie there is little to choose between Belloq and Indiana (except that Belloq has the idol, which according to Indiana's code makes him superior). What Biskind fails to note, however, is that Raiders of the Lost Ark chronicles the process that ultimately allows the audience to distinguish between the two archaeologists as these adventures show Indiana being shaped by and becoming subject to the proper discourse.23 He may begin as an individual adventurer, but he ends as an agent of an ideal government.

The process by which Indiana becomes this ideal subject, as well as the mistakes that he makes along the way, bear a marked resemblance to the career of Chrétien's Perceval, the original Grail knight. The Conte du Graal, like Raiders, violates its audience's expectations by setting its opening scene away from the Arthurian court and introducing a hero who knows nothing of and cares nothing for that court's values. Similarly, Perceval's journey toward that court mirrors Indiana's progress toward the American “court.” Perceval, like Indiana, not only fails to protect but also actively endangers a maiden; in addition, this would-be knight has his own “Belloq,” the shadowy and disruptive Red Knight, whose identity (and armor) Perceval assumes until he has constructed himself as a proper Arthurian knight by readdressing his various failures through rescuing maidens and sending hostile knights, duly defeated, to be integrated into Arthur's court.

Raiders chronicles its version of the “Perceval” story, the story of the construction of a proper “knight,” on two levels. Ostensibly, the film is about Indiana's quest for the Ark of the Covenant. However, this quest is displaced by the narrative's focus on the relationship between Indiana and Marian as the film suspends the quest-for-a-sacred-object plot in favor of the imprisoned-maiden story. Yet, as the film explicitly identifies Marian with the various “objects” that Indiana must acquire, the two plots merge in the film's exposition of its thematic center: the need for Indiana to change his attitude toward the “objects” he seeks and accept his cultural responsibility as a citizen of a vindicated and privileged moral authority. In the beginning of the film, his attitude toward both the ark and Marian is that of a plunderer, a careless acquirer of objects who is unwilling to accept any responsibility for them. While Marcus and the American Army Intelligence recognize the ark as a symbol of both privilege and responsibility (the quest for the ark is the quest “to get a hold of [it] before the Nazis do” and to defeat Hitler and keep the world safe for democracy), Indiana sees things quite differently. His values are still the values of the Indiana Jones who set out to possess the South American idol. His motivation stems neither from dreams of America's glory nor nightmares of Nazi victory but from the simple assurance that the museum will get the Ark, an object that he defines as “a find of incredible historical significance,” scoffing at Marcus's tales of the “bogey man.” Similarly, his attitude toward Marian, as delineated by her own accusations when they are reunited and his initial reasons for taking her on, illustrates his code of take-as-take-can-and-consequences-be-damned: anything goes. When Marian points out, “I was a child. I was in love. You knew it was wrong” and demands, “Do you know what you did to me? What you did to my life?” Indiana refuses to accept any sort of responsibility for his past (or future) behavior. To him, Marian was and is an object, valuable for what she can give him—in this case the medallion—and to be taken at will. Indiana needs Marian because he needs the medallion. He needs the medallion because he needs the Ark. He needs the Ark because he desires to possess it. The rest of the film narrates the process by which he learns to view these articles not in terms of his own needs but in light of his responsibility toward them, a process that creates him as the proper American chivalric subject.

From the time of Indiana's arrival in Cairo to the apocalyptic sequence on the isolated island, Marian displaces the Ark as the focus of Indiana's thematic quest. Only after Indiana himself has learned to recognize that displacement can he succeed in his “primary” quest, the acquisition of the Ark. In these initial scenes, Marian herself functions as the “disputed artifact,” a function that becomes blatantly clear as Indiana and the Germans seek to “unearth” her from the appropriate basket. For both parties, Marian and the medallion are inextricably linked; to possess Marian is to possess the key to the Ark. Ultimately, the Germans triumph in this “archaeological” race and the film segues into the imprisoned-maiden plot.

This plot, one of the staples of Arthurian romance, in which a knight hears of a maiden kidnapped and imprisoned by a monster, an ogre, a giant, or an evil knight, carries with it clear narrative expectations, all of which Raiders violates. In the first place, it is never our hero's fault that the maiden was kidnapped—somebody else has guarded her ineffectively. Second, once the knight learns of her plight, he immediately abandons all other quests and runs to her rescue. After that rescue has been accomplished, he either marries her himself or returns her to her rightful owners, leaving her safe within the haven of patriarchal protection. Yet, Marian's plight arises because Indiana has been an improper protector. He abandoned her in the first place, leaving her prey to the soldiers who invade her bar. Even after rescuing her from them, he is prepared to abandon her again and only agrees to her continued company because she makes it a condition of his possession of the medallion. When he seeks to “rescue” her again in the Cairo street scene, his quest for her ends in the same manner as his quest for the idol at the beginning of the film. In seeking to possess Marian, he apparently destroys her; the truck that he thinks she is imprisoned in blows up. Marian's imprisonment in the Nazi camp is the fault of Indiana's own possess-at-any-cost code. As Belloq reminds him, “It wasn't I who brought the girl into this business.”

The fact that Indiana brought the girl into this business at all emphasizes his improper construction as a potentially dangerous mercenary, as a man who, according to Belloq, is a “rival so close to myself.” In fact, Belloq's next statements reveal the real issue of the film: Which construction of himself will Indiana ultimately recognize and become? Belloq continues, “Our methods are not so different as you pretend. I am the shadowy side of you. It would only take a nudge for you to become me.” The remainder of the film narrates the steps by which Indiana chooses who he will “become” through its unfolding of the rest of the imprisoned-maiden sequence and, with it, Indiana's conversion to the proper moral authority as he learns to take responsibility for the “objects” of his quest. This conversion has a rocky beginning; his reunion with the miraculously not-dead Marian looks promising at first, but, instead of rescuing her and restoring her to her proper protector (in this case Indiana himself), as the narrative sequence demands, this knight breaks off midkiss and midrescue. “If I take you out of here, the Germans will know we're here and be crawling all over the place before I can get [the Ark],” he explains. He regags the maiden and leaves her to her fate, himself pursuing the wrong storyline as he runs off in quest of the sacred object. He does get the Ark, but this quest ends in a repetition of the first vignette; anything that he can get, Belloq can still take away. The Germans seal Indiana and Marian into the dig and leave with the Ark. Only after Indiana loses the first object of his quest and learns to write himself into the imprisoned-maiden storyline does his true conversion from individual hero to cultural representative begin.

This conversion centers in his changed relationship with Marian. She is no longer an object to be possessed for what she can bring to Indiana but a thing of worth in herself to be saved and protected. He rescues her (and, of course, himself) from the pit and his true mission begins. Now he is the good guy, fighting wholeheartedly against the bad guy. John Williams's music soars in the background, playing all of Indiana's theme for the first time in the film, as our guy beats up their guys in the movie's initial “single-combat” scenes.24 These scenes result in temporary triumph; Indiana boards the boat for home with Marian, the Ark, and, one assumes, the medallion. He has all the objects he came for.

Indiana's attitude toward these objects is, however, put to one final test, a test that will confirm his right to them. Belloq gets the Ark and Marian back yet one more time, and Indy must attempt to retrieve them. His governing attitude in this attempt, however, is so different from the attitude with which he began that the viewers rightly wonder if they are seeing the same Indiana. This Indiana is a proper knight-errant, rescuing a maiden in distress. He tells Belloq, “I don't want the Ark; I want the girl,” an implicit admission and assumption of responsibility. Even the reason he surrenders to Belloq stems from his awareness of his duty to protect the objects he seeks. Belloq first appeals to Indiana's desire to “see” the Ark; this appeal is unsuccessful. Belloq's second speech is much more effective: “Indiana, you and I are only passing through history. This. This IS history.” These words force Indiana to lower his gun reluctantly. He recognizes himself as unimportant, as passing through history. Seeing and possessing the Ark may not be important. Preserving it is, even if it means sacrificing both himself and Marian to a higher good.

The final scenes of Raiders emphasize the change in Indiana's attitude. He does not “see” the Ark nor does he seek to; in fact, he repeatedly warns Marian not to look, to keep her eyes shut.25 And, as Indiana and Marian avert their eyes, the Ark destroys the Germans and Indiana ultimately triumphs. The Ark is his to bring back to America. But the true victory in Raiders of the Lost Ark lies in the triumph of American cultural morality over Indiana Jones. Only the proper subject can achieve the proper object, and the Ark itself chooses its new owner by destroying the improper subject and locating its power in the hands of the Americans, explicitly identifying America as the New Jerusalem and providing divine sanction for its self-appointed role as world police.

The film's assertion of America's right to power is not, however, unproblematic. After all, Spielberg locates America's divine mission in a pre-Vietnam past that harks back to the “glory days” of World War II, the American equivalent of the idyllic past of medieval Arthurian romance, a past that in both medieval and modern texts presumes a modern falling away, a deterioration in moral fiber. One of the points of Arthurian romance is its call for a return to lost values, to an innocent world where might and right were synonymous. Spielberg's post-Vietnam audience was acutely aware that America had fallen away from that world, a fact that the final scenes of the film obliquely predict. Indiana, in his last confrontation with the government, tries to locate the Ark, which is definitely not in the museum. He receives only vague assurances that it is in safe hands. Marcus and Indy try again, reminding the governmental bureaucrats that “the Ark is a thing of incredible power. It has to be researched.” They politely ignore them. As Indiana joins Marian outside of the university, he mutters, “They don't know what they've got there.”

The doubt that the trilogy's hero casts upon the dominant power at the end of Raiders is meant to serve as a warning, an object lesson to both the American government and the American people about the misuse of power that at the same time foretells the disasters of Vietnam.26 However, the lesson of the first two Indiana Jones movies is not that simple; these movies both condemn and redeem the mistakes of pre-Reagan America. As the end of Raiders shows, America can resume its privileged position through the proper use of power, through individuals who construct themselves according to the vague dictates of truth, justice, and the American way, a way that recognizes both cultural superiority and cultural responsibility. These films do indeed, in the words of Peter Biskind, make “the world safe for Reagan,” for the hero who was past master of the American rhetoric of the first two films.

Interestingly enough, Reagan himself, a product of Hollywood, was uncritically aware of the connection between movies and self-construction, as he announced at the 1981 Academy Awards: “Film is forever. It is the motion picture that tells all of us not only how we look and sound but—more importantly—how we feel.”27 The Lucas-Spielberg blockbusters do indeed tell the audience how it feels. These films tap into the popular desire for the strong father missing from American culture, and, as Peter Biskind points out, “Ronald Reagan was the strong father that Spielberg and Lucas didn't know they were looking for.”28 This strong father, who cast himself in the Harrison Ford role of the “successful hero, the winning candidate riding to the rescue of the nation,” called for his nation to return to the same idealized past that the movies posit: a past in which America, secure in its moral right, directed the politics and morality of the world.29 This “past” dictated the ways in which Reagan formulated and promulgated both his “picture” of America and his foreign policy. As Mary Stuckey summarizes his speeches: “The scenario that Reagan sets up in his foreign policy is simple and very powerful: the United States always has been and always will be a beacon of freedom and light to the world. We are a special people with a special mission. That mission is to remain a force of good for the world. We remain such a force through our beliefs, our actions and our policies. There are those in the world who oppose us. They are forces for oppression and evil” (61).

It is not surprising that this summary reads rather like the story outline for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Reagan, either consciously or unconsciously, was not beyond exploiting the rhetoric of films to confer authority on his vision of America's destiny, as Michael Rogin has discussed extensively in his essay “Ronald Reagan: The Movie.” Apart from his freely acknowledged employment of the rhetoric and imagery of Star Wars (“the Strategic Defense Initiative has been labeled Star Wars … But it isn't about war. It is about peace … If you will pardon my stealing a film line … the Force is with us”), most of Reagan's best lines and certainly his policies can be traced back to films, usually the countersubversive B movies of his own career, the same films that Lucas and Spielberg looked to in their revitalization of early Hollywood genres.30 For Reagan, the America of these movies, the great land of liberty surrounded by the interchangeable forces of darkness (the Nazis, Russia, Khomeini, Sandinistas—all part of the “Evil Empire”), was the real America, the “city on the hill,” the “island of freedom,” the “last, best hope of man on earth.” And he was the “hero,” the “guy in the white hat,” the “god-fearing leader who would establish it as the world's democratic defender of the Faith.”31 In fact, as Bruce Bawer indicates in his Newsweek column, America was happy to embrace “a comforting illusion—a daring, Middle American hero, an Indiana Reagan.”32

Ronald Reagan's use of this rhetoric allowed him, in the words of Robert Kolker, to “enact an extraordinary phenomenon. With the actor's talent for assuming a persona requisite to the situation at hand, and a national audience ready to become subject to a discourse of security, power, and self-righteousness, he was able to focus various ideological elements” into a new, conservative consensus.33 Reagan's ability to focus these elements waned, however, during the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986-1987, an event that, coupled with the increasing attention given by the press to the social problems of the homeless and the urban poor, led to the end of the conservative hegemony and the conservatives' loss of “their ability to advertise the specific interests of wealthy, white males as universal interests.”34 Thus, by the time the Indiana Jones trilogy's final film was in full production, the patriotic optimism that had allowed Reagan his hour as the “Teflon president” and spurred the success of the first two films had waned. The Iran-Contra scandal, while allowing Reagan himself to escape (almost) miraculously unscathed, had tarnished the country's assurance in the new American Hero; Oliver North, in spite of his plain green uniform and his Boy Scout sincerity, appeared to many to be an Indiana Jones who had thrown in his lot with the Belloqs of the world.35 The time for a hero who served as the ideal agent of a redeemed government was past; it was time to end Indiana's career with a Grail quest, a quest that could both redeem the hero and present the audience with a new cultural code.

Traditionally, the quest for the Grail centers around such a redefinition of heroism. The original quest, which sets the basic narrative for later versions, opens with the appearance of the Grail, an event which signals, as King Arthur laments, the end of the Arthurian court and a change in the “order” of knighthood. This change is heralded by Lancelot's demotion. The quest begins as one of the tale's many prophetic maidens informs him that there has been a change in his circumstances: he is no longer the best knight in the world. In the Queste, Lancelot, the chivalric knight, is displaced by Galahad, the spiritual knight, who embodies all of the values that the narrative valorizes: purity, piety, humility, and, most important, the ability to read the world around him in terms of its allegorical significance.

As the narrative continues, the need for all knights, including Lancelot, the former flower of chivalry, to learn to “reread” the chivalric world as Galahad reads it becomes increasingly clear. For instance, in one of the first adventures of the Queste, Galahad and Melias come to a crossroads. The sign at the junction informs them that a knight should not take the left-hand path unless “he is second to none.” Melias, in proper chivalric fashion, chooses this road “so that he may prove his strength,” a decision that proves fatal. He should have recognized, as a convenient hermit points out, the roads' allegorical significance: the right-hand road is the way of Christ; the left, or sinister, hand, the way of sinners.

Lancelot, however, proves unable to adapt to this type of allegorical reading. As he wanders in search of the Grail, he consistently bases his actions on chivalric, not spiritual, readings. The resulting interpretations, which lead him to do such things as champion a group of outnumbered black knights against a group of white ones (when he should have recognized the allegorical significance of their clothing), ultimately bar him from the Grail. Since Lancelot cannot adapt to this new world, he, along with Lionel, Gawain, and many other premier Arthurian knights, returns to Arthur's doomed court in failure. Only those knights such as Bors and Perceval who learn to abandon their earlier code and read the world in terms of spiritual truths achieve the Grail.36

The Grail quest displaces political and military authority, centered in Arthur and his court, in favor of a transcendent spiritual authority—in the hands of the text's hermits and learned men. This text argues that listening to these old men and constructing oneself in terms of their spiritual wisdom is the only way to true success. As Spielberg and Lucas end the Indiana Jones trilogy with a Grail quest, they too make an argument for a return to lost or forgotten spiritual values, values remembered by the old hermits. In The Last Crusade, Indiana must learn what Lancelot fails to learn: to rely not on might but on the wisdom of a humble soul before God: “The force, Luke. Use the force.” Once more, Indiana must “convert”—this time not to the proper political authority but to the proper religious one.

This conversion is, like the conversion in Raiders, a slow one. During the course of the narrative, Indiana must learn both the power of the “fairy tale” of the Grail and the wisdom of his Father's quest for enlightenment. In The Last Crusade, the quest for the Grail becomes the quest for both the proper Father and that Father's wisdom, a quest that focuses not on correct political action, as have the first two films, but on the correct reading of texts and the recovery of lost wisdom, as does The Quest for the Holy Grail. In fact, The Last Crusade discredits the political patriarchy of the trilogy's earlier films, representing military and political authority as suspect and corrupt and valorizing the hermits, the scholarly fathers who opted out of power and into the world of books and dreams and spirituality. These fathers, represented by Dr. Jones, Sr., and Marcus, become the true heroes of the film, as they instinctively practice the “proper” spiritual readings that Indy must learn to both accept and emulate.

The film begins with one of the trilogy's trademark opening vignettes, a vignette that, like the earlier two, sets forth the film's issues and points to the conversion that its hero must make in the course of the narrative. The opening scenes of The Last Crusade depict the boyhood deeds of Indiana Jones (much like the opening scenes of Chrétien's Perceval chronicle Perceval's youthful achievements) and provide the audience with its earliest glimpse of the trilogy's hero.37 This glimpse both explains Indiana's solitary stance and predicts the possible dangers of that stance; the young Indiana battles against his own possible future as he and an unnamed archaeologist, who bears a striking resemblance to Harrison Ford and wears what will later become Indiana's trademark hat, compete for the possession of Coronado's Cross. The action-packed sequence that follows this initial confrontation both retrospectively “introduces” many of the older Indiana's trademark tools and phobias—the whip, the snakes, his constant refrain, “It belongs in a museum”—and establishes the rough-and-ready combination of physical prowess and wits that the other movies valorize as the ideal heroic traits.

These traits grant Indiana possession of the cross and he sprints home, leaving the frustrated “crooks” behind him. He bursts into his father's study, and, in the scene that follows, the film introduces the alternative code that must ultimately displace Indiana's active ethic. In a quiet room in the middle of the Utah desert, Indiana's father sits, removed from both the corrupt central authority and his son's idealism, bent over a manuscript and praying, “What is dark in me, illumine, O my God.” He has renounced the active world to which his son aspires in favor of the quest for the Grail, which for him is the quest for spiritual enlightenment. Uninterested in his son's story, he tells him to stop and think—and to count to twenty, in Greek. At this point in the narrative, the audience, conditioned by the heroic ethos of the earlier films and firmly on Indiana's side, is amused by this bumbling scholar. It, like Indiana, must be converted and learn, at least metaphorically, to count to twenty in Greek. The lines of combat—between active acquisition and internal quest—are firmly drawn.38

The final sequence of this vignette further emphasizes this conflict while introducing the second way in which this film displaces the values established in the trilogy's first two installments in its discrediting of central authority. When the “cavalry” arrives—the sheriff and the Boy Scout blowing his trumpet—it does not, as does the “cavalry” in Temple, side with Indiana and restore proper order. Instead, this scene concludes much as Raiders' opening vignette does: anything that Indiana can get, this “Belloq,” backed by his employer's money and sanctioned by official authority, can take away. Indiana can only protest, “It belongs in a museum,” and embark on his own quest to exercise a “correct” authority in the face of the hopelessly corrupt official one.

The film's second vignette continues the narrative's recapping of Indiana's early “active” chivalric code; the transition into this vignette, however, casts doubt on the viability of this code as it returns the audience to a pre-Raiders Indiana. As the mercenary's hat becomes Indiana's hat, Indiana becomes the mercenary, the amoral swashbuckling hero of The Temple of Doom; his mantra remains “it belongs in a museum,” but the audience, familiar with the trilogy's earlier films, knows that, for Indy, to bring the cross back to the museum is to purchase “fortune and glory.”39

The scene cuts to the university and we see Indiana in action, describing to his adoring class what he stands for; his search for relics is, as he asserts, a search for facts, not truth. “If you're looking for truth,” he jokes, “Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is down the hall.” It is Indiana's lack of belief in “truth,” in anything beyond his own empirical knowledge, that this film confronts. Just as the two earlier films convert him from an individual agent to the subject of the proper culture, The Last Crusade converts Indiana Jones into a spiritual subject, a subject who learns to read the quest around him in the light of a search for truth; he, too, like his father, must learn to pray for illumination.

The narrative revolves around a quest for both texts and to read those texts properly and, as such, like the initial Grail quests, is an allegory of reading. This quest begins as Indiana is wrested from his academic setting and taken to Donovan's house, where he is shown the Grail tablet. He scoffs at it: “The Arthur legend. I've heard this bedtime story before, an old man's dream.” When Donovan continues to urge him to take up the quest for the Grail, Indiana sneers, “You have the wrong Jones.” Yet, Indiana must learn to become the “right Jones,” and as the film narrates Indiana's quest, first for his father and, later, for the Grail, it explicitly presents Jones, Jr., and Jones, Sr., as conflicting readers: one who bases his readings on his intellectual abilities and his desire for facts and backs them by his physical strength, and one who bases his readings on a belief in truth and the divine and a desire for illumination.40 Indiana's decision to search for his father marks his entrance into the Grail's world, his father's world of texts and the spirit, and on this quest he must learn to read the various texts he encounters—the tablets, the diary, the map, the challenges—and act not on his physical and mental superiority but according to their wisdom. Marcus, standing in for Indiana's father at the beginning of his quest, delineates the difference between the two kinds of reading and attempts to steer him in the right direction: “The search for the cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us. If you want facts, Indy, I have none to give you. At my age, I'm willing to take a few things on faith.”

The first example of Indiana's needing to learn “to take a few things on faith” occurs as he attempts to locate the second Grail tablet, following his father's notes, a cryptic series of Roman numerals. Lesson one. For the Indiana Jones at the beginning of the film, “X,” as he tells his class, “Never, ever, marks the spot.” Here “X” indeed marks the spot. At this point in the narrative, however, Indiana is still the hero of the earlier films, secure in his wit and strength and in his certainty that his father's way is inferior. He, and for that matter the audience, may be amused by the antics of this eccentric professor; but, according to the dictates of the first two films, while he may be cute, he is also “soft” and certainly unable to survive in Indiana's “real” world. Indiana himself sums it up when he finds the second Grail tablet and Elsa makes the mistake of comparing him to his father. “You're just like your father,” she declares, “as giddy as a schoolboy. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he were here now?” Indiana replies, “He would have never made it past the rats. He hates rats.” This sequence ends, however, with another reminder to both the hero and audience that this quest is not like other quests. A representative of the brotherhood of the Grail attempts to clarify the issues. “Ask yourself,” he says to Indiana, “why do you seek the cup of Christ? Is it for His glory or for yours?” Indiana replies, “I didn't come to seek the cup of Christ, I came to find my father.” “In that case, may God be with you on your quest,” is the enigmatic answer.

This exchange, simple enough on the surface, resonates with the film's thematic issues. As will later become explicit, the search for the father and the search for the Grail are one and the same; furthermore, Indiana's search for his father is more than the search to find and retrieve him from danger. It is, as he must learn, the search both to accept him and, in a very real way, to emulate or become him. The next major narrative sequence emphasizes these issues as it both illustrates Indiana's rejection of and disdain for his father and the limitations of this attitude. When Indy finally locates the old man, his father inquires, “Is that you, Junior?” an identity that Indy immediately rejects: “Don't call me Junior.” This rejection of his father's identity is followed by a series of events in which it becomes clear that father really does know best. He shipped the Grail diary safely out of the country; Indiana brought it back. As the Nazis attempt to use Elsa to persuade Indy to give them the diary, he shouts, “Don't do it; she's one of them.” Indiana ignores him and Elsa, pocketing the diary, calmly points out, “Thank you, but you should have listened to your father.”

As the film progresses, we see more instances of when Indiana “should have listened to his father” and, finally, of him learning to do so as the active and contemplative worlds merge and the proper answer to any situation becomes, increasingly, that of books and the spiritual. The fight between the two codes continues in the scene at the crossroads, reminiscent of the Melias/Galahad episode in the Queste, when our two “Grail knights” must make the decision between going to Egypt and Marcus or to Berlin and the Grail. Indiana, true to the code that he so painstakingly learned in Raiders, opts for Marcus over the object, but, in this quest, his earlier code is dead wrong. Jones, Sr., insists, “The only thing that matters is the Grail.” “What about Marcus?” Indy protests. To which Jones, Sr., calmly replies, “Marcus would agree. … The quest for the Grail is not about archaeology, it is a race against evil.” Indiana, the same man as he was at the beginning of the film, is still not buying this “bedtime story.” “It's an obsession,” he accuses, “and I've never understood it.” And that is indeed Indy's problem: he does not understand either the Grail or the lost traditions behind it. He has not learned, as his father has, that “if [he will] just sit down and think, a solution [will] usually present itself.”

As the film progresses, the need for books, old wisdom, and careful thought becomes increasingly apparent as the Nazis' book-burning party explicitly identifies “evil” with the destruction of old traditions. The knowledge of those same traditions saves the two Joneses' hides more than once and, finally, allows Indiana to achieve the Grail. The first instance of the power of books occurs when it looks as though the villains in the plane are going to succeed in running them down. Indiana is at a loss; Dad, however, comes to the rescue, using his umbrella to shoo the seagulls up into the propellers, thus bringing down the plane and destroying the enemy. His explanation: “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne, ‘Let my army be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky.’” In this case, reading and knowledge yield answers when wit and strength have none. As Jones, Sr., replies when the Nazis demand of the Grail diary, “What does this tell you that it doesn't tell us?” “It tells me that goosestepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them.” And when he uses his fountain pen to stave off the German army, Marcus quips, “The pen, the pen, you see, is mightier than the sword.”

In fact, the closer all parties get to the Grail, the more the narrative insists that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword and that the “fathers” must lead the sons to this knowledge. In one of Spielberg's less subtle scenes, Indiana and his father reverse roles; after his “death,” our hero reemerges, sans trademark hat. He is exhausted and defeated and Jones, Sr., takes over, gleefully leading them to the Grail entrance. Indy follows, accepting his father's lead, and the hat blows back. Indiana's resurrection and his following in the footsteps of his father mark his acceptance, at long last, of his father's world. What happens next completes his conversion. When they scuffle with the Nazis and their henchmen at the entrance to the Grail cave, Donovan shoots Dr. Jones, Sr., and Indiana faces the most important quest of his career: “The healing power of the Grail is the only thing that can save your father now. It is time to ask yourself what you believe.”

The answer to this question depends upon Indiana's performance in the final stages of the Grail quest—a performance that turns upon proper reading, a reading that reverses his earlier code and redefines correct action. While the brotherhood of the Grail's “messenger from God” had reminded the Grail-questors that “for the unrighteous the cup of life holds everlasting damnation,” the difference between the righteous and the unrighteous is, in the Grail cave, determined by each questor's ability to interpret the Grail “text” properly, and Indiana's survival in the cave relies upon his abandoning his earlier way of reading and reacting to situations in favor of an intellectual and spiritual reality.

Indiana's journey through the Grail cave reenacts his journey through the cave of the idol in Raiders of the Lost Ark and, as such, explicitly displaces the heroic ethos of the trilogy's first two installments. Both caves contain a scared relic guarded by boobytraps; in order to obtain each relic, Indiana must successfully disarm these boobytraps. Furthermore, each narrative employs the same obstacles. In both Raiders and the Last Crusade, Indiana must avoid triggering a sharp instrument, cross an abyss, and figure out the correct “hopscotch” pattern with which to cross a potentially deadly floor. In Raiders, his successful passage of these traps stems from physical strength, keen observation, and native cunning. He notices something odd about the light in the entrance and disarms the deadly pikes with a wave of his hand; swinging from his whip enables him to cross the abyss, and an experimental stone (thrown because the fact that “there is nothing to fear here” tells him that there is indeed something to fear) shows him that he must carefully traverse the floor. In The Last Crusade, however, he must abandon all of these earlier techniques and seek passage through the Grail cave based upon the wisdom of his father's world.

As Indiana faces the three challenges, the film cross-cuts between Indiana and his father, merging the two Joneses, as each of them searches for the proper interpretation of the three Grail clues: “the Breath of God, only the penitent man will pass,” “the Word of God, only in the footsteps of God will he proceed,” and “the Path of God, only on a leap from the lion's mouth will he prove his worth.” The success of their search depends upon their knowledge of ancient texts;41 Indiana moves through the Grail cave armed not with his trademark whip but with his father's Grail diary. The first test, that of the Breath of God, shows Indiana slowly moving through cobwebs and trying to figure out how to avoid triggering the deadly sword as both he and Jones, Sr., repeat the challenge. The answer here lies in the knowledge of the proper text; Indiana remembers it in the nick of time: “The penitent man is humble on his knees before God.” The second test, the Word of God, requires knowledge of not only the proper text but also the “tradition” in order to “hopscotch” safely over the deadly floor. Not only must Indiana know his John, that the word of God is the name of God: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” but he must also remember that “in the Latin alphabet, Jehovah begins with an ‘I.’” Finally, in the ultimate test, Indiana must both correctly interpret the challenge and completely abandon his reliance on physical prowess if he is to “prove his worth.” As he arrives at the lion's mouth, reading his book, he looks at the abyss. “Impossible,” he says. “No one can jump over this.” Then he realizes the true test: “It's a leap of faith.” As his father prays, “Believe boy, believe,” Indiana abandons himself to God, steps off the ledge, and becomes the final Grail knight.

When he arrives in the Grail chamber, the last of the three brothers confirms Indiana's status: “I was chosen because I was the bravest and the most worthy,” he says. “I pass it to you who vanquished me.” Indiana's victory over the Grail, however, is not yet complete. He must accomplish yet one more act of correct reading—proof that he is indeed the righteous. Yet, again, this reading depends not so much on Indiana's moral state as it does on his knowledge of history and tradition—a knowledge that, in this film, seems to be equated with moral righteousness. He must choose the true Grail, a task at which Donovan fails because he's “not a historian.” Donovan accepts the golden “Grail,” unaware that the “cup of a carpenter” “would not be made out of gold,” and pays the grisly price for his ignorance. Indiana, however, “chooses wisely” and, in achieving the Grail, finds his father and his destiny.42

The final scenes of the film reinforce Indiana's new identity. Jones, Sr., convinces him to let the Grail, the prize, go, emphasizing the flaw in the desire to “own” the Grail. “Elsa,” he explains, “never really believed in the Grail. She thought she'd found the prize.” “And you, Dad? What did you find?” “Me? Illumination.” Although Jones, Sr., never receives an answer to his counterquestion, “What did you find, Junior?” the ensuing discussion of Indiana's name answers this question. Indiana deflects his father with what has become a ritual protest in the film: “Don't call me Junior.” But, as his father explains, “That's his name. Henry Jones, Junior.” And he dismisses Indiana's muttered, “I like Indiana,” with the reminder, “We named the dog Indiana.” But in the end, Indy accepts both his father and his identity as his father's son. The film's last words record Indiana meekly replying, “Yes sir” to his father's “After you, Junior,” and the camera follows the three Grail knights as they ride off into the sunset.

Ironically, this, the trilogy's final sequence, in many ways reverses the process of interpellation chronicled in the first two films. The quest for the Grail has not been the quest to assert a proper cultural authority validated by the national acquisition of sacred relics; instead, it has been an individual quest for “illumination.” In this quest, a nation's attempt to write itself into sacred legend, an attempt at the heart of the early films, especially Raiders, is inherently evil and explicitly identified with the Nazi forces. “The Nazis,” Donovan says, “want to write themselves into the Grail legend and take on the world.” In this film, the desire to “take on the world,” even to assert a correct political authority, is wrong. Quite the contrary, authority is seen as naturally corrupt, sellable to the highest bidder, as illustrated in the film's opening vignette and emphasized not only by the absence of any “political authorities” except for the Nazis but also by Donovan's constant reminders to Indiana that he should “trust no one.” No one, that is, except for his father to guide him on his path to illumination. Indiana concludes his adventures not as a “knight” of the American court but as Henry Jones, Jr., secure in the values of family, religion, and cultural tradition.

The Last Crusade, with its emphasis on lost tradition and lost values, both concludes Lucas and Spielberg's Arthurian trilogy and cancels out the two earlier films, as do all Grail quests. It records the passing of the trilogy's earlier ideal of a politically redeemed America and yet replaces that ideal with one that is perhaps even more conservative: America has failed because it has lost its religious and familial (read patriarchal) values, and its strength will be recovered only in an individual rediscovery of these traditions and a return to both transcendent and human fathers. In the end, although The Last Crusade shifts the terms of the quest, it, like all of Lucas and Spielberg's films, is the tale of benevolent fathers and good sons and the search for the “true Father.” However, that father is not the political father the nation thought it had found in Ronald Reagan.43 Instead, in an argument that looks forward to the mythopoetic men's movement, he is the lost spiritual father. For, as Spielberg himself interpreted the Grail story, “the real issue … is finding inner happiness, eternal satisfaction. The film is about a father and son finding one another. … They find the Grail in each other.”44 In The Last Crusade, the Grail symbolizes that spiritual father, the father who will heal the rift between human fathers and sons and allow them to ride off together, in that cliché of victorious male bonding, into the sunset.


  1. From the first Grail quest onward, the coming of the Grail to Arthur's court signifies the beginning of the end. As Arthur laments in the original Grail quest, the quest will “deprive me of the best and truest companions a man could find. I speak of the fellowship of the Round Table” (The Quest of the Holy Grail, trans. P. M. Matarasso [New York: Penguin, 1965], 45). Indeed, Galahad is constantly hailed as the “chosen knight,” destined to bring to a close all of the adventures in the land of Logres.

  2. “Reaganite entertainment,” a term coined by A. Britton (“Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment,” Movie 31-32 [1986]: 1-42), refers to the general trend from the late seventies to the late eighties toward films characterized by a nostalgic desire for authority, the return of the father, and an ideological support of the agenda of the New Right that reinstated the privileged position of the white, male hero. Most analyses of Reaganite entertainment take the films of Lucas and Spielberg as their starting point. For general discussions of this trend, see, in addition to Britton, Douglas Kellner and Michael Ryan, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), and J. Hoberman, “Ten Years that Shook the World,” American Film 10 (June 1985): 34-59. Criticism that discusses this phenomenon with specific focus on Lucas and Spielberg includes Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), Peter Biskind, “Blockbuster: The Last Crusade,” in Seeing through Movies, ed. Mark Crispin Miller (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 112-49, Tony Williams, “Close Encounters of the Authoritarian Kind,” Wide Angle 5 (1983): 22-29, and Frank P. Tomasulo, “Mr. Jones Goes to Washington: Myth and Religion in Raiders of the Lost Ark,Quarterly Review of Film Studies 7 (fall 1982): 331-40.

  3. Biskind, “Blockbuster,” 114.

  4. While the hero of this genre may appear to be a rebel, Vivian Sobchack points out that it focuses on “political institutions and the maintenance of the body politic” and that the swashbuckler is an individual “but not a revolutionary.” He is “at heart a democrat” intent on restoring social order (“Genre Film: Myth, Ritual, and Sociodrama” in Film/Culture: Explorations of Cinema in Its Social Context, ed. Sari Thomas [London: Methuen, 1982], 161). What critics of the Indiana Jones trilogy do disagree on, however, is the exact form which this proper subject takes. For Biskind, Indy “has to be prevented from growing up—instead of evolving into an adult, he has to devolve into a child” (130); for Kolker, he is the “paternal saviour” (A Cinema of Loneliness, 287); and for critics such as Patricia Zimmerman (“Soldiers of Fortune: Lucas, Spielberg, Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark,Wide Angle 6 [1984]: 24-39) who concentrate on the films' exploitation of the Third World, he is the dashing colonial adventurer, the “male superhero” demonstrating his power over nature. Interestingly enough, all of these versions of Indiana as the ideal subject have a place in the politics of Reaganite entertainment.

  5. Indiana's interpellation into American ideology goes beyond the “reluctant American hero” pattern discussed in Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985). The “reluctant hero” sides with the “law” at a key moment and then rides off into the sunset; he does not remain a subject of the dominant discourse. While this description does fit the Indiana of The Temple of Doom (the trilogy's “first” film, according to the chronology given in the films themselves), in Raiders Indiana becomes more than the reluctant hero. He ultimately combines the traits of Ray's “outlaw” and “official” heroes. The process by which this combination is accomplished makes the Indiana Jones trilogy much more sophisticated than the critics give it credit for. It doesn't merely “paper the cracks” of the dominant ideology by presenting its audience with an unproblematic representative of that ideology; instead, it uses the character of Indiana to “construct” the audience in such a way that they, like Indiana, will choose the films' rhetorical construction of the American citizen over other possible constructions.

  6. Biskind, “Blockbuster,” 142; Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness, 287. For general theoretical discussions of the ways in which film accomplishes its own interpellation of the audience, see Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness, Kellner and Ryan, Camera Politica, and Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981).

  7. R. Howard Bloch, Etymologies and Genealogies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 258. While it is true that there are earlier, non-French versions of the Arthurian stories, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, the specific romance form of the narrative originates at that time with Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian romances.

  8. For further discussion of the political and social context of the first Arthurian romances, see R. Howard Bloch, Medieval French Literature and Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) and Etymologies and Genealogies, and Ernst Kohler, L'Aventure chevaleresque: Idéal et realité dans la Roman Courtois (Paris: Gallimard, 1974).

  9. That Spielberg and Lucas's America was indeed in such a state of cultural transition is aptly summarized by Kellner and Ryan: “In many ways to study the films of this era is to study a culture in decline, trying to come to terms with severe economic, political and social crises and to adjust to a world in which the United States had much less power, both economically and politically. Films portray the extremes of anxiety, tension, hope and fear undergone in this process of transformation and themselves participate in and further the process of social change” (Camera Politica, 7). In the case of Reaganite entertainment, films “participate” by, in Robin Wood's metaphor, “papering the cracks.”

  10. For a general discussion of Arthurian themes in the nineteenth century, see Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981) and John Fraser, America and the Patterns of Chivalry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  11. Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness, 239. For further theoretical discussion of ideology and the subject, see Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) and Terry Eagleton, Ideology (London: Verso, 1991).

  12. Chrétien de Troyes, Le Conte du Graal (Perceval), ed. Félix Lecoy (Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1981).

  13. Almost all of the critics (Ryan and Kellner, Hoberman, Biskind, Kolker, etc.) who discuss Spielberg and Lucas's use of genre point out that this decision in itself constitutes a move toward nostalgia. However, the use of nostalgia in the Arthurian legends is more specifically political than the general wistfulness for past glories that these critics propose. Arthurian romance uses the past to lend both appeal and authority to the very contemporary political agenda that they propose. See Thomas Sobchack, “Genre Film: A Classical Experience,” and John Hess, “Genre Film and the Status Quo,” in Genre Film and Criticism, ed. Barry Grant (London: Methuen, 1977), 39-52, 53-61, for further discussion of genre as nostalgia.

  14. Thus, Arthurian romance offers a rhetoric of privilege that provides an alternative to the rhetoric most commonly employed during this period: that of Puritan America (this Puritan rhetoric, as discussed by Robert Torry in “Politics and Parousia in Close Encounters of the Third Kind,Literature/Film Quarterly 19 [1991]: 188-96, is explicitly exploited in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). During both his campaign and presidency, Reagan continually employed the Puritan imagery of the city on the hill, destined to be a light of hope in a dark and evil world. One of many examples of Reagan's use of this rhetoric follows: “You don't have to travel far in the world to realize that we stand as a beacon, that America is today what it was two centuries ago, a place that dreamers dream of, that it is what Winthrop … with a little group of Pilgrims gathered around him … said ‘We shall be as a shining city for all the world upon a hill’ Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, vol. 20, 980; quoted in William Edel, Defenders of the Faith: Religion and Politics from the Pilgrim Fathers to Ronald Reagan (New York: Praeger, 1987), 156.

  15. That Reaganite entertainment must accomplish its redemption of America by returning America to the unproblematic past of the pre-Vietnam days is a fact recognized by nearly every critic who has discussed the phenomenon. As these critics point out, all the major film genres (which, they agree, Spielberg is an expert at putting back together after Altman and others had so painstakingly taken them apart) are premised on the nostalgic return to a simpler life and time, a time before Vietnam. Reagan himself also exploited this need for a return to an “earlier” America as his rhetoric always insisted upon the fact that America is not dead, that we must remember our World War II greatness: “When we alone, with our industrial power and military might, stood between the world and a return to the Dark Ages, [and] Pope Pius XII said, ‘The American people have a genius for great and unselfish deeds.’ Into the hands of America God has placed the Destiny of an afflicted mankind” (national television address, July 1976, printed in A Time for Choosing: The Speeches of Ronald Reagan, 1961-1982, ed. Americans for the Reagan Agenda [Chicago: Regnery Press, 1983], 179). The Indiana Jones films admirably depict this “remembered” America as they reenact, especially in Raiders, America's divine election.

  16. James Schultz, The Shape of the Round Table (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983). Early versions of these standard romances can be found in Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. D. D. R. Owen (London: J. M. Dent, 1987); Lancelot, Roman en prose du 13e siecle, 7 vols., ed. Alexandre Micha (Geneva: Droz, 1978-1980); and Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971).

  17. Criticism on Lucas and Spielberg falls into two major schools. One, already discussed, analyzes the directors in terms of their place within the phenomenon of Reaganite entertainment. The other, that of the “myth-critics,” discusses their films as either examples of Joseph Campbell's “monomyth” or Jungian archetypes. These critics are correct in their identification of the films as “myth,” but, in part because most of them wrote before The Last Crusade overtly addressed the Arthurian legends, in the case of the Indiana Jones trilogy they have missed the trilogy's specifically Arthurian mythic underpinnings and storylines. Myth-criticism on Lucas and Spielberg includes the work of Andrew Gordon, “Return of the Jedi: The End of the Myth,” Film Criticism 8 (1984): 45-54; Tomasulo, “Mr. Jones Goes to Washington” (an interesting analysis that combines myth and political criticism); and Lane Roth, “Raiders of the Lost Archetype: The Quest and the Shadow,” Studies in the Humanities 10 (1983): 13-21. Interestingly, both schools tend to identify the “Ark” rhetorically with the “Grail,” an identification that results from their inattention to the films' specific Arthurian subtext: the Ark is a political signifier, while the Grail transcends politics.

  18. In this way, the films draw on their audience's general knowledge of basic Arthurian legend. Of course, the more knowledge the particular audience member has, the more he or she will recognize Indiana's failings as a hero within this particular storyline, but even the most “popularized” familiarity (gleaned from fifties movies, comic books, Monty Python, and Saturday morning cartoons) with the legends allows the audience to realize that there is something seriously amiss with Indiana's behavior.

  19. These dates are derived from the markers provided on screen at the beginning of each of the films.

  20. Everyone seems to agree that the trilogy justifies the exploitation of the Third World, but, again, they see this justification as a result of the “choice” of the action/adventure genre. This genre by definition assumes the right to plunder other cultures. I would argue, however, that Temple does not merely assume the right; on the contrary, most of its narrative is concerned with arguing that such interference is not only justified but imperative. See Biskind, “Blockbuster”; Zimmerman, “Soldiers”; Tomasulo, “Mr. Jones Goes to Washington”; and Kenneth von Grunden, Postmodern Auteurs: Coppola, Lucas, De Palma, Spielberg, Scorsese (London: McFarland and Co., 1991). Von Grunden actually argues that the films cannot be implicated in their “unfortunate” generic connections, because the directors chose the genres merely out of a love for old movies.

  21. Arthurian romance is littered with heroes in Otherworldly Wastelands. While the most famous of these is, of course, that of the Fisher-King (the Grail's guardian), the maiden whose land has been devastated by an evil knight, another common example of this motif, also occurs in the Perceval.

  22. Perceval crosses a river to get to the Grail Castle, Yvain travels through a forest to a stream to find the magic basin, Sir Gawain finds the Green Knight by a ford. Sir Orfeo follows his stolen wife through a mountain cleft. In book 4 of Malory's narrative, Morgana's magic boat kidnaps the king and his followers, and when they wake up they find themselves imprisoned in her castle.

  23. Biskind hedges on the subject of Indiana's development, finally concluding that “Indy does learn something, sort of, but his education proceeds in fits and starts, and, for reels at a time, is forgotten altogether” (“Blockbuster,” 144). I would argue, however, that if you view the films in terms of their Arthurian underpinnings, Indiana's education is the central concern of the trilogy.

  24. Single-combat is, of course, a knight's best tool—the way he both proves his knighthood and makes sure that all potentially hostile knights submit to Arthur's order.

  25. Most critics, rightly, see this scene as central to the film's message, as it argues for a childlike acceptance of the authority of God, publicity, and directors. See Biskind, “Blockbuster,” and Zimmerman, “Soldiers.”

  26. The Ark is, on one level, obviously a metaphor for nuclear power, now in “safe” American hands (see Wood, “Vietnam to Reagan,” 168); it can also be seen as God's Word, “linked to male domination and phallic power … that the political bureaucrats have taken out of American life … This is precisely the 1980 campaign rhetoric of the New Right and Moral Majority” (Tomasulo, “Mr Jones Goes to Washington,” 337). More important, I think, it is a clear symbol of America's divine mission, the fact that they are the heirs to the privileges of the children of Israel.

  27. Quoted in Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 3. For further discussions of Reagan's use of rhetoric and its relationship to Hollywood, see A Time for Choosing; Edel, Defenders of the Faith; Robert Dallek, Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984); and Mary Stuckey, Playing the Game: The Presidential Rhetoric of Ronald Reagan (New York: Praeger, 1990, hereafter cited in text).

  28. Biskind, “Blockbuster,” 142.

  29. Dallek, Ronald Reagan, 59.

  30. San Francisco Chronicle, 28 September 1984, 24; quoted in Rogin, Ronald Reagan, 3.

  31. Speech at the American Conservative Union Banquet, Washington, D.C., 6 February 1977 (printed in A Time for Choosing, 201); nomination acceptance address, Detroit, Mich., 17 July 1980 (ibid., 234); State of the Union message, 26 January 1982 (ibid., 287); Dallek, Ronald Reagan, 59; Los Angeles Times, 28 September 1981, sec. 2, p. 1, quoted in Dallek, Ronald Reagan, 71; Edel, Defenders, 211.

  32. Bruce Bawer, “Ronald Reagan as Indiana Jones,” Newsweek, 27 August 1984, 14.

  33. Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness, 244.

  34. Kellner and Ryan, Camera Politica, 291.

  35. Stuckey discusses Reagan's troubles as they manifest themselves in his post-1987 rhetoric. During this time, he struggled and failed to regain his control over the rhetoric of “America the Great”: “This period was a difficult one for Reagan in which he lost his teflon coating and, despite the INF treaty and a national campaign, he never regained the momentum and the power that he wielded in his early presidency. He left office a popular, well-loved, but not highly respected leader” (Playing the Game, 79). Kellner and Ryan also discuss the problems that the New Right suffered as a result of Reagan's “fall” and retirement, pointing out that the power Reagan had wielded could be handed on “to no one with as universal (as metaphoric, one might say) appeal” (Camera Politica, 263).

  36. Galahad does not need to learn to reread. As the “chosen” knight, he naturally practices correct reading. For further discussion of the redefinition of knighthood in the Grail quest, see Lawrence de Looze, “A Story of Interpretation: The Queste del San Graal as Metaliterature,” Romanic Review 76 (1985): 129-47; E. Jane Burns, Arthurian Fictions: Re-Reading the Vulgate Cycle (Columbus: Ohio State, 1985); and Nancy Freeman-Regalado, “Le Chevalerie Celestial: Spiritual Transformations of Secular Romance in the Queste del San Graal,” in Romance: Generic Transformations, ed. Kevin and Marina Brownlee (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth University Press, 1984), 91-113.

  37. By beginning with “the boyhood deeds of Indiana,” the film follows the standard Grail plot, which begins, in Chrétien's text, with the boyhood deeds of Perceval.

  38. The original Grail quest is also an “allegory of reading,” as it teaches its audience to abandon its own early chivalric readings (originally readers interpret as Lancelot does; then, if they follow the signals in the text, they learn to reinterpret with Bors) in favor of spiritual readings.

  39. The film further encourages us to identify Indiana with the unnamed mercenary through its confusion of the two characters at the beginning of the movie. We see him before we are given the date (1912) of the episode and before River Phoenix is identified as “Indy.” Furthermore, in a shot that echoes the beginning of Raiders, we see only his shadowy back.

  40. If Jones, Sr., and Marcus stand in for the hermits in this narrative, Indy is its “Perceval,” the chivalric knight who learns to reread.

  41. The original Grail quest also requires a knowledge of divine texts and typological tradition as, before they can proceed to the Grail, the Grail knights must board the Ship of Faith, where they are given the “correct” version of history.

  42. The Last Crusade hints at what seems to be the new twist in Lucas's search for lost American values: cultural literacy, a theme that he develops in the improbable history lessons of the Young Indiana Jones series.

  43. As an anonymous reader of this article suggests, the film also reflects the American climate under George Bush and his call for a return to a “kinder, gentler America.”

  44. Robert Woodward, “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch,” New York Times, 21 May 1989, sec. 2, p. 16; quoted in Von Grunden, Postmodern Auteurs, 131.

Carol Dole (essay date January 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3222

SOURCE: Dole, Carol. “The Return of the Father in Spielberg's The Color Purple.Literature/Film Quarterly 24, no. 1 (January 1996): 12-15.

[In the following essay, Dole discusses Spielberg's film adaptation of The Color Purple, commenting on the increased role of male dominance in the film.]

When Steven Spielberg set out to film Alice Walker's The Color Purple, he was faced with a problem that confronts most directors who choose to adapt novels into film: length. Walker's tersely written three hundred-page novel, covering fifty years and two continents, contained enough material for a mini-series. Even with numerous American episodes removed and the African section reduced to a fraction of its length in the novel, the film ran more than two and a half hours. Nonetheless, Spielberg chose to add a time-consuming and seemingly unnecessary subplot: the story of Shug's estrangement from, and final reconciliation with, her father. Given the time constraints Spielberg faced, what made this subplot important enough to add to an already daunting body of material? I will argue that this subplot is exemplary of the film's modification of strong ideological elements of the novel, in particular its feminism and its religious heterodoxy.

Such modification might have been expected in any film designed for a mainstream audience. Walker's 1982 novel may have attained the literary imprimatur of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, but its celebration of a lesbian relationship, its unorthodox religious views, and its portrayal of whites routinely abusing blacks and men routinely abusing women were hardly calculated to recommend it to a popular readership. Even before Spielberg's The Color Purple appeared late in 1985, many people were prepared to dislike the film—some because they disliked the politics of Walker's novel, and some because they thought Spielberg did not share Walker's ideology. The mainstream press readied its attacks for the director: David Ansen (writing in the pre-Schindler's List era) began his review by suggesting that the idea of Spielberg directing The Color Purple seemed as improbable as that of Antonioni directing a James Bond movie. “What could be stranger,” Ansen asked, “than America's popular practitioner of boy's adventure—a man who some leftist critics have assailed for his white-male-supremacist fantasies—adapting Alice Walker's feminist, matriarchal novel about the Southern rural black experience?” When they saw the film, most reviewers complained that the level of sentimentality in Spielberg's rendering diluted the effect of the novel's strong statements about relationships between the sexes and between the races. New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby said that although the film is faithful to the events of Walker's “grim, rudely funny, black feminist” novel, “it sees those events through lavender-color glasses that transform them into fiction of an entirely different order” (H17). Many critics agreed with John Simon that the book's “feminist and lesbian coloration” is “lost in a mise en scène doing its damnedest to look like a cartoon film.”

While the film establishment was waiting to take on Spielberg, another group was waiting to attack the film on the basis of its objections to Walker's novel. A number of prominent African-American men criticized both book and novel for their negative portrayal of black males.1 Writing in the Antioch Review, for instance, Gerald Early derided the film for selecting as its villain “the black male, the convenient and mutable antihero of the white American psyche for the past 150 years” (269). Filmmaker Spike Lee stated in Film Comment that “the quickest way for a Black playwright, novelist, or poet to get published has been to say that Black men are shit” (Glicksman 48). Many other black male reviewers likewise attacked Walker's novel on the score of its scathing portrayals of its principal male characters: Mister, Celie's brutal husband; “Pa,” the father who rapes Celie and disposes of her two children; and Celie's stepson Harpo, who ruins a loving marriage by taking his family's advice to beat his wife.

In a climate of such opposition, it would be surprising if a mainstream filmmaker such as Spielberg did not respond by trying to avoid potential criticism of his work.2 On the one hand were the film critics waiting for him to betray Walker's feminism for the sake of popular appeal; on the other were male commentators insisting that African-American men were represented unfairly in the novel and would be in the film as well. The film Spielberg created walks the line between these poles, softening both Walker's celebration of female culture and her harsh portrayal of male culture. These changes, crystallized in the added subplot featuring Shug's father, are also evident in numerous other elements of the film.

The film uses several tactics to make its principal male characters more appealing and thus less offensive to audiences. Mister remains brutal to Celie, but only his threats appear on screen, not actual assaults. Moreover, he is given a likable comic side, most evident when he is scrambling to please his true love, Shug Avery. One of the film's funniest sequences is Mister's bumbling attempt to cook up a hearty breakfast for his darling, an attempt that ends with the explosion of the stove. Although Mister's dignity is undercut by Celie's subsequent success where he had failed, the scene gives him the appeal of a childlike earnestness. The casting of the amiable-looking Danny Glover as Mister helps offset the domineering presence underscored by the many low-angle shots of Celie's husband.

The film's softening of Mister is, moreover, furthered by the expansion of the role of his father. In Walker's novel Mister's father appears only once, in the memorable scene where Celie takes revenge by mixing some spit into his drink. Otherwise, he is referred to only because he refused to allow his son to marry Shug, who was already the mother of Mister's children. In Spielberg's version, the influence of this character is magnified. The film emphasizes the near-castrating power of Mister's father by its staging of the scene from the novel: the father slams his foot onto a bench between the spread legs of his seated son. Moreover, the film adds two scenes that underscore the father's negative influence on Mister. In the more obvious of these, the dinner table scene in which Celie finally lambastes her husband for his treatment of her over the years, Mister's father objects, “You can't talk to my boy that way!” and Sophia retorts, “Your boy? Seem like if he hadn't been your boy he might of made somebody a halfway decent man.” The film's vilification of Mister's father thus removes part of Mister's responsibility for his mistreatment of his wife.

Not only is the role of his father expanded in the film, but Mister's own role is expanded as well. When Celie leaves her husband in the novel, the narrative follows her to Memphis, where she cements her love relationship with Shug and achieves economic independence by establishing a business designing pants. Only after she returns does she hear of her husband's breakdown following her departure. In the film, on the other hand, the narrative remains entirely with Mister during Celie's absence. Celie's own transformation is indicated only by her new style of dress when she returns and her opening of a shop. Mister's disintegration, in contrast, is closely detailed in scenes of his drunkenness and his disorderly house. Spielberg's attention to Mister was such that Alice Walker, who was closely involved with the making of the film, worried that, since Danny Glover was in almost every scene, “it was going to become his story—Mister's story, not Celie's” (qtd. in Dworkin 95).

Although Harpo's role is not significantly expanded in the film version, he undergoes a transformation similar to his father's. The fact that Harpo beats his wife, Sophia, is attributed in both novel and film to the advice of his father (at one point seconded by the envious Celie), but the film depicts the beatings as less sustained and programmatic. Indeed, the film turns them to broadly comic purpose at moments, as Harpo concocts extraordinary explanations for the bruises with which Sophia repaid him. Harpo becomes in the film a harmless buffoon, guaranteed to fall through a roof nearly every time he appears.

The most significant alteration the film makes in the depiction of men, however, is the radical change of ending. At the conclusion of the novel, the principal male characters are redeemed by their entry into a female-ordered world. The emblems of that world are domestic and nurturing activities traditionally coded as feminine. Mister and Celie, reconciled through their similar longings for Shug, become friends and end up sewing together on the porch. Likewise Harpo, reconciled with Sophia after she finds him sleeping with his ailing father in his arms, indulges a long-suppressed urge to cook.

The film excises all trace of such “feminine” activities by men. Mister never learns to sew,3 and the catastrophic breakfast-cooking scene suggests his utter dissociation from all domestic tasks. Not only does Harpo stay out of the kitchen, but when Sophia suggests that he assist his drunken father home, he assures her that his father does not need him. Instead, Harpo is reconciled to Sophia without explanation, and Celie and her estranged husband remain alienated. Nonetheless, Mister redeems himself in the audience's eyes—and eventually, we are allowed to assume, in Celie's—by secretly visiting the Office of Immigration to arrange for the return home of Celie's long-lost sister, Nettie. This radical change in the ending of the film may have been based partly on the belief that Walker's ending was too unrealistic, as many reviewers of the novel charged.4 However, Hollywood has seldom let realism stand in the way of a happy ending, particularly in a film with as many lapses from realism as this one. More likely Spielberg and his scriptwriter, Menno Meyjes, didn't see Walker's ending as a happy one for male viewers. Gerald Early, in his article in the Antioch Review, complained that Walker's novel makes Mister “a feminized man by the end” (271). Many women viewers too might be dismayed by such a radical upset in power relations: Pauline Kael, for instance, sneered that Walker “allows some of the lazy, lecherous oppressors to redeem themselves by accepting their inferiority to their wives and developing their aptitudes for cooking and sewing” (81). In contrast, Spielberg's conclusion allows both for audience gratification, in seeing the heroine's tormentor mend his sorry ways, and simultaneously for Mister's retention of his male dignity. Spielberg's Mister repents of the horrendous wrong he did in depriving Celie of her sister, but, unlike Walker's, does not yield himself to a new, female-centered order.5

While Spielberg's film avoids controversy over female defiance of male power by erasing the novel's feminization of men, it further solidifies male authority through the new subplot involving Shug's father. In Walker's novel, Shug's mother and “pappy”—who is hinted not to be her biological father—are shadowy figures who have rejected her as a “Tramp” and who never make an appearance (Walker 45). In Spielberg's film, Shug's father is the local minister, who refuses to speak to her on similar grounds. Although the film, like the book, mentions that Shug's children are being raised by her parents—significantly, in the film she explains that “kids only come out right with a man around”—in Spielberg's version she is never seen to visit or even wonder about her mother or her own children. Instead all her attention is focused on obtaining her father's love and forgiveness. Twice she visits him in the hope of a reconciliation, once explaining to him how sick she has been and once showing off a wedding ring as the symbol of her newfound respectability. Both times he turns away from her in silence. But then, in the penultimate sequence of the film, father and daughter are reconciled when she leads the crowd from the juke joint into her father's church one Sunday and embraces him as both congregations sing “Lord is trying to tell you something.”

Even given the upbeat tone of Spielberg's work, this “big Vincente Minelli-style musical number” (Ansen 6)—with its vivid colors, rousing musical duel, and parade-like march to the church—seems oddly out of place in a film about such serious subjects as child abuse, oppression, and thwarted love. But however dissonant it may be, this extravaganza accomplishes two important functions: it masks the lack of narrative logic for the sudden reconciliation of father and daughter, and it provides an emotional uplift to ratify the importance of patriarchy. In performing the latter function, it is just one of Spielberg's methods of defusing the potentially controversial feminist politics of the novel by reinscribing male dignity and power.

This same scene accomplishes a second goal as well: to defuse the novel's potentially controversial rejection of traditional Christianity. Celie's denial of God in the novel—a denial based on her realization that “the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown”—might be explained away as a natural result of her anger at men. But Shug's feminist and pantheistic religion, to which Celie is converted, is more potentially troubling to a resolutely Judeo-Christian culture. In rejecting the biblical “old white man” image of God (Walker 201), and the Bible along with it, Shug directly challenges both white and male hegemony and traditional Christianity. She also scorns religious ritual, asking Celie, “have you ever found God in church? I never did” (Walker 202). Shug's god is not a male deity found in heaven or in church, but a genderless presence “inside you and inside everybody else. … God is everything” (Walker 202). What her god demands is only that you “praise God by liking what you like,” specifically including sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual (Walker 203). The novel endorses Shug's view of God by having several likable characters come to share it as they age—even Nettie and Samuel, who had gone off to Africa as Christian missionaries. As James C. Hall explains, Nettie's recognition in Africa of the ties between white patriarchal religious institutions and the oppression of blacks chimes with Celie's growing realization that “the Christian ‘father’ is not their father, not their spiritual reservoir” (94).

Spielberg's version of The Color Purple avoids any obvious repudiation of the Christian father. It does so in part by suppressing almost all references to religion. Celie and Shug's six-page discussion of theology is reduced in the film to a few disconnected lines placed just before the reconciliation scene between Shug and her minister-father. Shug's claim that God loves admiration is included in the film, as is (inescapably) the line that gives the work its title: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.” God is once referred to as “it” rather than “he,” but so ambiguously that the antecedent of the pronoun is difficult to catch. Moreover, the conversation about God takes place while the women cross a field of flowers so relentlessly lavender that the mise en scène overwhelms the dialogue. Most importantly, the effect of the scene is not to explore Celie's changing conception of God, as in the novel, but to emphasize Shug's longing for her father. Shug's explanation in the novel that God/everything “want to be loved” (204) is placed in a context in the film that suggests that the discontented Shug is really speaking of her own desire to be loved by her godly father. Such a suggestion is confirmed by the juxtaposition of the religious discussion and reconciliation scenes. Moments after Shug explains, “Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved,” the film cuts to the scene in which Shug does just these things in her successful attempt to reach her father. In finally embracing her father, the film's Shug is simultaneously embracing “the representative of the Christian white father-God explicitly repudiated” in Walker's novel (Hite 115).

The added subplot, then, embodies the return in the film of the patriarchal structures that Walker's novel works to undermine. In reinscribing such structures, it helps to undercut the novel's unacceptable ideology. This return of the father is just one of several modifications that make the film more palatable to the mainstream viewer. And these strategies clearly succeeded, because the film proved extremely popular both in theatrical release and on videotape. Moreover, they may well have been necessary strategies: it is worth remembering that in 1985 just getting Hollywood to make a major film with an all-black cast was a landmark achievement. To get financing for a film that was also feminist, anti-Christian, and pro-lesbian would no doubt have been impossible even for a director with Steven Spielberg's clout.


  1. Jacqueline Bobo's study of the reception of the film makes clear both that African-American women generally liked the film and that African-American men, who generally criticized the film, were sometimes reacting to the film on the basis of their feelings toward the novel. For instance, she points out that both Courtland Milloy, a black male columnist for the Washington Post, and Tony Brown, the host of a weekly television program, condemned the film without having even seen it (Bobo 337).

  2. Spielberg found this film “scary” to start with, since it was to be a new genre for him. Although he stated before its release that he did not expect The Color Purple to prove a “massively popular entertainment,” he added, “I would like a lot of people to see the movie” (Breskind 74).

  3. John Peacock, in an article in Literature/Film Quarterly, points out that the film's erasure of reconciliation through sewing is also a rejection of an African-American folk tradition of reestablishing community in favor of an Anglo-American tradition of resolution through reversal of fortunes.

  4. See Hite for a survey of charges that the novel lacks realism and a reading of the novel as a romance (103-18).

  5. John Digby offers an additional reason for the film to excise Celic's reconciliation with Mister: that the dinnertable scene in which Celic defies her husband is so powerful that “the film had not sufficient time to create the illusion of regeneration complete enough to bring her back” (Digby 164).

Works Cited

Ansen, David. “We Shall Overcome.” Newsweek 30 Dec. 1985: 59-60.

Bobo, Jacqueline. “Sifting through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple.Callaloo 12 (Spring 1989): 332-42.

Breskind, David. Interview with Steven Spielberg. Rolling Stone 24 Oct. 1985: 22-24, 70-80.

Canby, Vincent. “From a Palette of Cliches Comes The Color Purple.New York Times 5 Jan. 1986: H17+.

Digby, Joan. “From Walker to Spielberg: Transformations of The Color Purple.Novel Images. Ed. Peter Reynolds. New York: Routledge, 1993. 157-174.

The Color Purple. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Warner, 1985.

Dworkin, Susan. “The Strange and Wonderful Story of the Making of The Color Purple.Ms. Dec. 1985: 66-70, 94-95.

Early, Gerald. “The Color Purple as Everybody's Protest Art.” Antioch Review 44 (Summer 1986): 261-75.

Glicksman, Marlaine. “Lee Way.” Film Comment October 1986: 46.

Hall, James C. “Towards a Map of Mis(sed) Reading: The Presence of Absence in The Color Purple.African American Review 26 (Spring 1992): 89-97.

Hite, Molly. The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989.

Kael, Pauline. “Sacred Monsters.” Hooked. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1989: 80-83.

Peacock, John. “When Folk Goes Pop: Consuming The Color Purple.Literature/Film Quarterly 19.3 (1991): 176-80.

Simon, John. “Black and White in Purple.” National Review 14 Feb. 1986: 56.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1985.

Jonathan Coe (review date 18 July 1997)

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SOURCE: Coe, Jonathan. Review of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, by Steven Spielberg. New Statesman 126, no. 4343 (18 July 1997): 43-4.

[In the following review, Coe criticizes the violent excesses in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, declaring that the film is “among the grossest, not to mention goriest and most sadistic films ever to have been awarded a PG certificate in this country.”]

The Lost World: Jurassic Park—or, to give it its full, even more elegant title, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (TM)—is apparently the highest grossing film of all time; or at least, it was for about a week, until the next highest-grossing-film-of-all-time came along. (Funny how these records keep getting broken. I suspect it has more to do with population increases and rising ticket prices than with Hollywood's ability to make bigger and better films.) Producers are always talking about a film's “gross”, and the word certainly popped into my mind often enough during The Lost World: Jurassic Park: in fact it must be among the grossest, not to mention goriest and most sadistic films ever to have been awarded a PG certificate in this country. There's so much violence and bloody mayhem that it makes Crash look like a mid-1970s edition of Blue Peter. What can James Ferman and friends have been thinking of?

But then the gross-out factor, the audience's shrieks of delighted revulsion, the exquisite calculation of just how much violence the kids can take—these are all part of Spielberg's peculiar genius. He's up there with Disney and Hitchcock in the pantheon of cinema's most shameless and brilliant torturers. The same goes for his way with pathos. There are some shots here of a baby T Rex being used as a huntsman's bait, tethered to the ground and whimpering plangently, which brought tears to my jaded old critic's eyes. Afterward, of course, I realised that I had been weeping over a piece of computer-controlled plastic, and hated myself for it. But that's part of Spielberg's genius, too.

The utter realism of the dinosaurs is something we simply take for granted, after the first film. There's none of the build up to their first appearance, no gasps of wonder at our first glimpse; in fact the entire exposition is garbled and perfunctory, something that has to be rushed through for form's sake. A quick dialogue scene between Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough establishes that the original island was just a sideshow, and the real dinosaur action is taking place on something called “Site B”. Goldblum decides he has to go there, for some reason (who cares?), and on arrival finds that his girlfriend—or maybe his wife (who cares?)—Julianne Moore has preceded him, and is busy doing some sort of research (into dinosaur mating habits? Who cares?) Also installed are Pete Postlethwaite, as the last of the Great White Hunters, determined to have a T Rex to fit into his trophy case, and a bunch of baddies led by Arliss Howard, who want to turn the island into a theme park. (At least I think that's what they want—but then who, for God's sake, cares?)

What follows is an unrelenting barrage of action sequences, many of which are admittedly stunning. The Lost World: Jurassic Park stands in much the same relation to its predecessor as Aliens did to the original Alien. Knowing that the mere sight of the occasional monster is no longer going to fill us with terror, the filmmakers now bombard us with the things. Dinosaurs fly at the luckless protagonists from all angles, crushing them to death, bashing them to the ground with their tails, snapping their heads off, chomping greedily, and so on. One particularly horrific scene has a man covered from head to foot in dozens of tiny, screeching lizards, one of which gnaws half of his upper lip away in loving close-up.

As the film races from one such extraordinary scene to another—most of them taking place at night, many in the rain, and accompanied by a bone-rattling soundtrack of special effects and symphony orchestra—you start to realise with a certain awe that you're watching some kind of apotheosis of the action movie. The analogy with roller-coaster rides is hackneyed but accurate. Spielberg has made a theme park, not a movie (although on one level the film seems to regard itself, laughably, as a critique of theme park culture), and the real genetic monstrosity here is not the velociraptor or the pterodactyl, but the mutation of what was once intended as an art-form into a mere machine for quickening the pulse. And by far the most scary thing about the film is what it tells us about Spielberg: that although he does seem to have a grasp of concepts such as human interest and imaginative sympathy—as the genuinely affecting Schindler's List testifies—he seems to bring just as much energy and commitment to bear on projects that don't even give them the most perfunctory look-in.

That title still exercises me, by the way. Is this, I wonder, the start of a new fashion for simply tacking the name of a successful film onto the name of its sequel? Suppose they now make a sequel to TLWJP [The Lost World: Jurassic Park] called Monster Island—will it be billed as Monster Island The Lost World: Jurassic Park (TM)? And supposing that is a huge success: will there be a follow-up called Four Dinosaurs and a Funeral Monster Island The Lost World of Jurassic Park (TM)?

What was wrong with plain old Jurassic Park 2, in the first place?

Mark Steyn (review date 19 July 1997)

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SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Carry on Killing.” Spectator 279, no. 8816 (19 July 1997): 39-40.

[In the following review, Steyn comments on the frenetic pace of The Lost World: Jurassic Park and states that “Spielberg's films are turning into his dinosaurs: big, brutal, but with no imagination.”]

A couple of months ago, a dog in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, attacked a neighbour's chicken. Under the town's rigorous ‘three strikes, you're dead’ law, he was sentenced to die, prompting a local outcry and mounting pressure on the state's governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. At this point, various legal experts weighed in, arguing that, under the state's constitution, the governor's power of clemency extended only to human beings on death row, not to any other species. Tired of having to carry the cost of feeding the inmate during these constitutional arguments, the municipal authorities reversed their decision and gave the dog 48 hours to leave town. If he ever returned to Portsmouth again, he'd be shot on sight. He now lives in a neighbouring community, and his family visits him every weekend.

Other jurisdictions are even tougher—including Britain, at least since Kenneth Baker decided to transform himself into a Lee Kuan Yew for pit-bulls. So what I want to know, after seeing The Lost World, is: who does Steven Spielberg's Tyrannosaurus Rex have for a lawyer? This guy chews up the usual minor expedition members on a remote tropical island, dismembers the entire crew of the boat bringing him to California, chows down on several prominent San Diego dignitaries and then rampages through the city streets, killing the citizenry indiscriminately. All this on top of entering the United States illegally. Yet, at the end, all he gets is a tranquilliser dart in the butt and a ship back to his island, accompanied by half the US Navy.

Back in his own natural environment, though at first he may miss the great taste of mall pedestrian, he'll be able to frolic undisturbed by man's madness. For, as chastened dino-breeder Richard Attenborough says, henceforth he'll be working much more closely ‘with the Costa Rican Department of Biological Preserves’. I very much doubt whether there's a Department of Biological Preserves in Costa Rica and, if there is, it's probably something to do with organic marmalade. But, either way, I can't see the American government being happy to entrust them with control of the world's dinosaur population.

The only ‘lost world’ is ours. Spielberg's lost it and so have the movie-goers who collectively paid $90 million to see this picture in its first four days of release. For, even on the level of summer blockbusters, this film makes no sense at all. Ever since he cannily remade Lassie, Come Home and called it E.T., Spielberg has preferred to operate to Jurassic era plots dressed up with space-age wizardry. The template here is King Kong: it starts in a primaeval mist-shrouded jungle of vines and redwoods; it ends in the big city to which the great white hunter has been foolish enough to take the beast. In between, every cliché of the genre is faithfully disinterred—for example, the superstitious natives who refuse to take the expedition any further: ‘They call these islands … Las Cinco Muertes.’ ‘What does that mean?’

But King Kong displays a sounder understanding of human nature. In The Lost World, the only reason any of the bad things happen is because a Greenpeace photographer comes across a wounded baby T Rex and decides they have to set his broken leg. Presumably this is so T-boy, with his leg fully restored, can carry on killing everybody in sight as nature intended (or, in this case, as Richard Attenborough intended). Unlike Jurassic Park, which didn't skimp on the savagery, we're now supposed to regard the T Rexes and velociraptors as baby seals in dinosaur's clothing.

Of course, nobody goes to these films for characterisation. We're here to marvel at the computer generations and the animatronics, which have, indeed, improved. The trouble is Spielberg can't find anything new for them to do: the dinosaurs thump through the undergrowth with that distinctive waddle, like blue-collar lard-butts stampeding a Dunkin' Donuts. But there's nothing to match the pace and tension of the first film's 'raptors-in-the-kitchen finale. The ‘money shot’—as porno directors call it—is that of the T Rex roaring against the skyline of San Diego at night, but it has a generic, all-purpose monster-on-the-loose feel. Back in 1933, even the two journeymen directors of King Kong understood the need for the primal sensation of Kong halfway up the Empire State Building.

The best moment comes when the T Rex approaches US Immigration—‘Welcome To The United States Of America. No fruits, vegetables or animals beyond this point’—and smashes through the post. If Spielberg is happy to accord dinosaurs the status of eco-friendly ‘animals’, he's even more blasé about reducing the human beings to fruits and vegetables. Of Jeff Goldblum, his white girlfriend and black child, the champagne-swilling Brits, there's nothing to be said. Such honours as there are go to Pete Postlethwaite as a bullet-headed Ahab for the Nineties: ‘All I want is the right to hunt one of these tyrannosaurs—a male, a buck. How and why is my business,’ he adds, forestalling any attempt to query his motivation. But even this obsession never comes to any dramatically satisfying resolution.

Maybe if the actors were replaced by animatronics, they might at least be given as rounded a character as the monsters. As it is, The Lost World seems perfunctory—busy but joyless, like turning up ten minutes before closing time and getting rushed round the guided tour. Just as owners grow to resemble their dogs, so Spielberg's films are turning into his dinosaurs: big, brutal, but with no imagination.

William Cash (review date 13 December 1997)

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SOURCE: Cash, William. “Spielberg Slips on the Celluloid Deck.” Spectator 279, no. 8837 (13 December 1997): 12-13.

[In the following review, Cash contrasts Spielberg's treatment of the Holocaust in Schindler's List with his portrayal of slavery in Amistad, contending that Amistad is both an insensitive and patronizing fictionalization of the era of slavery.]

For Steven Spielberg, who once shocked Alice Walker, the black author of The Color Purple, by breezing that Gone with the Wind was his ‘favourite movie of all time’, slavery may seem an odd choice as the subject of his first film for the new Dreamworks studio. But December is the start of the Academy Award season, and Spielberg—recently ranked Hollywood's number one most powerful ‘director-partner-godhead’ by Entertainment Weekly in its annual Power List—is eager for another taste of Oscar's golden chalice, adding to his trophy haul for Schindler's List.

Amistad is a $70 million epic about a black slave rebellion aboard a Spanish ship in 1839, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman. But, as an LA court heard earlier this week, Spielberg's Oscar quest this year is facing an embarrassing snag. In a saga that Time is calling ‘Stealberg’, the black author Barbara Chase-Riboud is accusing Spielberg of $10 million-worth of brazen ‘literary piracy’ from her own bestselling fiction account of the slave mutiny, called Echo of Lions.

Still, this scuffle has done nothing to stop the American media boarding the Amistad ship and crowning Steven Spielberg the official patron saint of oppressed racial victimhood. Newsweek, in a superlative-packed cover story, has led the way by zealously stating that Spielberg attempts to ‘do for slavery what he did for the Holocaust in Schindler's List—to bring a vast audience face to face with both the horror and the subtlety of the crimes of history’.

All week, United States newspapers and television shows have been cranking out the Schindler parallel, with much footage and meaningful comparisons between Nazi concentration camps and the slave horrors of the Middle Passage. But, as James Baldwin observed in a famous 1967 essay on race in America, published in the New York Times Magazine, any attempt to draw a parallel between the tragedy of black slavery and the Jewish Holocaust is loaded with political landmines. ‘One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro's suffering. It isn't, and one knows that it isn't from the very tone in which he assures you it is.’

Whilst the American Jewish community has long been determined to remind itself and the public of the atrocities of Nazi genocide, many African-Americans resent the subject of slavery being brought up at all. The culture of denial is comprehensive. In the South, where I have been recently, you only have to be the most cursory tourist to see how it has become sanitised for the visitor. In Charleston, capital of American slavery, the visitor strolls through the cobbled old slave market on Chalmers Street, happily signposted and now a chic residential downtown neighbourhood.

‘There is a collective amnesia about slavery in the American mind, both black and white, which has afflicted the country since the day slavery was abolished in 1865,’ says Henry Louis Gates Jnr, chairman of African-American studies at Harvard University. Significantly, there still remains no memorial to slavery in Washington. According to Mr Gates, the first book written by a black historian about slavery wasn't published until 1972.

Enter Spielberg, waving his Schindler card, invited to the Washington premiere of Amistad attended by Bill Clinton, to teach a politically correct history lesson about the injustice of slavery. He insisted that only African-American crew members were allowed to shackle the chain-wearing black actors who played slaves in Amistad. This is not unlike the inverted, condescending racism that infuriates many blacks when, say, the New York Times often manages to ask a black reviewer to write about an African-American book, assuming it is for a black audience. Yet elsewhere Spielberg is quoted as stressing that Amistad is not about black history but ‘American history’. He wants to have it both ways—on the one hand to make a film about man's universal struggle for freedom, yet also condescendingly to remind his black cast that they need ‘special handling’.

Despite being a generously paid script consultant on Amistad, and welcoming the film, Mr Gates admitted to me, ‘This is not the ultimate movie about the black experience. I don't think there is a good comparison between Schindler's List and Amistad, whoever is making it. They are not comparable historical events.’

Well, it turns out—surprise, surprise—that it is Spielberg's own Dreamworks public relations people who have been encouraging the media comparison between the tragic suffering of blacks and Jews from the start. When I asked a Dreamworks marketing executive what consumer tie-ins there were—licensed toys, T-shirts etc.—she said, ‘It's like a Schindler's List type of film—it's not appropriate for merchandise.’

Nevertheless, with Amistad different sympathies seem to apply. Not wanting what he called ‘blood money’, Spielberg refused to take any salary for directing Schindler's List. All the money he earned from the film was donated to Jewish organisations and his own non-profit Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (enabling survivors of the Holocaust to record their tales on film for posterity). When I repeatedly tried to discover from Dreamworks executives if similar Amistad profits were being donated to African-American foundations, nobody rang back.

Which raises the question of the modern commercialisation of the slave trade. Last month, there was a public outcry when it was revealed that Christie's in New York were auctioning off some 19th-century slave memorabilia. After a syndicated radio talk show raised the issue, angry black listeners flooded Christie's with protest calls, accusing the venerable auction house of a double standard, since it had an existing policy of not selling items related to the Holocaust, but not one relating to slavery.

Although it's an absurd argument to pursue—next, forensic tests on all antique armour for 15th-century bloodstains?—it touches a sensitive nerve. The difference is well illustrated by a tour I remember a few years ago of the bleak concentration camp and gas chambers of Auschwitz (Spielberg himself was not allowed to film inside the camp because of fears of turning it into an ‘entertainment’). No commercialism, restaurants or kitsch souvenir shops, such as you find near the old slave market in Charleston—just starkly eerie exhibits, barbed wire, cold, pale-green walls and a grim, unsanitised silence.

By contrast, the slave castles on the palm-tree-lined Ghana coast, which have been renovated for holiday tourist dollars after being named ‘world heritage’ sites by Unesco, have shocked many African American tourists, not because of their inhuman record of brutality, but, again, because of their denial of it—amounting to a ‘whitewash’ of the black holocaust. An American journalist who recently toured Ghana's Cape Coast slave fortresses reported that American blacks wrote in the visitors' book that they were incensed that these ‘dungeons, where their ancestors wore manacles and starved, now smell Disney-clean and sport tacky gift shops’.

Meanwhile, perhaps the best example of hypocrisy is the paradox that the filmmaker who produced and directed The Color Purple is now accused of denying a prominent black woman of arts and letters her ‘rightful recognition’ for raising ‘public consciousness’ about the slavery of her ancestors. It's not difficult to see why Barbara Chase-Riboud is upset. In 1988, at the request of her friend, Jackie Onassis, Spielberg's executives in LA invited Chase-Riboud over to discuss a film adaptation of Echo of Lions. Before the meeting, the production head faxed Mrs Onassis to say that she found the book ‘a fascinating treatment of an important but terribly neglected episode in American history’.

Next year, at least, Dreamworks will have no such problems. Spielberg has already decided his Oscar effort will probably be Eldorado: City of Gold, and this time he has taken the precaution of getting out his chequebook in advance of going to court. As the back flap of Hugh Thomas's recent 900-page book, The Slave Trade boasts, ‘His latest book was The Conquest of Mexico, recently bought by Steven Spielberg to act as the basis for a planned film in 1998.’

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 22 December 1997)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Of Human Bondage.” New Republic 217, no. 25 (22 December 1997): 24-5.

[In the following review, Kauffmann lauds Amistad as a “solid” and “engrossing” film.]

Uniquely, attractively, Steven Spielberg's career is scored with deep changes of intent. Mostly he has worked in the realm of popular pictures, sweeping the world with success after success by realizing juvenile fantasies with a mature talent. But sometimes he employs that talent on mature subjects. The Color Purple, to some degree, grasped troubling matters in black American society. Schindler's List, to the gratifying surprise of many of us, dramatized monumentally the mystery of good in the midst of the mystery of evil. Now Spielberg presents a film out of nineteenth-century American history that again demonstrates his extraordinary gifts.

Amistad (Dream Works) tells a story so significant that its relative obscurity up to now is hard to understand. (After famine, a feast: an opera called Amistad has just appeared in Chicago.) To compress it: in 1839, on board the Spanish ship Amistad, bound from Havana to a slave port with a cargo of black Africans, the recently captured slaves revolted, led by a man called Cinqué, killed most of the Spanish crew, and ordered the two survivors to return them to Africa. Before very long the Amistad was commandeered by an American naval vessel and taken to Connecticut. After a hearing, the slaves were put on trial. The U.S. government's argument was that the slaves were property and should be returned to their owners. The defense, quick and hot, was that they ought to be returned to Africa.

The case tangled with a Spanish-American treaty and with sharp domestic controversy. It drew immense attention in this country, along with visitors to the New Haven prison to see the blacks, as a burning issue for both pro- and antislavery forces; and President Van Buren tried to walk a tightrope to avoid offending either group in his upcoming election campaign. The Federal District Court held that the slaves should be returned to Africa, a ruling upheld by the Circuit Court. The government then appealed to the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, and the defense was joined by John Quincy Adams, aged 74, the former president, and now a member of Congress. The defense won. The blacks were returned to Africa (where, in fact, ironies awaited).

To deal with this complex story, Spielberg had of course to condense it. With a screenplay credited to David Franzoni, which adds at least one fictional character and alters some real ones, the result is inevitably incomplete and in some regards hyperbolic. But the film conveys the mass and weight of this national, international, yet scorchingly personal drama.

Without in the least slighting Spielberg's concerns with the materials as such, for me a chief benefit of the screenplay is that it offers splendid opportunities for his filmmaking gifts. Clearly he was building his film on texture. Aided by his superb cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who did Schindler's List, and by his designer, Ruth Carter, who provided almost palpable clothes, Spielberg puts people before us, not costumed actors, and he puts us among those people.

The very first shot, an intense close-up of a black man, dirt-caked and wet, as lightning flashes, as he struggles to pull his shackles loose in the ship's hold, not only crystallizes the theme; it seizes us with verity, the sense that a vital filmmaking talent is striking toward the truth. Scene after scene confirms this feeling—small deployments of groups that vary the patterns we didn't know we hoped not to see, large swells of pleasure like the first shot of a courtroom in afternoon light, which persuades us that the world was real and people had eyes back then, too. I can't remember a stronger sense of my presence in the past since Bergman's The Virgin Spring.

As agon, as embodiment of the struggles involved in the slave trade, in its meanings for American and European civilization, the film depends greatly on the performance of Cinqué, and here Spielberg's choice can only be called brilliant. Djimon Hounsou is a native of Benin who has been living in Paris and has had small roles in French and American films. He is a magnificent-looking man, but it is his spirit, more than his physique, that fulfills the role. Courage, anger, the dignity of a slave who despises his masters—all these come from Hounsou as emanations, not “creations.” If you think the film exaggerates Cinqué's bearing and being, read William Cullen Bryant's contemporary poem about him, which begins “Chained in a foreign land he stood, / A man of giant frame.” Hounsou becomes the Atlas on whom the cosmos of this drama rests.

The only other character of comparable importance is, naturally, John Quincy Adams. The writing of this role has been touched, invitingly though visibly, by theater. Some of Adams's qualities have been shaped into what might be called a George Arliss part. In the 1930s Arliss used to play crotchety older men, including historical figures (Disraeli, Wellington, Richelieu) who were seemingly out of things but who were discreetly observant and who stepped forward at the end to settle all difficulties. Anthony Hopkins plays this role here, cleverly clothed in Adams-ness, and from his first moments we get the savor of a fine actor relishing a damned good part. Our first glimpse is of Adams dozing in the House yet making a keen reply when it's needed. We see him at home fussing with the plants in his hothouse. After the defense wins the New Haven trial, we know the government must appeal because Adams has so far appeared only peripherally. The structure of the film, as well as the facts of history, require that the case go to the Supreme Court so that Adams can flourish. He does. He argues. He wins. Hopkins, as Adams and as himself, is magisterial.

Morgan Freeman shines—he's an actor capable of reticent shining—as an ex-slave who now is head of an anti-slavery group in the North. Nigel Hawthorne (of The Madness of King George) is smilingly obsequious as Van Buren. Pete Postlethwaite (of In the Name of the Father) bites like a bulldog as the principal prosecutor. Matthew McConaughey does what he can with the sketchiest main character; the first defense lawyer.

The only women visible in the film are some of the missionaries who come to the prison to save the black men's souls. A questionable sequence results from the gift of an illustrated Bible to one of the black men, who figures out, from the picture, the relevance of the story of Jesus. The contradiction in a Christian society that owned slaves would have been lucid enough without this sequence. But Spielberg's weakest choice is the John Williams score, which sometimes floats wordless choruses under big moments. The moments might have been even bigger with less music.

Nonetheless, Amistad, shortcomings and all, is solid, engrossing. While it's in progress, it envelops us; paradoxically, when it's finished, it seems to stand free, like a strong sculpture. Spielberg, the master of film-world success, shows yet again that he is master of much more than that success. In both aspects, and because of both aspects, he is invaluable.

Gary Rosen (essay date February 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4022

SOURCE: Rosen, Gary. “Amistad and the Abuse of History.” Commentary 105, no. 2 (February 1998): 46-51.

[In the following essay, Rosen evaluates the veracity of Spielberg's portrayal of race relations and historical events in Amistad.]

“It'll make a helluva story,” Steven Spielberg reportedly said upon first learning of Thomas Keneally's novel, Schindler's List. And then, warily: “Is it true?”

The story of Amistad, Spielberg's latest foray into what he calls “socially conscious” film-making, shares the improbable qualities of its predecessor. Not only is it, like Schindler's List, ready-made for Hollywood—savage injustice with a happy ending—but once again history itself has furnished the necessary license. Just as Oskar Schindler, Nazi industrialist turned humanitarian, really did exist, and really did save a number of Jews from the Holocaust, so, too, 53 captured West Africans really did stage a bloody mutiny aboard a Cuban slave schooner in the summer of 1839; did try to sail home, only to wind up, through the trickery of the surviving Spanish crew, in the waters off Long Island, where they were promptly seized by an American naval ship; and finally, after eighteen months of imprisonment in Connecticut and a protracted legal battle, were indeed declared free, thanks in part to the last-minute intervention of no less a personage than former President John Quincy Adams, who successfully argued on their behalf before a U.S. Supreme Court then dominated by Southerners.

Given such promising material to start with, it is no surprise that Steven Spielberg's big-screen rendering of these events is a “helluva story.” But is it true?

The narrative center of Spielberg's Amistad is the remarkable person of Joseph Cinqué, the leader of the uprising. Played by the imposing Djimon Hounsou, a native of Benin, Cinqué is introduced in the film's harrowing opening scene as we watch him linger in quivering, vindictive fury over the prostrate body of the captain of the Amistad, whom he has just killed. This image of primitive rage fades quickly, however. As the plot unfolds, Cinqué emerges in a far different light: a figure of unshakable pride and dignity; a man of keen sensitivity, heartsick for home and modest to a fault about his own exploits; and a shrewd observer of his new surroundings, increasingly involved in the legal defense of the Amistad prisoners. Throughout, he bears himself with the brooding self-assurance of a captive African prince.

Of course, Cinqué and his luckless companions are not left to fight alone. Their cause is championed by two American abolitionists: the black Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy ex-slave, and the white Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), a devout merchant whose sympathy for the Africans is tainted by a fixation on their value as potential martyrs. In due course, Joadson and Tappan hire an unkempt young lawyer-on-the-make named Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), whose exclusive interest in the case, until he develops an acquaintance with Cinqué, is collecting his fee; the disconsolate Africans dub him “dung scraper.”

Arrayed against the Amistad Africans and their supporters is the administration of President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who finds himself drawn into a most unwelcome diplomatic and political firestorm. Invoking its treaty rights, the Spanish crown insists on the return of its citizens' property. More troubling still for Van Buren as the election of 1840 approaches, the Southern states are determined to see violent resistance to slavery punished; they want the mutineers shipped back to Cuba, where they face certain execution.

The courtroom defense of Cinqué and the others provides the skeleton of the movie's plot, fleshed out by recollections of the Africans' treatment on the slave ship that brought them to Cuba. Cinqué relates in court—and we see in a nightmarish flashback—the unspeakable horror of this transatlantic “middle passage”: the packing of naked, chained men and women into a narrow hold; the merciless whipping of insubordinates; the starvation and execution-by-drowning of the weak and the sick. As the legal and moral tide turns in the Africans' favor, the Van Buren administration forces aside the original judge and jury, replacing them with a presumably controllable lone jurist named Coglin (Jeremy Northam); but, defying all expectations, this judge too comes out dramatically for the Africans, compelling an inevitable appeal to the Supreme Court.

Enter, at last, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). Though the abolitionists Joadson and Tappan had repeatedly sought the aid of the irascible seventy-four-year-old ex-President—a renowned opponent of slavery, although not himself an abolitionist—Adams agrees to join Baldwin only at this final stage. But the two lawyers are not on their own. From his cell, Cinqué peppers them with questions and advice about their strategy, prompting Adams at last to bring the leader of the Africans to his family home in Massachusetts. Unshackled at Adams's command, Cinqué strolls with the former President through his greenhouse—admiring, pointedly, an African violet—and then confers with the wizened “chief,” assuring him through a translator:

We have my ancestors at our side. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me.

Once before the Supreme Court, Adams leaves behind the legal technicalities that had dominated the earlier proceedings. Laying hold of the Southern claim that “slavery has existed as far back as one chooses to look” and is thus “neither sinful nor immoral,” he wonders with wistful indignation how his country could have strayed so far from the principles of the Declaration of Independence and from the example of its own ancestors, the founding fathers. Echoing Cinqué, he emphatically concludes that “who we are”—by which he means, who we must be—“is who we were.”

The Court's nearly unanimous decision, read by the great jurist Joseph Story (portrayed here, in a cameo appearance, by retired Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun), is a final vindication for the Africans. A grateful Cinqué, speaking through a translator, queries Adams: “What did you say? What words did you use to persuade them?” To which the gruff Adams replies, after a moment's thought: “Yours.”

A deft piece of movie-making, Amistad is gorgeous to look at and persuasive in its evocation of period ambience. As the critic Stanley Kauffmann put it in the New Republic, the film is built “on texture,” from the frantic, bloodied fingers of Cinqué as he struggles to undo his chains to the liver spots on the bald pate of John Quincy Adams. The captive Africans wear perfectly tattered blankets; the prepubescent Spanish queen, perfectly arrayed taffeta. The film's settings, from the grand sailing ships to the courtroom, often convey the feeling of elaborate tableaux vivants, contrived but on the whole effective.

Impressive, too, and by now much ballyhooed, are the lengths to which Spielberg has gone to ensure that the Africans are portrayed authentically. The black members of the cast, most of whom, like Djimon Hounsou, come from West Africa, were coached in Mende, the language of the Amistad captives, and speak it exclusively (but for a half-dozen words) with English subtitles. Even their manacles and chains, Spielberg has boasted, are real.

Atmospherics aside, the film is admittedly more of a mixed bag. The dialogue and score (by John Williams) descend to melodrama with painful regularity. And the featured American actors—Freeman and McConaughey—are plainly uncomfortable in their 19th-century skins. As performers they are put to shame by their English counterparts—Hawthorne, Hopkins, and Pete Postlethwaite (as the government's attorney)—who at least have some notion of how to impersonate the body language and bearing of a more formal age. Hounsou, too, carries his part off with subtlety, using his expressive face and the unfamiliar cadences of Mende to great effect.

But it is nothing new to say that Spielberg is a master of visual storytelling or even that he is frequently a banal dramatist. Amistad asks to be judged on grounds other than these. Spielberg has insisted that it captures a “shared piece of American history,” and history, even at the movies, is not the same thing as verisimilitude, however artfully manufactured.

The facts at issue in Spielberg's Amistad are not picayune details, quibbles over the compressing or simplifying of what is a very complex tale. Such things are to be expected in a dramatization. What Spielberg has done in relating this “shared piece of American history” is more fundamental. He has misrepresented, in a way that can only be intentional, the racial relations that form the very heart of the events he depicts.

Consider, to begin with, Lewis Tappan and Roger Baldwin, two of the movie's central white characters. By the end of Amistad, when the case goes to the Supreme Court, Tappan has completely disappeared from the plot, banished (apparently) for the sin of having welcomed the martyrdom of the Africans—a view, the black abolitionist Joadson charges, that reveals Tappan's deep-seated hatred of them. In historical fact, Lewis Tappan was the prime defender of the Africans from start to finish. Far from being indifferent to their fate as individuals, he refused to prolong their suffering by pressing for more litigation. Far from being a closet racist, this co-founder (with William Lloyd Garrison) of the American Antislavery Society was extraordinary in his day for publicly condoning marriage between blacks and whites.

As for Roger Baldwin, whom Tappan helped hire to represent the Amistad Africans, he was hardly the scruffy, money-grubbing young attorney portrayed by McConaughey. In his late forties at the time, and a man of considerable public standing—he would be elected governor of Connecticut three years later and U.S. Senator after that—Baldwin was already well known for his abolitionist sympathies. For the hundreds of hours he spent defending the Amistad Africans, he was paid a token fee; it was basically pro-bono work.

Spielberg's revisionism with respect to Tappan and Baldwin serves a wider purpose: namely, the denigration of Christianity, especially of the white, Protestant variety. The essential connection between the two men, which the movie elides, was an organization called the Amistad Committee. Tappan was the engine behind this group of prominent and militantly evangelical abolitionists; it is they who raised money for the case, publicized it, and carried it through to its successful conclusion. But the Amistad Committee makes no appearance in Amistad, and the wider abolitionist movement, when it is visible at all, appears only on the periphery. It appears, moreover, as a pitiful object of derision, in the form of earnest, dour matrons and pasty-faced men, vacantly singing hymns and waving crosses at the Amistad captives (who call them “miserable-looking”).

Amistad does leave us with one admirable Christian, the courageous Judge Coglin, who is a Catholic. He, however, is a complete fabrication, as is the episode of the Van Buren administration's outlandish interference in the judicial process that he thwarts. Although there was much to blame in the President's handling of the case—he was prepared to whisk the Africans back to Cuba, without chance of appeal, in the event of a favorable ruling—his administration never stooped to the villainy attributed to it in Amistad.

If the white characters in Amistad are made to take their historical lumps, the black ones are allowed to create a history of their own. Debbie Allen, a co-producer of the film and the only African-American among its makers, “assumed the role,” according to Newsweek, “of guardian of black culture.” Having sold Spielberg on the project in the first place, she kept the story from “becoming too much about the white people who fought for [the Africans'] freedom in court.”

What this meant in practice is best seen in the film's treatment of the black abolitionist Theodore Joadson. Reviewers have noted two things about this character. First, that he is entirely fictional (a central circumstance in the much-publicized lawsuit for plagiarism against Spielberg's company, Dream Works SKG, by the novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud). Second, that he is an empty vessel, leaving Morgan Freeman “seriously underused” (Janet Maslin in the New York Times) in an “underwritten role” (David Ansen in Newsweek).

Having established these two salient points, however, no critic has asked why Spielberg went to the bother of having Theodore Joadson at all. The answer is obvious: he is necessary to maintain a racial quota. Amistad never departs from a strict one-to-one ratio between black and white lead characters. The fictional Joadson has to be paired with Cinqué in order to balance Baldwin and Tappan (whose exit from the movie neatly coincides with the arrival of John Quincy Adams). To such grotesque lengths is this balancing act taken that at no point in Amistad—in stark defiance of historical reality—do we see the white protagonists alone plotting the defense of the captives.

But the character of Joadson performs a more subtle task as well. A thoroughly assimilated American—educated, proper, given to patriotic speechifying—he serves as a deferential, desiccated foil to the soulful and defiant Africans. For the real purpose of the makers of Amistad is a radical redressing of the historical balance. As Debbie Allen told the Los Angeles Times:

Whether you're talking about art, or literature, or music, the real history has just been castrated—left out—and great historians have done it. It's … one culture wanting to be dominant, and not really acknowledging the contributions of a culture that was far beyond and centuries ahead.

For Spielberg, this particular species of reverse racism is by no means a new note: the superiority of African to Western culture is a theme of his 1985 movie The Color Purple (from the novel by Alice Walker), in which Africa serves as a redemptive counterexample to benighted America. In Amistad, what most stands out about the Africans is, indeed, the bold and unyielding nature of their Africanness, a point driven home not just by their “Mende-only” dialogue but also by their insistence on African burial rites, their exuberant chants and dances, and, most dramatically, by Cinqué's arresting invocation of his ancestors.

The film's starry-eyed, grandiose view of African culture is deeply problematic in itself. But it also grossly falsifies the real experience of the Amistad captives. Joseph Cinqué was, by every account, a man of uncommon dignity and presence. As the poet William Cullen Bryant memorialized him: “All stern of look and strong of limb, / His dark eyes on the ground— / And silently they gazed on him / As on a lion bound.” But he was also, it should be emphasized, a twenty-five-year-old rice farmer from the African interior, brutally torn from a life of primitive simplicity and transformed, in a matter of months, into a cause célèbre.

The instrument of this transformation was the abolitionist movement, which was certainly not the wan and slightly foolish phenomenon depicted by Spielberg. It was, rather, an immensely sophisticated and self-assured social movement, one that took its mission—its civilizing mission—quite seriously. This meant that Cinqué and the others were hardly accommodated in their native practices. Rather, they were instructed right from the start in Christianity and English—by Yale divinity students, no less.

And the lessons took. Thus, in a typical letter from the Africans to their defenders, Cinqué complained to Baldwin of their treatment at the hands of Colonel Stanton Pendleton, the jailer, calling him a “bad man” who “did not think of God” and whose soul would be “lost … to hell.” When informed of the Supreme Court's decision, the Africans replied, “We very glad—love God—love Jesus Christ—He over all—we thank Him.” Then they knelt in prayer.

In Amistad, things are very different. Christianity is not a positive force in the lives of the captives; to the contrary, when it is not merely a distraction, it is a force for moral weakness. Thus, when one of the Africans, Cinqué's only real rival among the captives, becomes so impressed by the story of Jesus that he embraces the Christian faith, the effect is to render a once-fierce warrior tame, an object of Cinqué's well-deserved pity and disdain. One need not be a defender of the evangelizing practices of the abolitionists to note the violence done by Spielberg's treatment, not only to them but to those whose lives they undertook to transform by their ministrations.

As wards in both a legal and an educational sense, the real-life Africans in the Amistad affair had nothing to offer toward shaping their own defense except their first-person testimony. John Quincy Adams did meet Cinqué, as the movie maintains. But it is inconceivable that he would have done so at his own home, treating Cinqué as an equal (“I'm being very honest with you; anything else would be disrespectful”), calling himself a “chief” and American citizens “villagers” in an exercise of moral equivalence, and modestly accepting instruction in African spirituality. The actual meeting took place in Westville, Connecticut, where the Africans were being held, pending appeal.

The scene has been well imagined in William Owens's Black Mutiny, a carefully researched historical novel about the Amistad affair specifically cited by the moviemakers as “a major source of reference material”:

“Cinqué! Grabo!” Baldwin called.

The two men left their woodchopping and came to the room. They shook hands with Adams and greeted him in forced English. It was a meeting of primitive man and the finest product of civilization.

“These are the two chief conspirators,” Wilcox [the U.S. marshal] said.

It was apparent they had not understood his words. They bowed to him, smiling as if he had paid them the highest compliment. …

“We read,” Cinqué said, his manner dignified, his face proud with achievement.

Colonel Pendleton brought a Bible and asked Cinqué and Grabo to read. Laboriously they spelled through a few verses of the New Testament. These men, Adams thought, accused of piracy and murder, were like children with a hornbook.

Far from meeting as equals, Adams and Cinqué encountered each other across a profound social divide. If Amistad pretends otherwise, it is only because Cinqué, by the movie's lights, has to be seen to be freeing himself in court just as he did on board the slave schooner. Strangely enough, the same need also drives Amistad's hagiography of Adams, who—alone among the white characters—has his role ennobled. Framed throughout by patriotic symbols, Adams embodies a pristine America just as Cinqué embodies a pristine Africa, and the two must collaborate in the end.

But—or perhaps for that very reason—Adams's resulting speech to the Supreme Court is an incoherent jumble. Leave aside the fact that it fails to do justice to the full obsessive eccentricity of Adams's actual eight-hour performance, which focused on the Van Buren administration's kowtowing to the Spanish crown and the South. (In private, Justice Story called the speech an “extraordinary argument … extraordinary … for its power, for its bitter sarcasm, and its dealing with topics far beyond the record and points of discussion.”) Even on its own terms, Adams's speech in Amistad fails.

The problem lies not with his appeal to “the very nature of man” or to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. That is all well and good, and faithful to the record. The problem lies in the opposite direction: with the deliberate overlay of African-style ancestor worship.

“Who we are is who we were,” Adams intones in Cinqué-influenced words as his gaze alights on marble busts of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the rest. But in thus shifting from the transcendent principles held by these men to their status as ancestral persons, the Adams of Spielberg's imagining comes weirdly close to embracing the view that he has condemned just moments before. Is it necessary to point out that “who we were,” in the case of many of the American founding fathers, was slaveholders—or that in Southern opinion, slavery was acceptable precisely because it could be traced (to use Cinqué's pious words) “far back to the beginning of time”?

No, John Quincy Adams was not open to the ways of the Africans, any more than were the abolitionists of his day. All of them were close-minded in a most profound way, quite certain in their devotion to Christian truth and natural rights. That, indeed, is why they came to the aid of the Amistad captives in the first place.

Among the bien-pensants, only the columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times has registered a serious complaint about Amistad. The movie, he wrote, is a “diversion” from the difficult racial issues of our day, “brought to us by [President Clinton's] campaign contributors at Dream-Works”: “The whole country can, after all, agree that slavery is bad—and still come to blows over affirmative action.”

Rich is right about the political affiliations of Amistad's makers, but wrong to consider the movie a “diversion” or a “form of escapism.” To the contrary, Amistad is a major artistic offensive in the current debate over race. It is, in fact, an extraordinary example of racial preference, giving blacks a prominence and importance they did not have while distorting or denying the role of whites. And, being “only” a movie, it is conveniently far removed from the remedial reach of a referendum-wielding electorate or the various courts that have recently struck down similar policies of “affirmative action.”

To the judges installed in this particular corner of the public square, the question of whether Spielberg has been true to the historical record is of no interest. It is enough for them that Amistad evokes the distant horrors endured by enslaved Africans during the “middle passage.” “[T]hese spare scenes are among the most wrenching ever put on film,” gushed Jonathan Alter in a Newsweek cover story. For Janet Maslin of the New York Times, “the stark, agonizing depiction of the captives' Atlantic crossing” was enough to establish the “irrefutable” worthiness of Amistad. David Denby, who devoted a third of his review in New York magazine to this same short segment, called it the “best thing in the movie,” staged by Spielberg “with a power that perhaps he alone in film history is capable of.” On this view, the only truth with which Amistad need bother is the visceral one.

The popular critics can perhaps be forgiven for taking the movie's claims of accuracy at face value. After all, Amistad can point to an impressive list of academic consultants, including the historian John Hope Franklin, head of the President's race-advisory board, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard. (Given the movie's casual regard for facts, one does wonder what these eminences could possibly have been consulted about: the costumes?) But more informed observers who have weighed in on the movie have been every bit as credulous as the daily and weekly critics. George F. Will—alas—anointed Amistad “a nuanced, truthful film about America's racial history.” Writing in the New Republic, the historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton noted some of Amistad's more obvious historical “lapses and manipulations” but nevertheless gave the movie his benediction, proclaiming that Spielberg had “succeeded in capturing the political and cultural nuances,” and that the various characters in the movie “challenge the racial stereotypes that distort contemporary American discussions of race, not least in Hollywood.”

In point of fact, Amistad does not challenge the racial stereotypes that distort contemporary American discussions of race. Mirroring our mendacious system of counting by race, of which it is a faithful expression, it confirms and extends those stereotypes. What is more, it will go on doing so for years to come. As has been widely reported, Dream Works has already sent thousands of high-school and college educators a free “learning kit” to help them “integrate the lessons of this landmark film” into their history classes. Free educational screenings are sure to follow, as they did with Schindler's List. For the foreseeable future, Amistad is destined to be shown to our children as the featured movie of Black History Month. By this means and others, Steven Spielberg's film will long contribute to making it harder and harder for us to tell the truth, either about our history or about ourselves.

Philip Strick (review date March 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1220

SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of Amistad, by Steven Spielberg. Sight and Sound 8, no. 3 (March 1998): 36-8.

[In the following review, Strick notes that Amistad shares certain structural similarities to contemporary crime dramas.]

Cuba, 1839. After being chained in the hold of the Spanish ship La Amistad, 53 African slaves break free, killing most of the crew. Led by Sengbe Pieh, known as Cinque, they demand to be taken back to Africa, but the helmsman steers north instead, up the US coastline. After two months, the Amistad is stopped by an American naval patrol and the Africans are imprisoned at New Haven to stand trial for murder. The ship's owners, its salvagers, and the Spanish throne make separate claims to ‘own’ the slaves.

Taking up the Africans' cause, leading abolitionists Joadson and Tappan employ a young attorney, Roger Baldwin. Struggling to communicate with Cinque, Baldwin finds evidence that the slaves were brought illegally to Havana in the notorious Portuguese slave ship Tecora. As the case becomes a national issue, President Van Buren is nervous that an abolitionist victory would prejudice his re-election prospects among the pro-slavery southern states, and has a new judge appointed. But Baldwin and Joadson have found an interpreter for Cinque, who describes his abduction in Sierra Leone, his imprisonment in the Lomboko slave fortress, and the Tecora's horror-fraught Atlantic crossing. His story is validated by a British naval officer, and Judge Coglin releases the Africans.

Their celebrations are cut short by news that Van Buren has ordered a retrial in the Supreme Court. In desperation, Baldwin and Joadson appeal to former President John Quincy Adams to argue the Africans' cause. Adams delivers a powerful appeal to the Supreme Court and the Africans are freed. His two-year ordeal at an end, Cinque sets out on the voyage home.

Properly disinclined to unshackle the Amistad case from its well-documented history, Steven Spielberg [in Amistad] entangles himself in a number of complications as a result. Perhaps the most inhibiting is that, as history, the Amistad story invites contradictory interpretations: at face value, it centres on a murder trial in which the accused are at last exonerated, while it also represents one of the causes of the Civil War and of the ultimate abolition of slavery. The Amistad was indeed a slave ship, yet its cargo, in this instance, according to legal definition (via the Supreme Court ruling of 1841), consisted not of slaves but of “free” men. Whatever the perceptions of the time, the real Amistad story is a kind of whodunit, in the sense conveyed by Adams' advice to his petitioners on the Africans' behalf: “Find out, not their names, but who they are.” To understand why the crew of the Amistad were killed requires an understanding of the men who killed them.

It would be logical for this process to begin in Sierra Leone among the Mende tribe from whom slave-leader Cinque is suddenly abducted. However, forced by dramatic necessity to deconstruct the natural order of events, Spielberg follows the classic crime-story pattern. Leading off in fine style with the Amistad killings, he moves forward into the court proceedings and flashbacks from these into the gradually rediscovered past. This structure, ironically, does little to help us understand Cinque, except at a most basic level: springing from nowhere, strikingly gifted with strength, intelligence, eloquence and simplicity, the archetypal martyr and natural-born leader, he is a non-American struggling for recognition of his entitlement to an American-defined freedom. In the achievement of that recognition, the solution to the whodunit emerges: it is Cinque's accusers and defenders who are the true culprits for having tolerated, condoned and perpetuated (by inaction if not direct profit) the slave-trade economy.

While not particularly at ease with these twists of identity, Spielberg grasps the opportunity to craft some immaculate adventures: the shipboard mutiny, the courtroom debate, the presidential banquet, the multi-costumed street scenes, the flame-lit dungeons of prison melodrama. The whole opening section, described from nobody's particular point of view except Spielberg's, observes Cinque's escape as a ferocious awakening. The first close-ups of flesh have a near-Jurassic Park texture, while the extracted nail that leads to freedom demands to be emblematic of an era which, now unpinned, will inevitably fall apart.

Accompanied by crashes of light and thunder, as is usual with Spielberg's crises, these portents herald the protracted death of the ship's captain, transfixed by a single sword-thrust, considered both from above and below with an air of grave collusion between victim and assailant. Without admitting whether the victorious image is his or theirs, Spielberg frames the Africans against the revolving stars, looming superheroes on an epic voyage. He then reduces the whole venture to farce when they encounter a cyclist at first landfall, and then to inscrutable tragedy as the escaping Cinque is miraculously recovered just when he appears to have drowned, a distracting incident leaving all that follows open to question.

What does follow is something of a parade of distractions. The eccentrics of Spielberg's Empire of the Sun are here transmuted not only into the overdressed attorneys and diplomats but also, in gentle but demeaning mockery, to every available figure of authority—from the 11-year-old Queen Isabella to the tight-lipped British officer who supports Cinque's evidence in a state of trembling fury that anyone might doubt his word. Absurd, mannered and performed on the edge of buffoonery, these pantomime figures preside over a society of incalculable priorities. Only by overcoming their amusement at so clownish an environment can the Africans (fresh recruits to Spielberg's regular army of beleaguered innocents, who gradually acquire more elegant clothes for themselves as the arguments over their case grow more complex) hope to regain control over their own fate.

Against this background, Cinque himself, safely underplayed with stoical dignity by Djimon Hounsou, emerges persuasively as a paragon of sanity and wisdom, much matured from the bloodied and rainswept icon we first meet. With all the best lines, thanks to subtitles and subsequently an interpreter, he embodies two useful precepts: the willingness to take on a fight whether it can be won or not (represented by the lion's-tooth talisman), and communion with one's ancestors. Briskly adopting both of these, John Quincy Adams, his doddering defender—performed by Anthony Hopkins with a fine array of stops, starts, and piercing stares—shifts the blame for the Amistad once again by claiming “who we are is who we were”, an appeal which works wonders on the ancient Supreme Court judges.

Except for the startlingly clumsy sequence in which the Africans discover for themselves the story of Christ, crashingly intercut with their judge's prayer for guidance, Spielberg puts it all together with great polish, only to fall on his face at the end as the hard facts of history preclude his trademark scenes of reunion and reconciliation. In a bewildering succession of visual footnotes, he retires the meddling President Van Buren, kills off the Confederacy of Atlanta in 1864 (a two-shot battle scene), destroys the evil Lomboko fortress amid a quick vista of scrambling crowds, and reveals that Cinque returned to a ruined country, his family lost in slavery. Cruelly marginalised in this way, the story of Cinque's fight for justice is short on consolation: clearly we must hang on as best we can to our lion's teeth, to our ancestors, and above all, to our subtitles.

Russell Jenkins (review date 1 September 1998)

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SOURCE: Jenkins, Russell. “Spielberg's Soldiers.” National Review 50, no. 16 (1 September 1998): 48-9.

[In the following review, Jenkins investigates Spielberg's thematic intentions with Saving Private Ryan, perceiving the film to be “neither anti-war nor pro-war.”]

Steven Spielberg's World War II movie, Saving Private Ryan, has come under fire from conservatives, including John Podhoretz in The Weekly Standard and Richard Grenier in the Washington Times. Correctly, Podhoretz and Grenier argue that Spielberg's failure to explain at any point in the film what the war was about can be read as a condemnation of war-making, even in the case of this most just and necessary of wars. It can be read that way. But should it?

When it comes to the history of that war, polls reveal a breathtaking ignorance on the part of the American public. In a recent Roper poll only 57 per cent of respondents knew that the war occurred in the first half of this century, only 30 per cent knew that Eisenhower was in charge of the European theater, and only 27 per cent knew what the term D-Day referred to. That Spielberg neglected to explain any of these things, or many other relevant facts, to an audience raised on MTV and Beverly Hills 90210 has left him open to charges that his film will pervert the average viewer's understanding of the conflict. A viewer who enters the theater not knowing why the war was fought in the first place will leave still entirely unenlightened. He might indeed conclude that the war was not fought for any reason worthy of mention.

That is troubling. But Spielberg should not be blamed for the failures of our educational establishment. His aim in Saving Private Ryan was not to undo those failures but rather to give moviegoers a picture of what the war was like at the sharp end. On a television entertainment program about the premiere of Private Ryan, a starlet opined that the conclusion to be gleaned from the movie is that no war is justified. Spielberg can't help it if an idiot watches his movie and comes away having drawn an idiotic lesson. As he has said in interviews, his intention was to tell a story that veterans of the war would find authentic. In this he has more than succeeded, making what is surely the greatest combat picture of all time. He captures all the chaos, terror, and randomness of death associated with warfare in the age of the machine gun.

In fact, the film is neither anti-war nor pro-war. For Spielberg the issue is simply one of truth-telling. This is the most remarkable aspect of the picture: the accuracy of the depictions of the range of attitudes held by the dogfaces, and the way in which the average guy on the line reconciled personal opinion with duty. If telling the truth means showing less than ideal behavior on the part of Americans, so be it. Paul Fussell has written of jails in Scotland on the eve of D-Day packed 12 to a cell with deserters. The acknowledgment that there were cowards and villains in the Allied ranks in no way diminishes the rightness of the cause. And the film's attempt to show every facet of the troops' humanity is in fact the greatest tribute that could be paid to the men who served.

The viewer may not learn from Private Ryan anything about what caused the war, but he learns a great deal about what the war was actually like for those who fought it. Spielberg handles the alien world of combat with admirable sensitivity. As any veteran will tell you, the front-line soldier's frame of reference is an extremely narrow one, delimited by the squad, at most the platoon. Combat soldiers' lives revolve around one another, and whether it is World War II, the Vietnam War, or the Hundred Years' War, when it comes down to brass tacks it is their buddies they fight for. Not their country, not any ideal, and certainly not some bunch of foreigners. There is a famous photograph taken during the Korean War of one soldier cradling another whose friend has just been killed. That image sums up the experience of battle: here are men, strangers, cast together against their will, doing things they had no desire to do in places they had no desire to visit, relying on one another implicitly, and forming bonds the likes of which are rarely found in peacetime. The combat soldier merely wants to get the job at hand over with and go home, preferably in one piece.

This is the simple but profound point of the movie. The war seems purposeless to the soldiers on the screen, because that's how many saw it. This fact will not go away if we refuse to face it.

Not incidentally, World War II veterans themselves, whom one might reasonably have expected to object to some unflattering portrayals, have overwhelmingly endorsed Private Ryan. Some have nitpicked. One complained that the film didn't show tanks running over the wounded. Another took issue with it on matters of discipline: Rangers, he asserted, would never have allowed themselves to be silhouetted when crossing a ridge, nor would they smoke or chatter with one another when filing through enemy-held territory. But these are quibbles. If, by and large, the men who went through D-Day have high praise for the film for showing as faithfully as possible the conditions under which they fought, who are we to argue with them?

Saving Private Ryan could have taken as its dictum these words from the nineteenth-century French military theorist Col. Charles Ardant du Picq: “The smallest detail taken from an actual incident in war is more instructive to me, a soldier, than all the Thiers and Jominis in the world. They speak for the heads of state and armies, but they never show me what I wish to know—a battalion, company, or platoon in action. The man is the first weapon of battle. Let us study the soldier, for it is he who brings reality to it.”

It is indeed, and Steven Spielberg has shown him in all his humanity.

Richard Alleva (review date 11 September 1998)

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SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “A Brutal Masterpiece.” Commonweal 125, no. 15 (11 September 1998): 29-30.

[In the following review, Alleva commends Saving Private Ryan as an impressive cinematic accomplishment.]

If you've read anything at all about Saving Private Ryan, you've read about its violence. Yes, it is appalling. But most screen violence nowadays is appalling, and if Steven Spielberg's depiction of the carnage of Omaha Beach and of subsequent battles and skirmishes during the week following D-Day offered nothing more than shock through verisimilitude, there would be little reason to discuss it. After all, do we really need to be told once again that war is hell? Haven't hundreds of movies from The Big Parade to Platoon all told us the same thing by administering large or small doses of fabricated battlefield horror? What could Spielberg do except spend a few million more, ratchet up the special effects, set off a bigger bang?

But there was something more for him to do and he has done it. In the opening sequence of the Normandy landing, from the point of view of the protagonist, Captain John Miller, we see and hear not just the obliteration of hundreds of lives, not just the tearing of flesh and eruption of fluids, the screams of pain and whimpering for mother, the unleashing of sadism by expediency and the abrasion of dignity by squalor, but an awfulness above and beyond the isolated horrors: the evaporation of meaning within the furnace of war. Captain Miller, good soldier that he is, presses on but we feel what he feels: consequence is leaking out of the universe.

Nothing seems to work. In vain does A try to give birth to B. Disembarking soldiers are dragged under water by the very gear that is supposed to empower them; some are drowned, some are stilled by bullets whizzing through water as ineluctably as through air. On the beach, a soldier walks around looking for his severed arm, finds it, picks, it up, wanders off. A clump of Germans surrenders; one is gunned down, the rest are spared. Why? Another pair surrenders, both are killed, their murderers crack moronic jokes over the bodies. After frenzied effort, a medic stops a soldier's bleeding; at once a bullet pings right through the soldier's helmet and, in humane fury, the medic rips off the bandages and hurls them away, probably feeling that he would like to hurl them in the face of God. Nearby, a bullet bounces harmlessly off another helmet and its owner takes it off to stare at it in dumbfounded gratitude; a bullet crashes into his skull. After a while, one begins to feel dread each time the camera singles out a young man's face because, in this sequence, a close-up is a harbinger of death.

Spielberg must have realized that no single method of filmmaking could encompass such horror. He shot some of it in documentary fashion with nervously jiggling cameras, but other moments are captured in fluid slow motion with the sound switched off so that Miller seems to be bogged down in a nightmare from which he can't awake. Though much of the battle is viewed from inside the captain's head, Spielberg often shifts to other parts of the battlefield, even to the viewpoint of the enemy, so that we can understand why the American troops are trapped in a particular area and can't move. This alternation of simulated cinema verité with grisly lyricism, subjectivity with omniscience, captures the diapason of horror. And Michael Kahn's virtuosic editing holds it all together.

Finally, the nests of German gunners are taken out and the Allied troops can move forward. But after such horror, what follows? What drama can possibly unfold in such a meaningless world?

The rest of the movie is the answer. A mission Miller is assigned to lead, the search for a Private Ryan whose three brothers have all been killed, has been initiated by General George C. Marshall for the sake of Ryan's mother. The audience knows the charity and essential sanity of the quest, for we have seen the moment when Marshall makes his decision not on impulse or for the sake of public relations but out of deeply founded compassion. (And the actor who plays Marshall, Harve Presnell, makes him every inch the Zeus you want a great general to be.) Furthermore, we have also been present when Ryan's mother receives the news of her family's near-total destruction, so we want her to have her only remaining hope fulfilled.

But back in Normandy, Miller and the other men on the patrol, desperate for a bit of respite, can't see the mission as anything but nonsense. Why should they risk their lives for one man when so many have died on the beaches? And the patrol itself seems to lead them deeper into absurdity. Even compassion brings on absurdity, as in the scene in which a soldier's pity for a French family in a bombed-out building nearly gets a little girl killed while Miller's apparent indifference saves her. A still won't give birth to B.

But mankind cannot bear very much absurdity. By the time the patrol locates Private Ryan, his continued survival has become not just an assignment to them but a gauntlet flung in the face of chaos. And if Ryan, unable to digest the shock of his brothers' deaths, selects not to go home but to stay with his company at a bridge that a German panzer unit must not be allowed to cross, so be it! They will stay with him. These dogfaces have become grungy Sisyphuses.

Indestructible humanity masked by indifference is the keynote of Miller's character. Since he's a man constitutionally less able to bear the horrors of combat than anybody else in his patrol (except for his translator, an intellectual radically out of place), and yet is expected to show the most fortitude, he must maintain an unfissured façade of stoicism. Amazingly, the bluff pretty much works and gives Miller breathing space enough to recover his wits in tight situations. Yet a palsy has taken hold of the captain's right hand and won't go away. (His men see it and, in embarrassment and dread, avoid mentioning it.) This quivering is war itself, coursing through his body and destroying him from within. But it is also an index of his humanity. If the rest of him were to commence shaking, he would soon be a useless wreck. But if the hand were to stop shaking, he would be a true creature of war, that is, a monster. Miller keeps marching, searching, commanding, killing, sparing, rescuing, trembling. He remains a civilized human being at war.

He is also the one fully realized, three-dimensional character in the film, for let it be admitted that most of the others seem based on the types usually found sharing patrols in Hollywood war pictures. There is the Tough Sergeant, the Wise Guy Malcontent (last done by Denzel Washington in Glory), the Four-Eyed Intellectual, the Hillbilly Sharpshooter now bagging Germans instead of possums. But all these are so superbly acted and supplied with such lively dialogue by Robert Rodat that I wasn't aware of the schematicism until I saw this movie a second time.

The character of Miller works on a higher level because scenarist and director have employed a more daring strategy in creating him. While the characteristics of the others are revealed at once, Miller, an unalterably private man, remains fairly opaque throughout the movie, sharing just a glimpse of his civilian past with his men, and even then only as a maneuver to distract them during a particularly explosive situation. In fact, Miller would be completely mysterious if it weren't for the effortless way Tom Hanks draws us close to him and siphons his thoughts and feelings to us. Hanks brings all sorts of emotions close to the surface and then blocks them before they become too apparent. For that is what this great performance is—a series of stifled outbursts within a man who cannot afford to feel too much.

Spielberg's skills are at their zenith here—not just his oft-celebrated talent as an action director (the panzer tanks project the same thudding menace as Jurassic Park dinosaurs), but also his less remarked-upon ability to control tone and to modulate from one emotional key to another. One example: In the scene in which two soldiers, German and American, battle each other for control of a knife (the only weapon at hand), the fury of the hand-to-hand combat gives way for just a few seconds of queasy black comedy as the German, trying to distract his opponent, starts babbling to him in German. But, as the knife sinks slowly into the dying American, pity and horror grip the viewer and that instant of black comedy evaporates, leaving not the slightest suggestion of sadism to curdle the viewer's reaction. Throughout the film, Jamusz Kaminski's photography certifies and amplifies everything Spielberg struggles to achieve. Kaminski often deliberately lowers the audience's expectation of natural beauty by desaturating colors; consequently, wherever color is momentarily allowed back onto the screen, even so banal a sight as cows grazing on greenery under an overcast morning sky leaps up to comfort the viewer just as it may comfort the emotionally battered soldiers.

Saving Private Ryan is a great movie, but I don't necessarily recommend it to you because I don't know who you are. Masterpieces aren't for everyone, nor are they right for all seasons and moods. W. H. Auden said they should be reserved for “high holidays of the spirit.” This film might inaugurate a universal Yom Kippur. It almost physically assaults the viewer for much of its length, yet its conclusion doesn't leave you spiritually jangled or raddled. Before the fade-out, an old man, fifty years after Normandy, contemplates the graves of the men who fought beside him and on his behalf. He turns to his spouse: “Tell me I've led a good life.” He wants to be worthy of the sacrifice of the dead. But what kind of life must one lead to deserve such a sacrifice? What kind of life should any of us be leading in view of the sacrifices made by our fathers and grandfathers? A creative life? A spectacularly virtuous one? A merely peaceful one? The graphically portrayed suffering we have just witnessed forbids any quick answers but injects the question right into your soul.

Gerald Kaufman (review date 11 September 1998)

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SOURCE: Kaufman, Gerald. “War Story.” New Statesman 127, no. 4402 (11 September 1998): 38-40.

[In the following review, Kaufman asserts that Spielberg is one of the most accomplished film directors of all time and compliments the “surpassing technical virtuosity” of Saving Private Ryan.]

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is an exceptional film by a great director—a director who, at his finest, can without hyperbole be placed in the pantheon along with the likes of Eisenstein and Renoir. But because Spielberg is probably the most financially successful movie-maker in the history of cinema and because that success has to a considerable extent been based on popcorn entertainments such as Jaws,Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, his extraordinary technical, visual and imaginative qualities have tended to be played down or taken for granted. His success also arouses jealousy—which is why the Motion Picture Academy cold-shouldered him until Schindler's List forced the Oscars out of their grudging mitts.

The hype has none the less been successful in informing most sentient human beings about Saving Private Ryan's subject: the squad of soldiers sent out to bring back, from the Normandy battlefront in 1944, the last remaining brother whose three siblings have all recently been killed in action. It is widely known, too, that the movie opens with a 25-minute sequence depicting the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach.

There has been lavish praise for that sequence as the most accurate account of warfare ever seen in a fictional film. What has been less subject to comment is its surpassing technical virtuosity, scarcely noticed because the subject matter is so engrossing and so horrifying.

Certainly, what we see is transfixing. Fearful servicemen vomit in the landing craft as they wait to disembark. On shore, a soldier's leg is blown off, with the bloody stump exposed. Another soldier wanders around searching for his severed arm. Guts spill out of a man's stomach. A soldier's tin hat is hit by a bullet; he takes it off to have a look; the side of his head is blown away. The camera does not pause to dwell on these incidents. The audience has to find the detail itself. All is drowned in the intolerable din of bullets and shells and screams.

Everywhere there is blood: drenching a soldier's face; suffusing the sea; in an awesome long-shot of the whole battle scene, turning the tide red; staining the camera lens. For, of course, all of this, while apparently random and even chaotic, has had to be organised meticulously for Janusz (Schindler's List) Kaminski's hand-held cameras.

The images captured by those cameras had then to be edited, into almost innumerable short takes, by Michael Kahn (Schindler's List again, as well as several other Spielberg pictures). And it had to be envisaged and orchestrated by a director of rare skill. This is one of the most masterly montage sequences in the history of the movies.

More than two hours of the film are still to come. After scenes setting up the decision to bring Ryan back, we move to his family home. Mrs Ryan, at work in the kitchen, sees cars in the distance coming along a country road.

She knows instantly that something abominable is about to be told to her, goes out on to the porch, and collapses so slowly that she seems to liquefy. This whole eloquent and moving scene is shot without a word of dialogue.

Back in Normandy, the squad goes off to rescue Ryan, and it goes reluctantly, even sullenly. These are not idealists, but grumbling sceptics: “Where's the sense of risking the lives of these eight of us to save one guy?” As the film moves along, visual flair—a patrol in silhouette against the sky, blood from a wounded man flowing away in the rain—is accompanied by brutally illusionless action.

There is, indeed, one episode more gruesomely disturbing than anything seen in the Omaha Beach sequence. A member of the rescue squad is shot. His frantic comrades try to succour him as he lies on the ground, but, as they attempt to deal with one wound, the blood flows out of other lacerations in his torso like a viscous mess escaping from a leaky plastic bag. It is one of the most disturbing death scenes in cinema and, without any verbal homily, it says all that is capable of being said about war.

Robert Rodat's screenplay dispenses with cliché. American troops shoot down Germans in cold blood. The squad's coward remains a coward, in his terror fails to rescue a comrade he might have saved, does not redeem himself, and ends up brutalised.

Performances are low-key. Tom Hanks, as the captain in command of the squad, distinguishes himself by refusing to distinguish himself. There is a weariness about Captain Miller, a resigned determination to see this unwanted assignment through. He keeps the squad together when it seems it will break up or turn enragedly on itself. He tries to offer a rationale for the mission: that, maybe, “saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this godawful shitty mess”. And, if Matt Damon as Ryan cannot avoid being the handsome, baby-faced lead, he too is awarded a role that eschews heroics; far from grateful for being rescued, he flatly refuses to go.

The movie is book-ended by opening and concluding sequences, set in the present day, which emphasise even further the inconsolable regret that war can leave behind. This film, like any other, contains its imperfections and flaws (such as the final, bang-you're-dead battle sequence). But, make no mistake, Saving Private Ryan is a screen landmark.

Ben Shephard (review date 18 September 1998)

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SOURCE: Shephard, Ben. “The Doughboy's D-Day.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4981 (18 September 1998): 23.

[In the following review, Shephard divides Saving Private Ryan into three separate sections, comparing the realism of the opening invasion scene with Darryl F. Zanuck's The Longest Day.]

Escape to Nowhere, Steven Spielberg's first film, was shot on 8mm in 1960, when he was twelve years old. It was a Second World War action adventure; not surprisingly, for Spielberg grew up with the Hollywood war film—with, to be precise, two kinds of war film. The early ones, like William Wellman's Battleground and Henry King's 12 O'Clock High, drew on first-hand experience to explore soldierly brotherhood, group dynamics under pressure, and the strains of command, with some lingering tang of authenticity. But by the later 1950s the genre was changing. The Hollywood war movie simply became a springboard for action adventures, and the Second World War had to compete with spies and gangsters until, eventually, it was eclipsed by Vietnam. By the late 1970s, the Second World War had ceased to be of interest to popular film-makers.

Why then has Spielberg now returned to it? Partly because his childhood passion still burns; partly because the Second World War has come back into literary fashion, as a generation which fought as very young men, now tells its tale. (Many of the books discussed in Samuel Hynes's recent The Soldier's Tale were not around in 1989, when Paul Fussell published his Wartime.)

War memoirs famously change tone with the passing of time—Edmund Blunden's first version of Undertones of War was more cheerful than the one he eventually published. Today's memoirs are inevitably affected by Vietnam and the cynicism about all wars and institutions it fostered; coloured, too, by an emphasis on the traumatic impact of war which was still unknown in 1945, when it was assumed that a normal person, properly trained and led, could come though anything.

Vietnam has also spawned a new kind of military history. The enormous success of “oral histories” of that conflict not only transformed the image of the Vietnam veteran (from baby-killer to victim); it gave the testimony of the individual soldier a new legitimacy and authority, sweeping aside traditional reservations about his limited perspective and imperfect recall. In this new climate, the memories of Second World War soldiers—especially of front-line infantrymen—take on an almost priestly authority.

Part of Spielberg's intention in Saving Private Ryan is to honour these memories. His film opens and closes with clumsy “bookending” sequences—in which an aged veteran, accompanied by his family, visits the Normandy cemeteries; and it takes its plot from a recent work of oral history, Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers (1992). But interwoven with this are elements of those Hollywood war films he grew up on. Which is why Saving Private Ryan, at 170 minutes long, is, in effect, three different films—sitting uneasily within the contemporary “framing”. The first, running at twenty-five minutes, re-creates the landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, much as remembered by veterans—bloody, terrifying and pointless. The second, ninety minutes long, follows a group of Omaha survivors, led by Tom Hanks, who are sent to find Private Ryan, a paratrooper whose three brothers have all been killed; the War Department wants him “saved”. This is Spielberg revisiting the world of the post-war buddy films, of GI Joe and A Walk in the Sun. The third is devoted to the immense battle which ensues when Hanks and his men, having found Private Ryan, join him and his unit in defending a bridge against German attack—the war adventure film of the 1960s, staged with 1990s special effects.

From the moment the bow doors of a landing craft open and a tempest of machine-gun fire devours the leading group of men, the Omaha Beach sequence is overwhelming in its power and horror. The sheer violence of modern warfare, the ballistic force with which steel destroys flesh, the confusion of battle, the shock of wounds, have never been better conveyed. The use of hand-held camera and bleached-out colour are masterly. As Hanks's group of Rangers struggle up the beach and somehow devise a way of outflanking the German bunkers, the audience, heart in mouth, rides out the storm, suspending judgment until a measure of calm returns.

It proves, though, a hard act to follow. Having dispensed with the usual pre-combat character build-up (chaplains giving confession, GIs writing home, crap games, and so on), Spielberg now has the double task of establishing character and unfolding narrative—half an hour into the picture. These have never been his strengths, and the job is badly botched here, with a sequence in the Pentagon veering uncertainly between satire and veneration and Mrs Ryan, mother of the three dead brothers, depicted sitting on the steps of a Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell house.

The whole of the lengthy second section, in which Hanks and his men go looking for Private Ryan on the Normandy battlefield, finds Spielberg struggling for coherence. A series of engagements and encounters—with German snipers, French civilians, American paratroopers—are all staged with relentless overemphasis, and the portrayal of the rapport between men in groups which comes easily to Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann is notably absent. Each scene makes a trite point at great length—being nice to children will get you killed, killing prisoners is inevitable in war. The minutes tick by, endless badly written monologues are delivered, and one longs for Mann's skill in filleting a scene, his understanding of pace. But the problem lies much deeper than that: the fundamental dramatic premiss of the film that “saving Private Ryan” will somehow redeem the horror of it all—that, to quote Spielberg, “the nobility of that mission becomes a symbol. His going home represents them all going home”—is hollow. It cheapens everything that has gone before.

Historically, Spielberg has a point. The Americans never saw the war as the British did; have never quite shared the view that “for those who took part in it, the Second World War had a great deal of point”. Talking to soldiers in 1943, Arthur Miller looked in vain for “some ideological conception animating them: the war was ‘about’ little more than what a game of football is ‘about’—something that had to be won for pride's sake”. Karl Menninger, the American Army's chief psychiatrist, found that whereas the Russians were fighting to avenge their loved ones, the British for survival, and the French to get back their country, “the doughboy fights because he has to. He fights for his buddies and because his self-respect won't let him quit!” Like their Civil War forebears, GIs suffered terribly from “nostalgia”—a passionate wish to get home—which worried their generals. It may also be that the post-war films played this down and gave the American soldier a sense of collective purpose he did not feel at the time. None of that can alter the fact that, dramatically, Spielberg has made a huge error of judgment.

The film improves when Hanks finds Private Ryan. The director relaxes at last—there is a good scene of tired soldiers listening to a Piaf record. Matt Damon, playing Ryan, has a humanity which transcends banal dialogue. The last half-hour brings a tangible sense of relief. Back with war as action adventure, Spielberg can forget character and concentrate on machinery, “the film director as junior mechanic” as David Thomson once called him. His command is reimposed. The final battle is, of its kind, brilliant; dominated by an extraordinary soundtrack, by the voices of weapons not actors. Each brand of machine gun has its characteristic noise, each German tank, roaring, whirring and grinding, shakes the cinema to its foundations; but the scene-stealer is a German flak-gun, manhandled into action and pumping out cannon shells with lethal insistence. But this extended mechanical ballet further devalues the Omaha sequence at the head of the film. It is pure invention; no such battle ever took place.

Some have compared the realism of Saving Private Ryan with the distortions of Hollywood's last visit to the D-Day beaches, Darryl F. Zanuck's The Longest Day. It is true that Zanuck—who believed that “there is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic”—took terrible liberties with events on Omaha Beach; tended to reduce each battle to a star cameo and was over-kind to German generals. But The Longest Day contains sequences as memorable, if not as gory, as Spielberg's Omaha and had a sense of perspective. Having lived in Europe and dallied with chanteuses, Zanuck understood the overall significance of D-Day. His film made clear the central historical truth that the men who died at Omaha did not die in vain; they helped to liberate Europe. Zanuck would certainly have cut a good half-hour out of Saving Private Ryan.

But that was in another era. Perhaps it is mistake to expect artistic unity from the modern blockbuster. Maybe Saving Private Ryan is better compared to the naval bombardment before D-Day, systematically locating and subduing its different target audiences in turn. It seems to be making big money and may herald a revival of the war film. It will be interesting to see what Terrence Malick, a more gifted filmmaker than Spielberg but an equally incoherent storyteller, makes of James Jones's Thin Red Line.

Christopher Caldwell (review date October 1998)

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SOURCE: Caldwell, Christopher. “Spielberg at War.” Commentary 106, no. 4 (October 1998): 48-51.

[In the following review, Caldwell explores the varied critical reaction to Saving Private Ryan, noting that film scholars have been unable to decide if the film offers a positive or negative perspective on World War II.]

There is little disagreement that Steven Spielberg's smash hit, Saving Private Ryan, which opened July 24, is a powerful and richly textured account of war. The story it tells, of a small unit hunting for a lost paratrooper in Nazi-occupied Normandy, has won unstinting praise for its simplicity and evocativeness, and the film's brilliantly realistic depiction of the D-Day invasion of Europe is by general consensus without parallel in movie history. Jay Carr of the Boston Globe called Saving Private Ryan “the war movie to end all war movies.” To Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post, it is “simply the greatest war movie ever made, and one of the great American movies. In one stroke, it makes everything that came before … seem dated and unwatchable.”

Yet Saving Private Ryan has also stirred up a good deal of controversy. On one side are those reviewers, by far the majority, who have applauded it for reviving the classic war film—“classic” in the sense of heroic, patriotic, and refreshingly free of irony—after a long period in which Vietnam-era cynicism held sway. Thus, the New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, raved about the film and concluded with relief that “With Saving Private Ryan, war is good again.” But then there are those who have interpreted it differently. Gene Siskel, who liked the movie very much, found it to be an “action-filled anti-war film” (emphasis added); so did John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard, who liked it considerably less on that account. Richard Schickel of Time and Edward Rothstein, a cultural critic for the New York Times, both focused on the film's imagery to argue that, whatever its cinematic virtues or flaws, it hardly brings us back to the status quo ante Vietnam.

Is Saving Private Ryan all-American or cynical, pro-war or anti-war? Spielberg himself has been of little help in clearing up the matter. In a series of interviews since the film's release, he has shown himself of two minds. “War is not about glory,” he said to one interviewer, and then, somewhat contradictorily, “I felt we needed to be truthful to do honor to those soldiers.” He has described the film as a memorial, but has warned pre-teens against seeing it. More gnomically, when asked point-blank whether the movie was anti-war, he told the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, “I think it's an anti-war film only in that, if you want to go to war after seeing this picture, then it's not an anti-war film.”

There is, of course, a subtext to the controversy. Many of the complaints about the movie—particularly those arising from conservatives—are really complaints about Steven Spielberg. That is understandable. He is not just a great filmmaker but one of the most prominent liberal activists in the country, a close friend of President Clinton, and a generous donor to feminist, pro-choice, and civil-rights causes. It is therefore natural to look upon Saving Private Ryan as the pronouncement of Spielberg's and Clinton's generation—the Vietnam generation that had an opportunity to fight and did not—on the World War II generation of their fathers, that did. And it is hardly surprising that those anxious to protect the reputation of the latter would be reluctant to entrust it to the former.

But are the complaints valid?

Since broadening out from such “entertainments” as Jaws,E.T., and Indiana Jones to pursue profound historical subjects—the Holocaust (Schindler's List, 1993), American slavery (Amistad, 1997), and now World War II—Spielberg has been taken to task for sentimentalizing, substituting cheap message-mongering for true character development, and cutting corners with the actual record of events.

As a historian, Spielberg does indeed have some explaining to do. The real-life Sudeten industrialist and Nazi-party member Oskar Schindler—as Philip Gourevitch showed in these pages (“A Dissent on Schindler's List, February 1994)—was far from the bumbling, laconic mystery-man Spielberg gives us; as a consequence of his reworking, the humanity and the moral flexibility of “regular” Nazis are exaggerated in Schindler's List, while the ability of “ordinary” Germans to resist Nazism is curiously underestimated. Similarly, in Amistad, as Gary Rosen pointed out (“Amistad and the Abuse of History,” February 1998), Spielberg's rendition of a slave-ship revolt crosses the line into outright misrepresentation, falsifying the real-life role played by the largely Christian abolitionist movement in freeing the Amistad rebels and inventing a black American component to the protests surrounding the event.

There has been a handful of quibbles about specific period details in Saving Private Ryan: captains, for instance, do not wear their helmet insignias into battle. But the only narrowly historical question that bears on the heart of the film is whether General George C. Marshall would have plausibly ordered the public-relations maneuver on which the plot hinges: sending a unit of soldiers out to rescue one man, on the grounds that his three brothers had already died in action. In this, Spielberg has been vindicated; as the military historian John Keegan notes, “The Pentagon did have a policy of withdrawing the last surviving son of a numerous family from combat.” In Band of Brothers (1992), Stephen Ambrose followed a company of paratroopers in the weeks after D-Day. Among them was a Private Frederick Niland, one of whose brothers was missing in action and two more of whom had been killed; he was retrieved by a special unit sent on orders of the War Department. Spielberg has described the Niland episode as “the kernel of truth around which this morality play has been fictionalized.”

Another line of attack against Saving Private Ryan is that, even if its period details are correct, the story itself undercuts any potentially patriotic message. For one thing, that story is rich in examples of cowardice and criminality. Particularly striking is the climactic battle scene when Corporal Upham, an unctuous figure who is writing a book about how soldiers “bond” in wartime, cowers in fright, unable to fire a single shot, and winds up costing the lives of several of the men with whom he himself has supposedly “bonded.” Only when the battle is over does he execute a captured prisoner in cold blood—the very man whom, in an earlier scene, Upham has begged his captain to free.

But are we supposed to sympathize with this coward? In the course of his interviews, Spielberg made a remarkable statement about Upham: “He was me in the movie. That's how I would have been in war”—from which Richard Grenier, writing in the Washington Times, concluded that Spielberg is “rather proud of his cowardice.” But whatever the director may have meant by his comment about Upham, having a coward in a war movie no more makes it a brief for cowardice than having an apothecary in Romeo and Juliet makes it soft on drugs. One can admire bravery without claiming that everyone is brave, or without claiming unusual bravery for oneself. In any case, Saving Private Ryan, which Spielberg has also called “a tribute to veterans,” does unquestionably admire their valor, possibly even because that valor was less than perfectly universal.

A subtler point that some have made in this connection is that the sheer accumulation of horrifying detail in Saving Private Ryan—the limbs blown off, the guts falling out, the near-absolute randomness of the carnage, the relentlessness with which it is all forced upon us—stacks the emotional deck against war. In this case, the charge, which also amounts to a tribute to Spielberg's genius as a craftsman, has substance. But it is also a little unfair.

Although no one would ever accuse this movie of warmongering, there is no question that Spielberg considers World War II to have met the highest threshold for sending men into battle. Indeed, the few veterans who have criticized the amount of gore in the movie have faulted Spielberg not for deprecating the war itself or those who waged it but for lacking sufficient respect for the dead. Typical is Navy veteran David Horton, who wrote to the Los Angeles Times:

There were tanks that some bright engineers thought would float in the current of the English Channel. Well, they leaked, as anyone with an ounce of common sense could have told them, and they sank like stones. There were soldiers inside those tanks, and they drowned. I don't need some filmmaker's stylized, make-believe violence to tell me how horrible that death must have been.

Here at last we begin, somewhat obliquely, to approach the real issue at the heart of the dispute over Saving Private Ryan.

That war is hell is a truth universally acknowledged by those who have fought in it. Similarly, the violence, the brutality—and the arbitrariness—of battle have been a staple of many a novel and movie. This emphatically includes movies about World War II—the “good” war—and it includes movies made by people who were actually at the invasion of Normandy (Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day and Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, for instance). There is even a tradition in World War II movies, from They Were Expendable to A Bridge Too Far, of viewing much of the carnage as senseless—a tradition whose traces can be seen in a strongly “patriotic” film like William Wellman's Battleground (1949), which Spielberg has frequently cited as an influence.

If, in other words, there is something innovative about Spielberg's treatment of war—and there is—it does not lie only in its unprecedented realism, or in the extent to which that realism inevitably makes war itself abhorrent. It lies somewhere else.

In any war, there are two narratives: the narrative of civilization, which wages wars, justly or unjustly, for reasons of state and/or out of considerations of honor, and the on-the-ground narrative, which basically consists of men killing one another. There can be overlap between the two narratives. The statesmen who run the war may have real solicitude, personal as well as broadly moral, for the men fighting it. (Indeed, such an act of solicitude is the springboard for the plot of Saving Private Ryan.) And the soldiers on the ground may believe in the cause for which they are fighting. But very frequently the two narratives exist in hermetic isolation from each other—which means that for the men engaged in combat, the actual experience of war is often nothing more than a battle to the death, independent of right and wrong.

All war movies have been made by people living in civilization for people living in civilization. Spielberg's is no exception. What is new about it is that, as a battle film, it is purged of the context of civilization. “Mercifully,” wrote Jay Carr in the Boston Globe, “there's never a single overview or big-picture shot here, never a scene with Ike or Montgomery standing at a map with a pointer, spelling it all out for us.” Why this should be a mercy is unclear, but it is certainly true that Saving Private Ryan offers its viewers no perspective outside that of the day-to-day life of a GI grunt.

If, in most war movies, we are never completely overwhelmed by the almost incomprehensible violence of battle, it is because we are simultaneously being made to understand the reasons why the war is being fought (or, as in 1980's Vietnam movies, the reasons why the war should not have been fought). By contrast, Saving Private Ryan hardly so much as acknowledges the existence of this realm of public values. The soldiers' experience of war may not be altogether values-less, but it is exiled from the values that put them there in the first place.

“I wanted the audience in the arena, not sitting off to one side,” Spielberg has said. “I didn't want to make something it was easy to look away from.” He has succeeded. According to John Podhoretz, “Spielberg takes World War II, and, in the interest of paying tribute to the almost unimaginable sacrifices made by those who fought it, minimizes the war beyond recognition.” Actually, one might put it the other way around: at least in terms of the on-the-ground narrative, Spielberg does not minimize World War II but rather maximizes it. In fact, it is exactly through this maximization of the soldiers' experience that he has managed to make their “unimaginable sacrifices” a little bit more imaginable.

Still—and here is where Podhoretz's point has bite—that does not address the question of what Spielberg himself makes, or wants us to make, of the war's larger, civilizational, purposes. In the absence of Ike-with-a-pointer, the two short “framing” segments at the start and end of the film are just about all the politics we have to go on. In these, an aged Private Ryan returns to Normandy to look at the graves of his fallen comrades. Turning to his wife, he says: “Tell me I'm a good man. Tell me I've led a good life.”

It is no doubt this ambiguous sentiment that has led some critics to conclude that Spielberg intends to restore us to a benign, uncomplicatedly pre-Vietnam view of American character—in Stephen Hunter's words, “Saving Private Ryan is probably the most conservative film of the decade”—while leading others to object that, as Edward Rothstein put it, the film fatally “privatizes patriotism” by divorcing it from its proper, political context. Citing Rothstein in the Los Angeles Times, the film historian Neal Gabler in effect split the difference between these two views. If, he wrote,

the film falsifies the sentiments of the soldiers of that time by having them declare they are fighting only to get back home, when in reality the soldiers in that war were avowedly fighting to stop Adolf Hitler, then the sentiments are at least falsified in a good cause: to neutralize the nationalism that had divided us [over Vietnam] and to humanize our sense of duty.

“To humanize our sense of duty” is a fine capsule description of the morality that informs Saving Private Ryan. On a personal level, there is much to be said for it—as is attested in the film by the many acts of bravery and sheer dogged determination performed by its protagonists. And yet, once our sense of duty has been “humanized,” what really are we left with? Spielberg's movie assumes that its audience knows the reasons why World War II was fought; but any such assumption is fraught with pitfalls. Absent Ike-with-a-pointer, in what way are we witnessing in this movie anything other than cold-blooded, nonsensical, mass murder? Absent Hitler, absent the Nazis, is it fair—to use a “humanized” term—that several brave American officers should die while the coward Upham, or Ryan himself for that matter, should live? Not to mention the deaths of a whole Higgins boat full of innocent American boys, perforated with bullets before they can even take a step forward.

“Ryan better be worth it,” says Captain Miller, the character played by Tom Hanks, when informed he has to take his men into German territory to find him. “He better go home and cure some disease or invent a new, longer-lasting lightbulb.” But Ryan is not a medical pioneer, not an inventor. As a young man, he is so thick he does not even know what the word “context” means. As an old man, he is a thoroughly tacky and undistinguished-looking American tourist in a polyester windbreaker. These are the terms—the on-the-ground, soldier's-eye terms—in which we see Private Ryan. In these terms, we know him to be a good man. But in these same terms, and by any measure we may care to invoke, he is hardly “worth it.” And in these same terms, neither is the war itself.

Saving Private Ryan may indeed be the greatest war movie ever made. It provides undeniable evidence that Spielberg and his generation—call them the Baby Boomers, the generation of '68, the Vietnam generation, or whatever—understand what it was like for their fathers to fight in World War II. It even provides implicit evidence that they understand the stakes of World War II, and the rightness of World War II. But it leads one to suspect that, all the same, they would never have fought it themselves.

Karen Jaehne (review date fall 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2226

SOURCE: Jaehne, Karen. “Saving Private Ryan.Film Quarterly 53, no. 1 (fall 1999): 39-41.

[In the following review, Jaehne elucidates the theme of communication in Saving Private Ryan.]

In September 1998, Steven Spielberg received the Knight Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany from President Roman Herzog, who expressed Germany's appreciation to the American Jewish director. “Germany thanks you for work that has given us more than you may realize,” said Herzog. The film that made the Germans realize that there were maybe heroes among them would be Schindler's List. Yet at that time, Spielberg's subsequent film was also playing in German cinemas—a film that had as its cornerstone the same verse from the Talmud emblazoned on the screen in Schindler's List: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

In making Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg inverted that principle to show an entire group setting out to save a single—and virtually unknown—soldier, someone more remote to them than Schindler's people were to him. Saving Private Ryan focuses on Captain John Miller's (Tom Hanks) leading a special squadron detailed to find and save the last son of Mrs. Ryan, whose other three boys have perished on three different fronts. The carnage they must face is so often blamed on their quest that, by the time we meet Ryan himself, he all too readily accepts the burden of guilt. Spielberg's ability to look at World War II first this way, then that, has guaranteed him an altar in the magazine/TV/newsprint edifice that enshrines pop culture—where our latest products are sheltered, framed, hung, and subjected to an examination of ourselves within the work of art. The critical establishment seldom bothers to wire in a feed from Europe, where reactions to Hollywood product can alert us to surprising things about the movies themselves, as well as the auteurs behind them. In Germany, for example, the reception of Schindler's List undoubtedly benefitted from the effect of historian Daniel Goldberg tutoring the people in their proper role as willing villains. Spielberg brought relief by focusing on the hero among them and creating a masterpiece dedicated to their past.

By the time President Herzog came to thank Spielberg, he could tacitly include Saving Private Ryan for its relatively benevolent portrait of the German soldier—certainly from the point of view of those who could understand the German dialogue of the film. Why the German dialogue was not shared with English-speaking, or rather, non-German-speaking audiences raises an issue that has not yet been addressed.

In a movie where most of what is said serves to register the shock of battle (often with anachronistic profanity), one scene stands out for the nature of the dialogue, precisely because such a scene requires little dialogue. It is the last big sequence, in which Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), the Jewish enlisted man who has enjoyed taunting German P.O.W.s with his Star of David, is now waiting in a tower for ammunition. Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), who only hours before has impressed his comrades with translations of the melancholy chansons of Edith Piaf, is chosen for this mission and thus finds himself in the middle of a raging battle relegated to ammo-delivery boy. Mellish is waiting for him to bring more rounds to keep the Germans at bay, but the onslaught of the German forces has left the young corporal petrified, and he hides from the German soldier who enters the tower and heads up the stairs towards Mellish. Upham creeps halfway up the staircase after him, cringing in fear, incapable of rescuing Mellish.

When the German discovers Mellish, he leaps on him. As the two soldiers struggle, we realize the German is also out of ammunition. Their confrontation comes down to a mano a mano death match, which, to be sure, has been the core scene of every great war story since The Iliad. Mellish and the German roll over on top of each other, kicking, lunging, strangling, until they're down to their knives. They are evenly matched until Mellish's knife is knocked out of his hand, and the German bears down on him with the knife poised at his heart. Mellish pushes up on the German's arm. Their death grip is like two scorpions in a bottle.

To increase the tension of the scene, the German soldier maintains a steady stream of hissing at Mellish. (In sports, this kind of thing is called talking trash and is used to unnerve the opponents, although it was once considered bad sportsmanship.) Most American viewers seem to think the German's words are another kind of torture for Mellish, threatening him or cursing him, because the harsh guttural sounds of the language strike the ear as dreadful, even evil. This is merely a problem of perception, because what the German is saying to Mellish is actually quite different: “Lass uns es been-den. …” (“Let's just end it all.”)

In short, the German wants to show the American an easy death. Why? This is not the sadistic, vicious enemy we know from standard issue Nazis in WWII pictures. Is Spielberg trying to humanize the enemy? In this duel to the death, the German soldier seems to bring mercy to the ghastly business of being a soldier. Unfortunately, once Mellish and the German go at each other, there's no mercy until one of them is dead. I believe the entire point of this scene is lost if we do not understand what the German is saying to his victim. The lack of subtitles encourages us to resort to the idea of the evil, hissing German, a cliché that inflates the Teutonic terror enveloping these innocent Americans. (In 1944, Americans were by definition still innocent.)

Spielberg's point in this scene is perhaps less about the two men fighting than about the witness to their fight, Corporal Upham, who is portrayed from his first scene as a bumbler (expecting to bring his Smith & Corona typewriter with him) or a sucker (as he gets set up by the other men in the detail). Here, Upham is the ineffectual intellectual who failed to get Mellish the bullets to defend himself and now must lurk just out of sight eavesdropping on the death for which he is, in some sense, responsible. Certainly, the camera implicates him because the film continuously cuts back to him cringing in shame. Among the Americans with whom we are meant to identify, Upham alone understands what is said. Upham, however, is no threat, and the German soldier can't even be bothered to kill him as he passes him on the stairs after killing Mellish. Upham offers the profile of a man who, after the war, will not be able to live with himself—far more than Private Ryan, who pleads with Captain Miller to let him fight along with his comrades.

A reasonable interpretation of the scene is impossible without understanding the sequence as a microcosm of the war that Captain Miller and his men have come to fight. Mellish must die, but the German who survives goes misunderstood—except by Upham, who is made most miserable by his own cowardice. Corporal Upham, not Private Ryan, offers the best example of a life lived at the expense of his comrade. Among the reasons for the U.S. to enter WWII, the death of Mellish serves to remind us of the Jews being slaughtered by the Germans, while the search for Private Ryan represents the sacrifices made necessary because America entered the war at such a late stage, when so many fronts demanded so much manpower. It is impossible not to think of all that while watching the prolonged wrestling match between Mellish and his killer.

The sacrifice of Mellish reverberates in our memory as we watch the contemporary scenes that open and conclude Spielberg's film. Some 50 years after the end of WWII. Private Ryan turns to his wife with the query, “Have I lived a life worthy of the great sacrifices made for me?” The same question could be asked of Upham, and of course, we could not answer with the same assurance given Ryan, because Upham's cowardice is appalling and serves as foil against which Ryan's insistence on fighting, even when he has an order from the High Command to avoid the battle, is made to seem even more noble.

How did they get into such a complicated mess? As the film opens, the Germans are entrenched above the beach, with an invisible sharpshooter firing mercilessly. The German enemy is always more powerful for being unseen, which is, I propose, the visual equivalent of language not understood. Whenever German soldiers come into view, they are striking for their failure to frighten us—with the sole exception of the German soldier come to slay Mellish. Upon gaining the plateau above the beach, the Americans have their first face-to-face encounter with German soldiers. A row of them emerges, hands in the air, approaching as P.O.W.s, trying to communicate in German. The Americans can't understand them, so they shoot them.

In another scene, Captain Miller's detail, just embarked on its mission, rests under cover of a bombed-out building, and suddenly the back wall collapses, revealing a unit of German soldiers playing cards. Surprised and defenselessness, they cry out—again, in untranslated German—“Don't shoot!” Their hands go up in alarm as Upham gives them a German command: “Haende hoch—ohne zu scherzen.” (“Hands up, no kidding.”) But suddenly a shot goes off, and the Germans are mowed down. It is a situation ripe for taking prisoners of war, and its morality is complicated by our not knowing who fired that first shot. But the relief felt by Captain Miller's Americans at still being alive makes them all the more suspect, when it comes to Geneva Conventions. This is compounded when we realize the other soldiers have no respect for the German-speaking Upham. This ethical dilemma is expanded and explored in a sequence where Captain Miller's unit does take a prisoner of war, a man so desperate to stay alive that his begging takes the form of a recitation of every American notion cluttering up his mind: “I like American … Steamboat Willie, Betty Boop, Betty Grable, nice gams. … What a dish! … Donald Duck … O-oh say can you sink? … Fuck Hitler. …” It is a stream-of-consciousness list of Yankee cultural exports worthy of James Joyce, but it only inspires Captain Miller's men to take aim and fire.

Spielberg has trouble handling a theme with straightforward consistency. In Saving Private Ryan, he indulges his artistic schizophrenia in an early scene that lends a comic irony to the enemy. Hanks' little platoon takes a P.O.W. and details him to dig graves. When the Americans are ready to make him fall into his own grave, Miller protects them from their worst instincts. He sticks to the Geneva Convention, but, unable to be burdened with a P.O.W. in his mission, simply grants the German his life and sends him on his way. In the final scene, that soldier has done what a soldier must do—rejoined his ranks. There he is, among the Germans attacking the bridge Miller is defending. In the final moments, they face each other in the village square. “I know that guy,” cries the German in friendly tones—in German (again sans subtitles and sadly not understood), but too late. The German soldiers aim and kill Captain Miller.

In the interstices of this ghastly saga, Spielberg has tried to show the impulse to communicate, to say something meaningful, even humane. Alas, it always goes untranslated. The translator himself, as conceived by the story, is basically a jerk—a man who sits around translating songs for his comrade