War Horse (2011)
If the ending of War Horse proved one thing absolute, it’s that Steven Spielberg is a master of the widescreen image. The film’s extraordinary climactic homage to the fiery colour scheme of Gone With the Wind got me thinking: what other images in Spielberg films effortlessly capture the narrative and themes of their respective movies?
Bear in mind, I’m not thinking in terms of E.T’s glowing heart or Harrison Ford in iconic pose, whip in hand, as Indiana Jones. I’ve cast the net wider to dig out some of the classic images from Spielberg’s overlooked movies, ones which perhaps don’t get their due alongside the likes of the shark in Jaws or the girl in the red dress from Schindler’s List. Here’s a selection.
The Truck in Duel (1971)
One of the most terrifying ‘monsters’ to appear in Spielberg’s canon (it gives Bruce the Shark and the velociraptors a run for their money), the rusted hulking menace of the truck in Duel carries a ghoulish, monstrous personality. Look at the front -those lights and that grill seem to form a leering face, one which bears down on hapless driver Dennis Weaver as he’s pursued through the back roads of California. Spielberg’s masterful suspense thriller remains one of his most accomplished works, mainly because it never offers an explanation as to why Weaver is being chased: the driver is never seen (bar the odd arm or hand), allowing the truck itself to act as the true villain of the piece. Tension is wound so tight that it hits the heights of Hitchcock’s finest.
The Salute – Empire of the Sun (1987)
Spielberg’s World War II epic starring a teenage Christian Bale (an astonishingly mature performance for one so young) was one of his first stabs at truly ‘adult’ filmmaking. Perhaps this is why it was dismissed: at the time, Spielberg was primarily known as a popcorn filmmaker, and his visually audacious movie was criticised by many as heavy-handed and corny. However, the film cleverly puts us in the shoes of the naive central character, a child who fails to comprehend the complexities of the war around him. It’s for this reason that certain images take on an ironic sense of operatic beauty, such as this moment, where he salutes the bravery of the Japanese pilots, little realising that they are part of the Axis forces and therefore his enemies.
The Mutiny – Amistad (1997)
Amistad is a bit ponderous and worthy for the most part but then it had a tough job living up to the brutal, exquisitely filmed opening scene, set aboard the eponymous ship. Led by Cinque (Djimon Honsou), a group of slaves slaughter their captors, leading to the trial that follows – captured by Spielberg in harrowing, messy fashion. The central image of the sequence – Cinque, standing aloft, illuminated by dramatic lightning – might be overdone but it captures the best and worst of humanity in one fell swoop, embodying both his nobility and the capacity for savagery in all of us. Even if Amistad struggles to reach these poetic heights throughout the remainder of its runtime, there’s no denying the power of this image.
Guns at the Ready – Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Midway through Spielberg’s comedy-crime caper, in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s likeable fraudster is pursued relentlessly by Tom Hanks’ stuffed shirt FBI agent, a marvellous moment of free-form expression occurs. A group of FBI agents burst into a room in pursuit of their quarry but instead of focusing on the men, Spielberg keeps the camera focused on the pistols which criss-cross the room at fluid intervals. It brilliantly encapsulates both the playful mood of the film and also the struggle at the heart of the story between law and order. As DiCaprio’s exploits become ever more drastic, so the stakes are raised – wonderfully embodied in this stroke of Spielbergian genius. Few directors are able to combine fun and narrative insight so smoothly.
The Tripod Rises -War of the Worlds (2005)
Much like the truck in Duel, the appearance of the hostile martian invaders in Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds defies common logic. This is what makes the film so frightening, nowhere moreso than in the brilliant scene where the monstrous tripod rises from the ground to obliterate everyone in sight with its death ray. It’s one of the most unnerving scenes in Spielberg’s canon, the director venturing into horror territory and playing directly into post 9/11 fears of the unknown. He may miss the essential point of HG Wells’ classic novel by updating and relocating it, but maintains its frightening power, aided by John Williams’ chilling score.