On 13 November, a milestone in the prolific career of Steven Spielberg was crossed. His first feature-length directorial effort, Duel, a made-for-TV movie first broadcast on ABC, turned 50, and so we’ve had the company of one of the best to ever do it for 5 decades now. With his West Side Story remake lined up for an awards-season poised holiday release, it doesn’t look as though we’ll be short of Spielberg magic anytime soon either. In a legacy so expansive (and so familiar to most households), let’s take a tour through key moments in the director’s career, which helped the monumental and sustained accomplishment that it is take shape.
Duel, released in 1971, follows a mild-mannered business man commuting through California, who is pursued and harassed by a relentless truck driver (or more accurately, the truck itself). Made cheaply and shown on cable TV, Duel established Spielberg as a bankable talent with an eye for filmmaking beyond his experience. In fact, much of the lurking, chasing, unflappable menace with which the truck is portrayed foretells how the director would approach filming one of the world’s most famous, and most terrifying movie monsters; Bruce the shark.
Skipping past Spielberg’s first theatrical release, The Sugarland Express, for which he first partnered with the most beloved film composer of all time John Williams, the fledgling director embarked upon the troubled production of a thriller story involving the aforementioned shark terrorizing a beachside community. All efforts were rewarded however when Jaws became a smash hit, earning $470 million at the box office, and ushering in the era of the blockbuster (an era often dominated by Spielberg productions). Though Steven thinks little of it these days, Jaws lives on as a classic, and a near perfect piece of entertainment.
Next was a heartfelt sci-fi; Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which proved his hit-making capabilities and earned him his first Academy Award nomination, but his subsequent project was the first of his few missteps. 1941, a World War 2 comedy derided to this day, technically turned a profit, but was poorly received all round. Following this, Spielberg made a string of big-budget crowd-pleasers, among them some of the most popular films of all-time; Raiders of the Lost Ark (and it’s staggered sequels), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, writing Poltergeist, and producing some 19 films between 1984 and 1990, among them The Goonies, Gremlins, The Land Before Time, Joe Versus the Volcano, Back to the Future, An American Tail, Cape Fear and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A 1997 biography quoted Steven as saying “Producing has been the least fulfilling aspect of what I’ve done in the last decade”, and so the director scaled back his duties as producer, and began looking for material which would fulfill his creative needs as director. What followed was an era defined by his prestige films – with a good mix of escapist blockbusters – sometimes alternating between them.
First was The Color Purple, so dramatic a turn into serious subject-matter that it not only convinced critics that he had the chops for sobering material, but also bagged him his first Best Director DG-Award, along with multiple Oscar nods (since then an Academy Awards ceremony without Spielberg in attendance seems unbecoming). Then came the less enthusiastically received Empire of the Sun, and a third Indiana Jones film to make amends with ticket-buyers and producers alike. Always, a passion-project and remake of a childhood favourite for the director, was a more obviously failure than the director had seen up to this point, and is thankfully largely forgotten. Spielberg has acknowledged that he felt something akin to “director’s block” during this time, but pushed through this with the Robin Williams kid’s film and Peter Pan adaptation Hook (which did not win over critics, but remains a nostalgic treat for those who grew up on it).
In 1993, Spielberg reached a pinnacle of productivity, artistry and popularity not matched since, by releasing Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the span of a single year. One a rip-roaring adventure, pioneering visual effects, demolishing box office records, and becoming the definition of a generation-spanning classic. The other a deeply personal holocaust drama, based on true events, widely considered his best work, and one of the most celebrated films ever made.
Spielberg took three years off as director and founded Dreamworks. The studio provided greater artistic freedom on live-action productions and would become known for its successful line-up of animated hits, mostly computer-generated, which helped shape the look and style of animation today. Returning in 1997 with a hugely successful sequel to Jurassic Park, Spielberg followed with the lesser of his prestige dramas, not being the shot-in-the-arm that was its company, Amistad nevertheless was received warmly, despite poor theatre attendance. More popular, and garnering the most praise of Spielberg’s career bar-Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan earned him an honour of a different kind; the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, and serves as one of the most solemn and realistic acts of filmic remembrance ever.
Following this the Hollywood legend began the inevitable transition into elder stateman for the movies, releasing some excellent films, some agreeable films, and one of the worst of his career. There were the science-fiction future-scapes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, star-led thrill-rides Catch Me If You Can and War of the Worlds, charming laid-back entertainments like The Terminal and The Adventures of Tintin, the unfortunate fourth Indiana Jones film Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the intermittent historical dramas Munich, War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies.
So we come to the era of Spielberg’s career of today. With effects-heavy spectacles The BFG and guaranteed grosser Ready Player One, the director seemed to slip into overwhelming visual language, which hasn’t netted much beloved films; The BFG even flopped in 2016, and though The Post enjoyed adoration in critical circles, the film seemed to slant towards a limited, older-skewing audience.
We are at something of a juncture. Although Spielberg is pretty firmly an icon forever, West Side Story may decide whether or not we truly are in his late-stage period of diminishing returns, as far as his status as top-of-the-line directors working today is concerned. I know I’ll be the first to buy ticket, and with a batting average like Spielberg’s, we should be in for a treat.