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Steven Spielberg

David Roche


David Roche

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1I have a confession to make: I have always had mixed feelings about the films of Steven Spielberg. And yet they have always been with me: I was scared of swimming and windsurfing because of Jaws; I cried when I saw E.T. at the movies and The Color Purple on TV; I even read a picture book version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom before watching the movie on video. All these films have in common that they were intense emotional experiences for me. And it may very well be their emotional power that makes Spielberg’s films suspect and that makes some of us so reluctant to take them seriously because, on some level, we are worried we are being manipulated. This book represents an attempt to interrogate this reluctance through in-depth analysis. I often joked among friends and colleagues that the problem with Spielberg’s œuvre—and the problem with each individual film—is that it starts out brilliantly, then progressively weakens as the melodrama and political correctness take over. I now see that another way to account for my gut feeling is: the Hollywood Wunderkind’s expert craftmanship is driven by the unquenchable optimism of the humanist, a faith that many of us long to believe in deep inside but never dare to. The wish-fulfillment Spielberg’s films offer is not just that of escapist fantasy: it is a chance to believe in humanity, if only for the duration of a movie. And so I have another confession to make: I have learned a lot from reading research on Spielberg’s work, viewing and analyzing his films, and working with the other authors of this collected volume. And I feel comfortable concluding that Spielberg is, indeed, one of the most important American filmmakers of our time and that several of his films are absolute masterpieces.

  • 1 The information below comes from Joseph McBride’s biography.

2Spielberg1 was born in Cincinnati on December 18, 1946 to a family of Orthodox Jews; his parental grandparents had immigrated from Ukraine in the early 20th century. His mother (Leah) was a restaurateur and a concert pianist, his father (Arnold) an engineer and a pilot during WWII, whose stories delighted his son. The Spielbergs moved to New Jersey in 1950, then to Phoenix, Arizona in 1953, where the boy attended a Hebrew school for four years. He found being an Orthodox Jew difficult and suffered from anti-Semitic prejudice. In 1958 he became a boy scout and would ultimately attain the rank of Eagle Scout. With some friends and an 8mm camera, the young Steven Spielberg made several movies: a Western (The Last Gunfight), two war movies (Escape to Nowhere and Fighter Squad) and a 140-minute Sci-Fi adventure film (Firelight). The family moved to Saratoga, California in 1964, where his parents divorced. Steven moved to L.A. after graduating from high school in 1965. His grades were not good enough to get him into the USC School of Cinematic Arts, so he attended California State University, Long Beach instead.

3Spielberg was offered a temporary position as an intern in the editing departement at Universal Television. A few months later, he received backing to make a short film for theatrical release, Amblin’ (1968), which he wrote and directed. The studio vice president was so impressed by the short film he offered Spielberg a directing contract, making him the youngest director ever to be signed for a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. Spielberg’s first job was directing a segment for the anthology series Night Gallery (NBC, 1971–1973), written by Rod Serling and starring Joan Crawford. He was then offered work on various shows, most famously the first episode of Columbo (NBC, 1971–1978; ABC, 1989–1998), before making three TV movies (Duel, Something Evil and Savage) over the next three years. The first, written by another Twilight Zone regular, Richard Matheson, was so successful it was re-released as a feature film in Europe in 1972-1973 with extra footage and was praised by the likes of David Lean and François Truffaut (Morris 109). His early work for television, Julian Upton explains in this volume, shows a director experimenting with visuals within the constraints imposed by the studio.

4By the age of twenty-eight, Spielberg was given the opportunity to make his first feature film, The Sugarland Express, and the following year, one of the top grossing movies of all time, Jaws. Two years later, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another one of the most financially successful movies of the decade, consolidated his position in Hollywood. Not all Spielberg’s films have been successful, but the occasional flop (1941, Always, Hook and more recently The BFG) never weakened his position. In 1981 he co-founded a film and television production company (Amblin Entertainment) named after his 1968 short film. In the 1980s, Spielberg was associated with blockbuster spectacle both as a director (the Indiana Jones films, the medium-budget E.T. which became an unexpected box office hit, Hook) and a producer (Poltergeist, Gremlins, the Back to the Future films).

5The Color Purple, released in 1985, was seen as an exception and an attempt to make a serious film to conquer the Academy Awards; it was nominated for eleven, but won none. Spielberg was to wait another eight years to win the day, with Schindler’s List garnering Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Score. Spielberg’s films have, since, been regulars at the Academy Awards, Saving Private Ryan winning three, Lincoln two, and other movies (Munich, Bridge of Spies) receiving multiple nominations. Spielberg’s role as a producer increased in the 1990s with the creation of DreamWorks SKG, co-founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. In spite of many successful productions (including the Shrek franchise), their ambition to start a new major studio came to an end when the company was sold to Viacom in 2006. Spielberg remains very active, directing and producing movies on a regular basis, upcoming films including The Post, Ready Player One, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and a fifth Indiana Jones.

6Most of the academic work devoted to Spielberg’s films was published after he gained recognition in the 1990s. Much of it has focused on the political implications of representing problematic material because it is based on actual events and/or deals with sensitive issues. Countless articles and a whole book (Loshitzky 1997) focus on the treatment of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, by far the film that has garnered the most attention. The treatment of slavery and race relations has also been a recurrent topic, with critics (Sirota 2016) regretting the celebration of the white savior in films like Amistad and Lincoln, as Hélène Charlery recalls in her chapter in this volume. Much has been written on the liberties taken with history in films like Amistad and, more recently, Lincoln (Stokes 2013). Spielberg’s contribution to Sci-Fi has been largely examined, with many studies of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Jurassic Park, A.I. and War of the Worlds inscribing them within the genre, and a whole book on the topic by Andrew M. Gordon (2008). Analyses of formal features of Spielberg’s films are, by comparison, less numerous, with important contributions by Warren Buckland (2006) and Pierre Berthomieu (2009), and a book entirely devoted to the music of John Williams (Audissino 2014).

7Spielberg’s position in the New Hollywood has been discussed at length. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson describe him as the “heir to the studio directors” of the studio era (485), as opposed to Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and their dream of an American art cinema (478–480). One feature that makes Spielberg a typical New Hollywood director is his “movie consciousness” (Bordwell and Thompson 478). It takes on at least two forms in the films: allusion/citation and reflexivity. Indeed, Spielberg’s films are made with an awareness of past works: Jaws cites Alfred Hitchcock; the Indiana Jones movies are indebted to Raoul Walsh, Jurassic Park to Ray Harryhausen (Bordwell and Thompson 485); Empire of the Sun and War Horse are influenced by David Lean and John Ford (Kendrick 142). This is reinforced by the music of John Williams, which is not only an homage to the symphonic epic Hollywood scores of the 1930s, but is, like the music of Max Steiner and others, very much citational (Berthomieu 583, 586). While these references inscribe Spielberg’s films in film history, the frequent allusions to his previous work create the sense that they make up a consistent whole: the œuvre of an auteur. “Movie consciousness” also means awareness that they are films. Nigel Morris (2007) in particular has demonstrated that reflexivity is a constant of Spielberg’s films; even the most escapist regularly draw attention to the fact that they are films. Spielberg’s characters are portrayed as spectators (Clovis and Lou Jean watching cartoons in The Sugarland Express, the characters visiting Jurassic Park), while frame-within-the-frame composition is often used as a distancing effect (the rearview mirrors in Duel, the windshields in Jurassic Park).

8Spielberg is also characteristic of the New Hollywood in that he has fairly consciously constructed himself as an auteur. He is, in effect, a combination of the auteur in the original Cahiers du cinéma sense of the term and in the modern sense. He is a director whose thematic and stylistic concerns are apparent whether he is directing horror, Sci-Fi, adventure or a historical drama. But he is also a director who works with the same team: editor Michael Kahn who has worked with Spielberg since Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Janusz Kaminski who has photographed most of Spielberg’s films from Schindler’s List on, and, of course, John Williams who has scored every Spielberg film since The Sugarland Express except for The Color Purple and Bridge of Spies. Spielberg regulars also contribute to the movies he produces—Michael Kahn has edited Arachnophobia (Frank Marshall, 1990) and Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996) among other Spielberg productions; cinematographer Dean Cundey often works with Rober Zemeckis; John Williams scored Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall, 2005). As the number of film and TV productions—Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011), Falling Skies (TNT, 2011–2015), etc.—prove, Spielberg has become a brand name both as a director and a producer.

9The family is the Spielbergian theme par excellence, one he insists his screenwriters integrate into the plot of each film (Morris 530). The narratives often espouse Œdipal trajectories, as Morris (2007) has shown, with children growing up (Elliott in E.T.), adults living out their childish dreams (Roy in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Frank in Catch Me If You Can) and, above all, adults taking responsibility whether as parents or surrogates (Brody in Jaws, Indy in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Peter Banning in Hook, Grant in Jurassic Park, Ray in War of the Worlds, and the characters played by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan and Bridge of Spies). Given how male-centered most of the films are, these Œdipal concerns are often tied to questions of masculinity, most obviously in the early films like Duel, Jaws and the Indiana Jones franchise.

10With the back to back release of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, 1993 represents both a turning point and, with hindsight, the quintessential Spielberg year. It is the year Spielberg released a “popcorn movie” and a “serious film” that were box office hits and critically successful, totalling nine Oscars. But it also marks the point where Spielberg became an ethical director: Schindler’s List raises the question “Is Oskar Schindler a good man?” (Ebertz 2008), while Jurassic Park updates the modern Prometheus story of Frankenstein (is it right to tamper with nature?) within an ecological framework (nature ultimately takes over). Spielberg’s political commitment outside of film was evident in his founding the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education in 1994. Following Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park, practically all of Spielberg’s films, whether fantasies (A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds) or based on historical events (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies), raise ethical questions. And he stated that his main reason for making Amistad was for his two adopted black children, Theo and Mikaela George, “because it’s a story they should know about, and my other children should know about it, too” (Hornaday 1997). Spielberg may not be a politically committed artist, as Julie Assouly argues in this volume, but his engagement with ethics runs deep, as Pascal Couté demonstrates. What Spielberg’s critics see as naïveté—myself included before undertaking this research project—is actually the profound belief in humanity that characterizes the humanist. Some might argue that the contradictions that make Spielberg’s films so compelling are the direct consequence of his aim to attract a diverse audience. But they may also originate in the contradictions at the heart of humanist thinking, a worldview that has difficulty coming to terms with abject cruelty, whether it takes the form of slavery, the Holocaust or terrorism. It is this tension that James Kendrick (2014) explores by revealing the underlying darkness of Spielberg’s films even before Schindler’s List. Though I, too, see 1993 as a turning point, I agree with Kendrick that the darkness was there all along, and I would argue that to this day Spielberg’s most pessimistic film remains Duel, in which the victory of man over machine, far from being celebrated, leads to an apocalytic dead-end, with David Mann sitting on a cliff encircled by the orange rings produced by the setting sun, the zoom-in reinforcing the sense of imprisonment [88:16].

11If Spielberg has earned recognition thanks to his “serious films,” he has always been praised for his craftmanship. In 2014, Steven Soderbergh provocatively stated that, by the time he made Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg had forgotten more about staging than Soderbergh knows today. In terms of style, Spielberg has long favored long takes, wide-angle lenses, deep focus and layered compositions, sometimes achieved through optical printing (e.g., in the second attack scene in Jaws); he has created “a distinctive lighting code “diffused images... strongly backlit and countered with a weak fill light” (Mott & Saunders 1986: 89)” (Morris 32), and the editing often resorts to graphic matches, e.g., the openings of the Indiana Jones films (Buckland 136). His collaboration with Kaminski has not fundamentally altered Spielberg’s approach to film narration, but the cinematographer has undoubtedly enriched Spielberg’s approach to the plasticity of the images, with particular attention to color schemes and texture (the bluish gray of Minority Report, the graininess of Saving Private Ryan, the smokiness of War of the Worlds). Like other New Hollywood filmmakers, Spielberg’s “movie consciousness” implies a fascination for technology. The ballroom scene in 1941 and the chase scene in The Adventures of Tintin can be counted among the many examples Bordwell gives of filmmakers competing “to see how lengthy and intricate they can make their traveling shots,” in other words, of virtuoso camerawork for its own sake (The Way Hollywod 135). The evolution of Spielberg’s style in his blockbusters (the fast cutting rate in some scenes in Minority Report, the mobile camera in The Adventures of Tintin) also seems to confirm Bordwell’s thesis that the contemporary Hollywood style is an intensification of classical continuity (Bordwell, The Way Hollywood 137; Buckland 42). Since Jurassic Park, it seems that Spielberg’s return to the escapist blockbuster is driven by wish-fulfillment, that is by the desire to experiment with technology (3D motion capture for The Adventures of Tintin and, more recently, 3D IMAX for The BFG) in order to create fantasy worlds.

12This book also addresses questions of ethics, ideology and identity politics, while seeking to make up for the lack of material on the formal qualities of Spielberg’s work and on other genres he has contributed to (the horror film, the road movie, melodrama, the war movie). It also seeks to shed light on films that have received less critical attention (The Sugarland Express, 1941, Empire of the Sun, The Terminal). Regrettably, it does not cover the sheer range of his œuvre, with no in-depth studies of Hook and some of the more recent films (The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Bridge of Spies and The BFG); and a book-length study would be required to cover his work as a producer and assess the degree to which some of his productions bear his mark.

13The book is divided into five sections, each approaching Spielberg’s films from a particular angle and methodology. The first chapter by Julian Upton pursues Buckland’s study of Spielberg’s early work on TV and seeks to emphasize its formative dimension; it shows the director experimenting with composition, camerawork and editing within the contraints of TV show formulas. Film historian Peter Krämer, who has written extensively on New Hollywood filmmakers including Spielberg, examines the critical reception of Spielberg’s second blockbuster, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was viewed as “a quasi-religious Science Fiction film for the whole family,” characteristic of the 1970s both because of its subject (the interest in UFO sightings) and religiosity (New Age); for Krämer, the film testifies to Spielberg’s special position within the New Hollywood, as a filmmaker who wants to update the tradition of the biblical family epic.

14The section on Spielberg’s poetics opens with Antoine Gaudin’s study of cinematographic space in Spielberg’s road movies Duel and The Sugarland Express. Relying on the methodology developed in his recent L’Escape cinématographique, an essential contribution to the topic, Gaudin’s analyses emphasize not only the various dimensions of space (landscapes, topography, geography, as well as the narrative function and the plastic quality of space), but more importantly, how they interact in ways that are specific to each film. The chapter by Vincent Souladié boldly dares to study a movie Spielberg scholars often neglect: 1941. Souladié demonstrates that the film’s aesthetics of chaos, indebted to the burlesque tradition, tap into a mechanical and an electrical paradigm, but that its failure to fully embrace these aesthetics, no doubt, reflects the director’s own ambivalence vis-à-vis a theme he ultimately strives to channel. The chapter on Spielberg’s poetics of horror analyzes his horror movies (Duel, Jaws, Jurassic Park and The Lost World), as well as the horror scenes in films in other genres (Close Encounters, E.T., A.I., Schindler’s List); the aim is threefold: to describe how the strategies are orchestrated within each film, and from one film to another; to assess the degree to which they have evolved; and to demonstrate the fluidity of aesthetic categories (suggestion vs monstration, terror vs horror) that are often opposed. It also acts as a transition for the following section on film genre.

15The chapter by Mehdi Achouche explores the relationship between science fiction and fairy tale in E.T. (and thus pursues Andrew Gordon’s 1983 analysis of the movie) and A.I.; the 2001 film reflexively and critically questions the theme of wish-fulfillment celebrated in Spielberg’s earlier movies, in a fashion that is closer to the dystopian films of the early 1970s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars broke away from, and thus announces the darkness of Minority Report and War of the Worlds. Andrew Stubbs examines the creative process at work in Spielberg’s remake (Always) and readaptation (War of the Worlds), with remaking as a means for the auteur to assert himself discursively (in interviews), thematically (by reinforcing Spielbergian themes) and aesthetically (through reflexivity), proof that the director, like many New Hollywood directors, has fully integrated auteur theory into his practice. With Saving Private Ryan, Fátima Chinita argues in Chapter 8, Spielberg proposes a WWII combat movie that is also a “male weepie” in the Hollywood tradition of Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk, with a combat unit in place of a family and excess emotions of pain and loss, albeit without the hysterics.

16Opening the section on identity politics, Hélène Charlery seeks to add to discussions about the representation of African American history in Spielberg’s films by revealing how the lighting of black and white skin complexifies the treatment of race relations in The Color Purple and Lincoln; in her analysis, the films’ visuals debunk, to some extent, the stereotypes they have been accused of reproducing, and thus reflexively question the construction of racialized and often racist stereotypes. Michael Lipiner and Rocco Giansante attempt to describe the Jewish sensibility that informs Spielberg’s œuvre, in his films about Jews and Israel (Schindler’s List, Munich), as well as in E.T. and his films devoted to African American history (The Color Purple, Amistad); they conclude that the sensibility at work in these films participates in a universalist ideal for justice and freedom, values that, for Spielberg, seem to be characteristically Jewish and American. The chapter by Charles-Antoine Courcoux confirms that masculinity remains as central a concern in A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds and Munich as it was in Duel and Jaws; technophobia is, as in The Matrix franchise, embodied by a womb-like space, and the films dramatize the male subject’s attempt to assert himself in the face of technology’s feminizing potential.

17The final section opens with Julie Assouly’s study of the pictorial and political influence of Norman Rockwell on Spielberg; for her, the filmmaker’s view of 1950s America is not borne of experience but of his taste for Americana and Rockwell in particular, and it is this nostalgia for an America he never knew that imbues his films—especially those of the late 1980s (Empire of the Sun and Always)—with a degree of ahistoricism and a lack of political awareness that is, at least to a certain extent, called into question in later films like Catch Me If You Can. Sébastien Lefait’s study of The Terminal pursues his analysis of surveillance in Minority Report in Surveillance on Screen, by viewing the later film in the context of the border security legislation that followed 9/11; he demonstrates that the film’s politics are darker than would first appear—and are, in this respect, in line with the pessimistic subtexts of A.I., Minority Report and War of the Worlds—and that, with this film, Spielberg ultimately distances himself from his usual escapist fare. Finally, Pascal Couté, whose dissertation sought to enlighten Spielberg’s œuvre with philosophy, interrogates the ethical implications of the dialectics of the human and the inhuman in Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report; he reveals that Spielberg’s apparently naive belief that the human can be borne of the inhuman should be actually inscribed within a long tradition of humanist thinking.

18It is my hope that this book will, like those of Gordon, Kendrick, Morris and others, serve to conquer the reluctance of those who still don’t take Spielberg seriously and confirm the significance of his films, as cultural phenomena and maybe even works of art, and pave the way for future research on one of the most important and influential Hollywood directors of his generation.


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Berthomieu, Pierre. “L’œil, Dieu et le monstre: le canon Steven Spielberg.” Hollywood moderne: Le temps des voyants. Pertuis: Rouge Profond, 2011, 545–588.

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Buckland, Warren. Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster. New York and London: Continuum, 2006.

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Gordon, Andrew M. “E.T. as Fairy Tale.” Science Fiction Studies 10.3 (Nov. 1983): 298–305.

Gordon, Andrew M. Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg. London, Boulder, New York, Toronto and Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Hornaday, Ann. “Revising movie history Film: Amistad breaks with Hollywood stereotypes in its account of what happened to a boatload of Africans bound for slavery,” Baltimore Sun, November 30, 1997. Web.

Kendrick, James. Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg. New York, London, New Delhi and Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Loshitzky, Yosefa (ed.). Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Persectives on Schindler’s List. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana UP, 1997.

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Morris, Nigel. The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2007. Ebook.

Mott, Donald R. and Cheryl McAllister Saunders. Steven Spielberg. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Sirota, David. “Oscar Loves a White Savior.” Salon. 21 February 2013. Web. Accessed on 1/3/2016.

Soderbergh, Steven. “Raiders.” Extension 765. Sept. 22, 2014. Web. Accessed on 4/11/2016.

Stokes, Melvyn. American History through Hollywood Film: From the Revolution to the 1960s. London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw Hill International Edition, 2010 [1994].


1 The information below comes from Joseph McBride’s biography.


Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès.

David Roche is Professor of Film Studies at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès and Vice-president of SERCIA ( He is the author of Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s (2014) and L’Imagination malsaine (2008), and has edited a themed issue of Transatlantica entitled “Exploiting Exploitation Cinema” (2016), as well as the collected volumes Comics and Adaptation (with Benoît Mitaine and Isabelle Schmitt-Pitiot, 2018), Intimacy in Cinema (with Schmitt-Pitiot 2014) and Approaches to Film and Reception Theories (with Christophe Gelly, 2012). He has published articles on North American and European auteur and horror cinema in Adaptation, E-rea, CinémAction, Horror Studies, Miranda, Post-script and Textes & Contextes. His book Quentin Tarantino: Poetics and Politics of Cinematic Metafiction is forthcoming.

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