IS there a more contradictory and unknowable filmmaker than Steven Spielberg? He is the world’s best-known director, and the most commercially successful in the entire history of cinema. Audiences adore his work, while critics are sniffy about his sentimental streak. The adjective "Spielbergian" can accurately be attached to films with remarkably wide-ranging styles and themes: rollicking adventure fantasy (like his Raiders of the Lost Ark); realistic accounts of war (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List); stories from a child’s viewpoint (E?T, Empire of the Sun) and effects-driven science fiction (War of the Worlds, Minority Report).
Spielberg, whose latest film, War Horse, opens next weekend, has enjoyed phenomenal success in all these genres, to the extent that even his fans may wonder where his heart really lies. He can make films that honour war veterans with the same zest as he makes dinosaurs come to life on screen.
He’s sober-minded enough to depict man’s inhumanity to man in close-up combat scenes, but is equally at home with plodding stories about social injustice or sentimental accounts of boys and their absent fathers.
It’s routinely said that his body of work is influential, but for the most part he seems inimitable – not just for the vast breadth of his interests but also his flair for creating spectacular, hugely ambitious set-piece scenes for the big screen.
The most Spielbergian film recently was not his own. Last year’s Super 8 was an amiable sci-fi fantasy about a group of small-town teenage amateur filmmakers and their close encounter with an alien. It was highly reminiscent of ET, and no surprise there – its director J?J Abrams (Lost, Alias, Star Trek) is an avowed fan, and was once hired by Spielberg to restore some of his early home movies.
It’s even less of a surprise that Spielberg is credited on Super 8 as a producer. Of course he is: imdb.com lists no fewer than 131 titles on which he receives some kind of producer credit. From last year alone (apart from Super 8), some of these were pretty wretched: Real Steel, Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. In each case, one wonders exactly what Spielberg brought to the party.
But then, as he says: “Everything comes to me.” This is because he isn’t just a filmmaker but, as principal partner of DreamWorks, a studio boss. The whole of Hollywood clamours to have Spielberg’s name attached to a proposed movie .
If he hoovers up a lot of films, the ones he declines are equally interesting. A decade ago, Spielberg told me he had rejected entreaties from Warner Bros to direct the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone. “It would have been a slam dunk for me,” he said. “We all knew the movie would be as big as Star Wars or Titanic. It was like someone writing a cheque for $1 billion, and my being able to cash it at the bank the next day.”
But of course Spielberg is one of the very few men in Hollywood who could afford to turn down such a lucrative offer. And as he added about the Potter film: “There was no challenge in it for me.”
Instead he made the more commercially risky A?I Artificial Intelligence, taking over the reins from the recently deceased Stanley Kubrick, whom Spielberg idolised. It was not a success: in a reversal of fortune for Spielberg, critics were respectful, while audiences reacted strongly against it.
But he had no regrets about A?I, and why would he? Spielberg directed eight of the 15 highest-grossing movies ever made, so one commercial setback hardly represents a disaster to him. He is perhaps alone in being the one director who can make whatever film takes his fancy, on a very high budget.
This may explain why he seems like a gadfly, darting between different themes and styles at will. This is a man who was editing Jurassic Park while he was in Poland, shooting Schindler’s List – two more different films would be hard to imagine. He does it because he can. And just occasionally he’s able to shoehorn more than one of his preoccupations into a single movie.
It’s definitely true of War Horse. One sees immediately why Spielberg was attracted to Michael Morpurgo’s source material. The story is about Albert, a Devon farm boy whose beloved horse is sold to a cavalry officer to be used in the First World War. The boy himself enlists and searches for the horse on a succession of battlefields.
Clearly, this offers a filmmaker the chance to stage spectacular combat scenes. But there’s a subtext to Morpurgo’s story – Albert’s relationship with his father (played by Peter Mullan), a Boer War veteran who never speaks of his bravery on the front line. Emotionally withdrawn, he has taken to drink.
This binds together two recurring themes in Spielberg’s work. He has been diligent in trying to re-create accurately on screen the horrors of war, and did so brilliantly in the early scenes of Saving Private Ryan, depicting the human losses involved in the D-Day landings. (Spielberg was also a guiding spirit in two war-themed TV series, Band of Brothers and The Pacific.)
He is committed to portraying combat realistically because his own father, Arnold, a Second World War veteran who served in India and Burma, used to swap war stories at reunions with his B-25 squadron buddies.
“They were horrifying,” Spielberg has said. “I kept wondering: how come movies haven’t done it that way, if that’s what really happened?”
Arnold Spielberg is almost certainly the key to the other facet of War Horse that attracted Steven – the father who is absent, physically or emotionally, leaving a family to fend for itself. Spielberg’s parents divorced after the war; he is the product of a broken home, and that sense of loss informs many of his films, including Jaws, E?T and Empire of the Sun.
But do these separate themes work in War Horse? I’ve seen the film twice, and I remain convinced of Spielberg’s enduring ability to create movie magic. His battle scenes are awe-inspiring: a cavalry unit emerges breathtakingly from a hayfield and charges towards a German encampment at the start of a doomed mission. His portrayal of trench warfare has the urgent feel of documentary footage, and there’s a crane shot that grimly surveys a battlefield littered with the corpses of dead horses. No one does it better.
But, on second viewing, the narrative through line about Albert’s father seems forced, tacked on, almost as if from another film; and the chocolate-box quality of the rural Devon scenes that open and end War Horse will vindicate critics who find Spielberg’s weakness for family values too sugary by half.
He’s 65 now and shows no signs of decreasing his work rate. He’ll continue to confound those who would seek to pigeonhole him, exasperate people who try to explain his psyche, and dismay nay-sayers who despair of his sentimentality. And moviegoers across the world will keep handing over good money for their fix of Spielberg magic.