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Steven Spielberg

David Roche

Spielberg, Ethics & Ideology

Spielberg Meets Rockwell: Nostalgia and the Celebration of America’s Heroic Past

Julie Assouly

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1Spielberg’s admiration for Norman Rockwell transpires in many of his films—roughly half of them ranging from 1941 to Bridge of Spies—mostly through his taste for retro America. He shares this passion with his longtime friend, George Lucas. The two have been collecting Rockwell’s work for decades, and their collections were displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for an exhibition entitled “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg” (July 2, 2010–January 2, 2011).

2Nostalgia has often been used to describe their work (Jameson, Boym), especially Spielberg’s, as they tend to depict America’s glamorous and heroic past. Frederic Jameson (1982) was the first to critically analyze the concept of nostalgia films as part of his essay on postmodernism. Nostalgia films raise the question of historicity, which is often contradicted by their obsession with plastic beauty at the expense of sociohistorical realism.

Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire—not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs...

3Jameson then distinguished between two kinds of nostalgia: one that “consists merely of films about the past and about specific generational moments of that past” (“Postmodernism” 4), e.g., American Graffiti; and one that “seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with those objects” by “reinventing the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period” (“Postmodernism” 5), e.g., Always. Interestingly, Jameson invents a third category for the Lucas/Spielberg production Raiders of the Lost Ark: it “occupies an intermediary position here: on some level it is about the ’30s and ’40s, but in reality it too conveys that period metonymically through its own characteristic adventure stories” (“Postmodernism” 5). In the 1980s, Jameson positioned Lucas as the forerunner of the nostalgia film trend, which Spielberg only took part in later. Spielberg’s prolific filmography, however, led him to explore a greater range of genres and styles than his friend, who focused exclusively on the Star Wars franchise after American Graffiti and produced more than he directed. By referring to Rumble Fish (Coppola, 1983) as “filmed in genuine nostalgia film style” (“Postmodernism” 19) Jameson implies that nostalgia films somehow represented a threshold between America’s golden years (the 1950s) and the counterculture of the 1960s-1970s—in American Graffiti, that link is established through the allusions to the Vietnam war.

4Some twenty years later, Vera Dika reinterpreted Jameson’s theory: “for Jameson, however, nostalgia is not so much a re-presentation of a particular historical period as it is a re-creation of its cultural artifacts” (10). For Dika, nostalgia films are a return “to old stories” and “to old film genres” and their “imagistic and narrative signifying systems” (for instance, the way Star Wars draws from 1950s sci-fi). She adds that “the lighting, sense of colors, and the grain of the film, as well as its composition and framing, may all be manipulated to refer to past images” (10), e.g., Munich. Based on Jameson’s views on nostalgia and its retakes by other scholars (Svetlana Boym, Vera Dika, Michael Dwyer), this chapter mainly proposes to consider the role of Rockwell’s iconography in Spielberg’s nostalgic reconstruction of the past. Considering pictorial intertexts, especially the work of one of America’s most celebrated painters, who already manipulated those aesthetic devices to serve a specific vision of America from the 1920s to the 1960s, offers a possibility to understand Spielberg’s place in the short history of nostalgia films.

5While Lucas literally reenacted some of Rockwell’s paintings in American Graffiti—e.g., The Flirts (1941) which shows a beautiful blond in a convertible being hit on by two truck drivers—Spielberg started injecting Rockwell’s images in his own work as early as 1941. The madcap comedy includes very thorough reconstructions of Americana scenes, whose sole purpose seems to be to look visually appealing as they display the whole retro paraphernalia, staging young and older people evolving in traditional places (diners, ballrooms), wearing typical garments (long skirts and ponytails, sleeveless jumpers and even zoot suits) to the point of becoming “cliché.” Although these scenes refer to a period forever connected with what most people judge as typically American, the 1930s, 1940s and especially 1950s, three decades marked by the reign of two emblematic presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61), they do not really address the socio-historical issues of those periods and, as such, seem to illustrate the second form of nostalgia identified by Jameson. Considering Spielberg’s career as a whole, my aim will be to demonstrate how Rockwell’s influence has remained conspicuous aesthetically, while Spielberg’s films oscillated between the two categories of nostalgia previously mentioned, to finally create a third one. I will focus on how it sometimes proves difficult to evaluate the director’s level of ideological involvement in some of his retro films, mainly 1941, Empire of the Sun, Always and Catch me if you Can. The four films feature aviation, a motif connected to America’s past glory which, in my opinion, played a significant part in creating the visual myth of Americana. Indeed, in spite of a realistic historical background, their undeniable optimism and patriotism seem heightened by frequent references to Rockwell’s illustrations and a tendency to embellish America’s past by creating sketches that could have been the painter’s own sets for his Saturday Evening Post covers. Ultimately, I argue that, in Spielberg’s retro films, conjuring up nostalgia and indulging in Americana icons contributes to weakening the historical content, and sometimes even trivializes the director’s ideological engagement, though there does seem to have been an evolution in that respect.

Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg

6As kids growing up in the 1950s, both Spielberg and Lucas admired Rockwell’s covers for the Saturday Evening Post. They left an enduring trace in their memory. Spielberg even has Boy on a High Dive (1947) in his office. When asked if it were his favorite Rockwell painting, he replied: “Well, let’s put it this way: This is the Rockwell that, every time I’m ready to make a movie, every time I’m ready to commit to direct a movie, that’s me—that’s the feeling in my gut, before I say ‘yes’ to a picture. Because every movie is like looking off a three-meter diving board, every one” (Stamberg 2010). Speaking to Virginia Mecklenburg, curator at the Smithsonian Museum, Lucas said he believed Americans respond to Rockwell’s illustrations because they depict the lives they would like to live: “the images might be dated but the content is not.” According to Spielberg, Rockwell “pushed a benign but important agenda of a kind of community, of a kind of civic responsibility, to patriotic duties, to understanding our nation by understanding our neighbor, and he did this in one frame, in one image” (Mecklenburg 2010). The painter’s work, Spielberg explains, deals with themes like “tolerance of our community, respect for our parent, respect for our president, the boy scout of America, respect for the veterans our soldiers.” These themes were developed early on in the history of U.S. cinema, by directors like Frank Capra in his populist comedies Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr Smith goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Both Lucas and Spielberg have acknowledged Capra’s influence, and the three filmmakers share a Rockwellian vision of American positivism.

7Rockwell was considered as a “visual narrator” and even saw himself as a movie director who, according to Virginia Mecklenburg (2010), “auditioned models as cast, picked the costumes and acted up the role.” The influence is also visual. Rockwell’s paintings tell American stories/history; they rely on mise en scène, just like films, and should not be reduced to still images. Spielberg and Lucas both explained how sensitive they were to the stories behind Rockwell’s illustrations and sought to interpret them in some of their films; they even influenced their way of staging stories and their own perspective on cinema as a reflection of their own philosophy of life.

8Spielberg says of the first Rockwell he acquired, Daniel Boone Comes to Life (1923), that he could relate to the subject as he identified with the writer creating American adventure stories while writing his screenplays. Spielberg interprets Time for Greatness (1964), a portrait of JFK campaigning for the U.S. presidency, as “what America could have become had Kennedy been allowed to serve 8 years.” He also mentions Back to Civvies (Dec. 15, 1945) which depicts a flying fortress pilot coming home a grown-up. Giving his own interpretation of the painting, he says: “when he went off to war, time stood still”; “that bedroom represents that suspended animation” (Braver 2010). The painting focuses more on the fate of an anonymous individual than on its core subject, the Second World War, implying that soldiers were ordinary men. In this respect, it announces Saving Private Ryan, where one of the main prerogatives is for the teacher to humanize soldiers.

9These comments clearly emphasize the fictionalizing power of Rockwell’s images. Spielberg did not grow up mixing with a lot of “American” (i.e., WASP) children and experienced a lot of American traditions through The Saturday Evening Post covers (Stamberg 2010). Spielberg, who grew up an Orthodox Jew living in gentile neighborhoods (Sanello 3), remembers: “I was ashamed because I was living on a street where at Christmas we were the only house with nothing but the porch light on” (Sanello 4). Rockwell’s images were what he observed from a distance, but not what he experienced as a kid, especially in Phoenix. Thus, the painter’s representation of America seems to illustrate more what the director fantasized about 1950s America than his actual experience of the period. I would thus argue that the representation of American society in his retro films is deeply influenced by his childhood fantasies and his response to Rockwell’s illustrations. The adult Spielberg has not radically departed from this idealistic vision of America, particularly through his portrayal of American righteous, ordinary heroes, and his attachment to family values and patriotism, even if a film like Saving Private Ryan, in spite of its patriotic undertones, strongly denounces the absurdity of war through its use of graphic violence, especially in the opening and closing sequences (D-Day and the bridge).

10Spielberg has, as we shall now see, drawn heavily on Rockwell’s style in his reconstruction of the American past and has often reinvested Rockwell’s staged images of America (the painter, who belonged to the realist tradition, worked from staged photographs). Spielberg’s retro films bear all the features of what may correspond to the visual myth of Americana: the icons of heartland America that were popularized from the 1930s to the 1950s and that people identify as typically American. Places like diners, barbershops and drive-ins; objects like Coca-Cola bottles, bowling shirts, hula hoops, chewing gum; characters like the milkman, the newspaper boy and the boy scout—all are examples of how an iconography of (stereo)typical America was created during that period to advertise the American way of life. These images were exported to Europe between the two World Wars (although American culture had already started to have an impact on Europe during World War I) via posters, photographs and films, and were seen as typically American worldwide (Assouly 80–89).

1941, Always and Aviation

11Two examples of Spielberg’s indulgence in Americana are 1941 and Always, both featuring the theme of aviation. 1941 can be described as an absurd, burlesque comedy meant to “dedramatize” a painful episode in American history, Pearl Harbor. It is built like a succession of snapshots of Americana culture. The street panic sequence is choreographed and evokes a musical; emphasis is put on colors (bright and catchy), costumes (the emblematic zoot suit) and typically American locales like a ballroom, a cinema or a diner invaded by soldiers in uniforms driving tanks (Fig. 1) [88:00]. In a way, 1941 mostly relies on a deployment of Rockwellian Americana and offers a kaleidoscopic view of Rockwell’s paintings turned into visual orgies, e.g., the paint factory sequence [2:00]. At the center of this fantasy is the heroic Rockwellian pilot (Captain Wild Bill Kelso) gone berserk, cursing, spitting, stealing and flying upside down. 1941 is, in effect, a parodic take on Spielberg’s own Rockwellian obsessions, debunking features—romance, friendship, family values, tolerance, retro America, war heroism, planes and history—that were to become recurring tropes of his cinematic world.

Fig. 1 — 1941: the street panic scene reminiscent of a musical.

Fig. 1 — 1941: the street panic scene reminiscent of a musical.

12Always is built on a supernatural connection between a deceased aerial firefighter (Pete) and his young apprentice (Ted), through their relationship with the former’s mourning girlfriend, Dorinda. Although the story is set in the 1980s, the film’s aesthetics is deeply influenced by its source, the WWII romantic drama A Guy Named Joe (1943). The pilots’ outfits (especially young Ted’s), the very retro local joint where retro music is played as Dorinda dances with Pete in a shiny evening dress [15:16], Audrey Hepburn’s cameo—all convey a sense of nostalgia. In Always, planes are depicted as objects of desire:

Camerawork several times effects a somewhat odd (and technically elaborate) transference from aircraft to Dorinda as object of visual desire, as in the opening sequence when a pan with a plane on the runway continues, following Dorinda inside the control tower. Later, after Pete’s emergency landing, she strides purposefully towards him in a lateral tracking shot past several aircraft. This transference, embodying adolescent ambivalence that parallels Pete’s attitudes and visions, recalls similar obsessions in Empire of the Sun.

13The nose of Pete’s airplane is clearly a phallic symbol. A neon-blue shot of him showing his plane to an amazed Dorinda in shot/reverse shot, emphasizes how Pete’s skills as a pilot, and his love affair with his plane, are some of the reasons she admires him. The aforementioned sequence ends with a dissolve on a fireplace, the superimposed images of the blue plane (Fig. 2) and the red fire heralding Pete’s lethal accident [22:23]. The next sequence shows Pete and Dorinda in bed, another sexual innuendo using a plane as the man’s seductive attribute.

Fig. 2 — Always: the plane in the blue light before Pete’s final flight.

Fig. 2 — Always: the plane in the blue light before Pete’s final flight.

14The Rockwellian subtext in Always is to be found in the treatment of gender, as Dorinda’s manly attitude—a reference to the female pilot embodied by Irene Dunne in the original film—places her in the tradition of 1940s women pilots as heroines who emancipated themselves while taking part in the war effort. They were celebrated by the painter in his retake of Rosie the Riveter (1943). Although this popular image, and progressive war films like Victor Fleming’s, contributed to changing the gender-oriented relation between men and planes, aviation remained a very masculine domain in which women were male fantasies. For example, during WWII, planes were given women’s names, and portraits of pin-ups were painted on them. 1941 caricatures the idea that planes are extensions of the pilots through a crazy subplot involving a female plane-fetishist, whose sexual desire is only aroused when she flies [22:40]. The gender reversal, here, is both a pastiche of the war movie and a tribute to the screwball comedy and its masculinized women; this is reinforced by the woman controlling the traditionally male-dominated courtship of the 1940s.

15In spite of his frequent use of Rockwellian iconography as a means to visually recreate the spirit of the 1940s through well-known icons, Spielberg already started to propose a critical view of American history with 1941, distancing his work from a nostalgic image of American candor through comedy. He admitted he liked “the period because it was naïve and it was somewhat innocent and it represented the growing pains of the 20th century. And it’s a very fertile time for movie stories” (Friedman and Nothbohm 137). Exposing American “pains” and contradictions became a more pregnant prerogative from 1993 on, with Schindler’s List, Amistad and Munich.

The Pan Am Mystique: Selling American Perfection in Catch Me If You Can

16Even a non-historical retro film like Catch Me if You Can sought to reveal America’s loss of innocence in the 1960s through the deliquescence of 1950s values and ideals of a model society glorified by Rockwell’s paintings. In 1956, Rockwell produced a series of illustrations entitled “Around the World with Rockwell on Pan Am” that were meant as advertisements for the prestigious firm. At the time, planes represented modernity and a flourishing American industry: “The company was credited with many innovations in the aircraft industry (including jet aircrafts, jumbo jets and the use of computer systems to handle reservation)” (Harris 1). The aura of the Pan American World Airways (1926-1991) is comparable to that of Charles Lindbergh (at least in 1927) in the history of American aviation: it is an American success story that greatly contributed to enhancing U.S. prestige abroad—it was even the subject of the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon presidential debate. The company, like the man, became the embodiment of American exceptionalism. As made pivotal in Catch me if you Can, Pan Am was not only a successful American firm, but a symbol of U.S. supremacy, triumph and modernity, that had no equivalent in the world. It is “the American airline that was most associated with the United States in the world’s eyes... In many ways, the story of Pan Am is the story of America, as the company itself became the representation to the world of America” (Harris 1).

Fig. 3 — Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale and the fashionable Pan-Am stewardesses.

Fig. 3 — Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale and the fashionable Pan-Am stewardesses.

17Visually, Catch me if you Can utterly glamorizes Pan Am. It depicts not only a successful company, but a way of life: stressless, comfortable, reliable and modern. In Spielberg’s adaptation of Frank Abagnale and Stan Redding’s 1980 best-seller, genius grifter Frank Abagnale Jr’s most prolific scheme is to pose as a Pan Am pilot, one of the most envied positions a young man could get in the 1960s. The film’s portrayal of the Pan Am—a slow motion low-angle shot emphasizing beautiful stewardesses walking like fashion models on a podium—conveys the idea that the company created a mystique, built on marketed perfection and relying on aesthetic choices such as a color scheme (the very distinctive blue of the uniforms and bags with the graphic globe logo) and carefully tailored fashionable uniforms (Fig. 3) [107:00]. The shots of the crew echo Rockwell’s 1956 illustrations. Out of the seven-part portfolio that resulted from the tour, only the introduction focuses on the company itself, particularly the typically Rockwellian portrait of a pilot, which, like all his portraits, evokes confidence and benevolence. In the film, the exact same pilot is shown signing an autograph for a captivated child. There is something intrinsically Rockwellian in the Pan Am iconography that aesthetically appealed to Spielberg, who magnified the very retro blue color and the fashionable uniforms. The Pan Am iconography, which is used by Frank as a free pass to his American dream, can be seen as an integral part of the visual myth of Americana, resulting from America’s ontological will to be seen as a a City upon a Hill. Americana could, indeed, be defined as a means to sell America as a trademark for perfection and innovation, admired everywhere in the world. This was especially the case in Europe after World War II, when American products were fashionable, from Coca-Cola to chewing gum, Gillette razors and Lucky Strike cigarettes. The packaging mattered as much as the actual product, if not more. Commercials were extensively used for that purpose, but cinema became the most powerful ambassador of Americana, more or less conspicuously depending on the decade (Sklar 215–219). “Nostalgia films” of the 1970–80s onwards continued what started during the studio era, through a return to an iconography of the 1950s as the heyday of triumphant American prosperity.

18The film’s frequent allusions to Rockwell’s paintings participate in the perpetuation of this marketing strategy up to a certain point, announcing the critique effected in The Terminal. Indeed, Pan Am, as a symbol of American material success, is only a lure in Frank’s life and is soon contradicted by his impossible (very Rockwellian) fantasy of a happy loving family which is stolen from him. His fake ascent is mirrored by his father’s downfall and the deliquescence of his family through his mother’s infidelity. Moreover, as pointed out by Sharon Willis in a chapter on movies and melancholy,

Catch Me if You Can’s approach to its period remains strikingly detached; even as it scrupulously details the style and texture of a certain affluent singles lifestyle, its principals are isolated from their social context: it is as if there were no war in Vietnam, no antiwar protests, no civil rights movement, and no incipient feminism.

19The film is not meant to serve any political comment on the period. However, I would qualify the use of the word “detachment” because it offers a critical view on the myths of the American dream and the American way of life. Both are conveyed through Rockwellian scenes at the beginning of the film, especially in the family’s home (Fig. 4) [11:18]. Frank is then expelled from that perfect picture when he symbolically observes a replica of the same scene through the window of his mother’s new home as she celebrates Christmas with her new family [118:00]. The film’s dynamics are based on the fact that the family unit and values of the Eisenhower era, celebrated forcefully by Rockwell, crumbled in the 1960s. Frank is desperate to live a perfect family life, embodied by Roger Strong and his wife singing together while doing the dishes, or again singing in chorus with their daughter in front of the TV [90:00].

Fig. 4 — Catch Me If You Can: Abagnale’s Rockwellian family.

Fig. 4 — Catch Me If You Can: Abagnale’s Rockwellian family.

20But Frank’s own disrupted family life and his resulting career as a conman are a representation of the other side of the 1950s’ apparent perfection, heralding the societal changes and turmoils of the 1960s. Frank is actually a rebel character in spite of himself, trying to cling to 1950s conservative values that were only a fantasy ideologically speaking. Catch Me If You Can resembles American Graffiti because it emphasizes how the beginning of the 1960s marked a threshold between two opposing generations. A passage from apparent innocence to harsh reality (i.e., from Eisenhower to Kennedy/Johnson). Incidentally, Rockwell’s work was very much influenced by this generational change, as his most engaged pieces were made in the 1960s (Southern Justice, 1965; Negro in the Suburbs, 1967; Blood Brothers, 1968).

21Spielberg’s assumed detachment, just like Rockwell’s, is, above all, the result of his faith in the American system, which is reasserted in all his films, however critical they may be of various aspects of American society. In the world of Catch Me If You Can, Carl Hanratty is living proof that one can lose their hope of a perfect Rockwellian family (i.e., he spends Christmas in his office alone) and still work for the government and be a righteous man. In Spielberg’s films, duty prevails and is conveyed by a sincere faith in the American system and the individual actions of ordinary heroes (often embodied by Tom Hanks).

American Heroism and the Lindbergh Affair

22Rockwell also had a specific interest in American heroes in every sense of the word, ranging from the boy scout helping an old lady to the soldier going to war. His portrait of Charles Lindbergh (1927) is part of Spielberg’s collection. The painting portrays the aviator landing in Paris after flying solo across the rainy Atlantic for thirty-three hours, the feat that made him the American hero. Entitled Pioneer, the painting compares Lindbergh to Christopher Columbus and the pioneers who crossed the continent to settle the West, as illustrated by the reproduction of Columbus’s ship, the Santa Maria, in the left corner and a covered wagon in the right corner. Lindbergh’s legendary plane, the Spirit of St Louis, can also be seen in the background.

23Spielberg’s passion for aircrafts started when he was a child in post-World War II America, as his father’s accounts of war stories fascinated him. He mentions his long-admitted obsession with planes in several interviews: “I am absolutely fascinated and terrified by flying. It is a big deal in my movies. All my movies have airplanes in them. You name the movie—they all fly” (Friedman and Notbohm 153). In 1941, the Indiana Jones franchise, Always and Empire of the Sun, planes are shot meticulously, with the camerawork drawing attention to details. Spielberg’s approach is very similar to Rockwell’s. For example, in First Airplane Ride (June 1938), the subtle details on the seat and the choice of the character, an old lady, against an empty white background, can be seen as a celebration to the democratization of technology, American progress, which Rockwell believed, allowed ordinary people to do extraordinary things, like discovering the world, as suggested by the map. Although the act of flying is emphasized by details, traveling itself is dematerialized through red dots on a map—imagery that Lucas and Spielberg reprise in the Indiana Jones films—the plane representing a way to travel through time and space. In Rockwell’s iconography, flying is closely related to America’s founding myths. For instance, in Uncle Sam Takes Wings (1928), the personification of the United States serenely flies alongside a fleet of three American aircrafts embodying America’s pride and power.

24The fact that heroic pilots, army or regular ones, are often associated with American culture originates from the popularity of the Winged Gospels in the first half of the twentieth century (Corn 1983), a type of literature that deeply influenced cinema:

Initially, films about flying provided the film makers [sic] with ideal scenarios for their developing repertoire of trick photography and for exciting and comic stories, but they soon came to the credo of the “Winged Gospel,” that air transportation would bring about a golden age of progress, that flying was the ultimate technological achievement, and portrayed the airman as a romantic and chivalric figure.

25Successive governments throughout American history have been prone to promote the country’s modernity and conqueror spirit, backed by Hollywood which produced a lot of war films involving intrepid pilots. As Michael Paris has noted, “[t]he ‘golden age’ of aviation from the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1950s, coincides almost exactly with the “golden age” of cinema” (7). As early as 1935, the character of the hero/pilot became a popular figure in the comic strip Ace Drummond (1935–1940), created by Eddie Rickenbacker, a former captain in the USAF who was the most famous American fighter ace. The comic strip was successfully adapted into a thirteen-episode serial in 1936 (Universal) and contributed to fully integrating the figure into American popular culture. Later, the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep (NBC, 1976–1978), based on the memoirs of Greg Pappy Boyington, a WWII ace fighter played by Robert Conrad, became a great success and strengthened the image of the American pilot/hero. More recently, Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) firmly rooted the character of the fearless, reckless American pilot in popular culture. Of course, Lucas and Spielberg did pay tribute to aviation and contributed to fueling the visual myth surrounding the hero/pilot figure in Star Wars, the Indiana Jones films, Empire of the Sun and Always. Even Saving Private Ryan, with its focus on the infantry, features the USAF pilots as last minute saviors, the “tank busters” being the last thing Captain Miller sees before dying as Ryan instantly identifies them. Spielberg’s films often feature a plane lover who seems to voice the director’s passion for those machines. Another fine example is Jamie who, in Empire of the Sun, shouts “B-51 Cadillac of the sky!” as the American pilot/liberator waves at the kid from the cockpit in a very Rockwellian shot (Fig. 5) [114:00].

Fig. 5 — Empire of the Sun: an American B-51 pilot waves at Jim.

Fig. 5 — Empire of the Sun: an American B-51 pilot waves at Jim.
  • 1 Our Heritage (1950) employs a similar effect. It shows two boy scouts looking to the left, with Geo (...)

26Lindbergh, the paragon of the American pilot/hero is also featured in another classic illustration by Rockwell, Spirit of America (1929), as one of the American heroes drawn in hazy blue in the background gathered round the portrait of a boy scout in color. The scout conveys heritage (i.e., Lindbergh’s legacy to future generations)1 and conjures up the figure of the ordinary hero, especially the child hero, one of the central themes of Spielberg and Lucas’s films (e.g., Elliott in E.T and Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Spielberg loves boy scout paintings because they remind him of his own experience (he explained he started cinema thanks to them when he received the photography merit badge), and Rockwell admitted he admired boy scouts the way he admired the military, as embodiments of American heroism, patriotism and resilience (Mecklenburg 2010). Rockwell even painted A Scout is Loyal (1942) for the Boy Scouts of America calendar: “Lincoln, Washington, the Bill of Rights, the flag, and the eagle all stand behind the scout’s loyalty to country. His pack and his uniform, with its badges and insignia, suggest that this young man is destined to the military” (Marling 33).

27It seems that Rockwell and Spielberg share a desire to represent America and its history the way they, and a lot of people, would like it to be, through sometimes candid and often optimistic eyes. The problem with Rockwell’s one-sided vision of America is the feeling that people are being lied to about American heroes and their model society. Lindbergh is a prime example of this. Although people like to remember him as he was portrayed by Rockwell in 1927, Lindbergh got involved in several controversies in 1936, when he agreed to be Hitler’s consultant for the Luftwaffe. He visited Germany three times between 1936 and 1938 and became so close to the Nazi regime that he was decorated by Goering himself, provoking a scandal. He got involved in politics, attacking F.D.R.’s plan to help the allies in Europe. He delivered anti-communist, isolationist speeches that reflected a lot of Americans’ reluctance to take part in another European war. But he crossed a line when in 1941, just before the U.S.A. entered the war, he blamed America’s “ruin” on three “lobbies”: F.D.R.’s administration, the British and the Jews, whom he said, had never been real Americans and had acquired too much power through cinema, the press, the radio and the government. He was then labeled a pro-Nazi traitor. From national hero he became a pariah, and he never apologized for his anti-semitic positions. As various scandals about his private life unfolded (most infamously, his hidden polygamy), people realized the greatest American hero of the time had serious moral flaws, and was cold and devoid of empathy. To some extent, his two-sidedness was really in keeping with the ambivalent concept of American exceptionalism and its limits. In American History/American Film, J.E. O’Connor and M.A. Jackson explain that the myth of natural harmony, popularized by Adam Smith and John Locke, still pervades American society today. For them,

individuals who act out of self-interest will automatically move the society as a whole in the direction of natural perfection. At the heart of this notion is the belief that nothing in the system prevented people from achieving their own individual goals, and that the traditional barriers of class, religion, and geography were absent in the American experience.

28They trace the origin of the myth to the concept of “abundance” that makes it impossible for people to blame society for their personal failures, as it “offer[s] opportunity to anyone capable of grasping it.”

29This theory summarizes the whole ideology behind Rockwell’s paintings: a belief in individual fate and a denial of America’s imperfection through a glorification of its progressive system, inherited from the Founding Fathers through founding documents conspicuously inserted in a lot of his paintings (especially during wartime). It is also what underlies a lot of Spielberg’s patriotic historical films, and literally tears Captain Miller apart in Saving Private Ryan, as he obeys a system which he believes to be good for American/world progress, while knowing that, in the end, individual sacrifice is the only way to restore harmony. Contrary to what is shown in Rockwell’s paintings, Spielberg does point at the failures of the system in his films, but those who stand by it are rewarded in an “affluent society”:

This underlying belief in natural harmony was one of the casualties of the post-1945 world. In the 1930s American film had portrayed people ordering their environment. “The people,” the Smiths, the Mr Deeds, the Shirley Temples, and the Andy Hardys saw to it that control and harmony were restored. Individual “good acts” reinforced “social good” in the desire to control life. In the 1940s the theme of conquest, control, and restoration of the natural was the underlying statement of war films. Commitments to courage, self-sacrifice, and heroism were shown instead of Senate discourses...

30The two historians clearly place World War Two as a turning point in Hollywood’s way of representing American perfection, switching from self-achievement in the 1930s to self-sacrifice in the 1940s. It is this switch that is foregrounded in Saving Private Ryan, though the graphic display of violence and agony make the sacrifice more palpable and realistic than in earlier D-Day films.

  • 2 The director’s name gave way to a neologism “capracorn,” which, for Robert Sklar and Vito Zagarrio, (...)

31Rockwell was criticized for his lack of commitment, the fact that he tended to convey only the bright side of American society, which was judged utopian, if not corny (the same was said about Capra).2 In fact, throughout his career—basically until the 1960s when he denounced segregation in The Problem We All Live With (1963)—Rockwell avoided controversial topics. In my view, this is, although to a lesser extent, true of Spielberg who raises controversial political issues, but avoids taking a stand and crossing the limits of political correctness. The director pretended he did not really know about Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism when he bought the rights of A. Scott Berg’s 1998 biography of the aviator for half a million dollars, as he was planning to adapt it. When Spielberg feigned ignorance in order to fulfill his will to celebrate the American pilot/hero as the epitome of American exceptionalism, he was harshly criticized and finally decided to drop the project, judging that it was not in accordance with the kind of responsibility he inherited from his Jewish ancestors and honored in Schindler’s List. The director always had a taste for true stories, but his unspoiled sense of patriotism has made it difficult for him to really engage in “accurate” historical films, giving way to his imagination and taste for nostalgia. The exception might be Saving Private Ryan, which is not devoid of Americana scenes but generally favors historical accuracy.

Adapting Empire of the Sun: The Question of Historicity

  • 3 In the DVD extra “Into the Breach” on the DVD of Saving Private Ryan.

32This is not the case of Empire of the Sun. Based on J.G. Ballard’s 1984 novel about his own experience in a Japanese camp during WWII, it was initially meant to be directed by David Lean, with Spielberg producing. After the British director dropped out of the project, Spielberg, who admired him and was a fan of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), took over and made a film which was said to combine “Lean’s epic grandeur with Spielberg’s own thematic concentration on the painful process of growing up” (McBride 391). Spielberg’s father, who was a B-25 radio operator in the China Burma India theater, had told him a lot of war stories that deeply influenced his war films; Spielberg even made his first World War II air force film entitled Fighter Squad as a child, using his father’s uniform, worn by his twelve-year-old friends/actors in turn and original WWII planes available in a local aerodrome; the young Spielberg had used actual sequences of aircraft battles from documentaries in the editing.3

33Ballard (represented as young James Graham in Empire of the Sun) remembers he had no sympathy for the Japanese who were cruel to the Chinese, but he couldn’t help but admire the bravery of their pilots. This is clearly depicted in the film. At first, the protagonist identifies more with the Japanese pilots than with the American liberators in their mustangs and B-29s, thoroughly described by Ballard in the novel; Jim plays with Japanese toy planes [10:03, 26:00] and salutes a group of Japanese pilots [67:00]. Fascinated with planes, Jim explains the awe he felt looking at Superfortresses (B-29s) flying over his head: they “summed up all the power and grace of America” (Ballard 175). Jim’s support of the Americans and his friendship with the American contingent in the camp (chiefly Basie) was emphasized by Spielberg, who brought out the Americanness in his adaptation. For instance, in the film, Jim keeps the Rockwell illustration Freedom from Fear, a representation of bedtime, instead of a picture of his dead parents [81:00]. The painting shows a couple putting their two children in bed, the mother gently leaning over them to adjust the blanket and the father lovingly looking at the scene, holding a newspaper we may infer is covering the Pearl Harbor attack, as the words “bombings” and “horror” appear distinctly on the front page. However, though it depicts an American family, the event related in the painting is the bombing of London during the Blitz in December 1940. Rockwell referred to the painting as “smug,” conveying the idea that Americans were luckier than Europeans to have escaped the ordeal of the war on their own territory (surprisingly dismissing the attack on Pearl Harbor).

Fig. 6 — Empire of the Sun: bedtime scene with Jim that reproduces Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear.

Fig. 6 — Empire of the Sun: bedtime scene with Jim that reproduces Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear.

34In the movie, the famous cover is reproduced almost identically, before the child’s life is turned upside down, as he still lives in a comfortable villa with his rich protective parents (Fig. 6) [8:42]. Spielberg interprets the painting as an illustration of the idea of a “solidly happy family, a family unit, that hasn’t been shattered by divorce or illness,” which to him is the epitome of the American dream. He insists on the idea that the newspaper content and the parents’ attitude suggest that eventually their boys will take part in the war if it endures. This discrepancy between the two interpretations reveal a lack of critical distance on Spielberg’s part, but also a dark tone that is usually not associated with Rockwell. The planes hanging from the ceiling in Jim’s room also herald the coming sequence of the bombing of Shanghai on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor (Kendrick 157). In an interview, Spielberg explained:

I actually had the magazine open to that picture when they were putting the young boy, Jim, to bed before everything falls apart in World War II... That image represented what the film meant to me, which was a boy being separated from the civilization that he was born into, and almost a kind of entitled culture that he was living in. This boy was going to go from riches to rags in a matter of days, and that picture was the last image of relative safety within the home, with a mother and a father, a family unit that was going to be dashed to pieces.

35For Andrew Gordon, the film is “not so much a realistic war movie as a study of mania” (210). It serves the theory at the core of this chapter that the unrealistic dimension of some of Spielberg’s films—or their ahistoricity—does not serve an ideological engagement or demonstrate a clear historical view. In spite of a clear historical frame and the nature of its source material (a semi-autobiography), the adaptation focuses on the psychology of the boy, which is very much related to his obsession for planes and warfare at the expense of a consideration of historical events and their complexities.

36This is also reinforced by the fact that the story focuses on a struggle between the English, Chinese and Japanese, relegating the role of the Americans to the margin, although the shadow of Pearl Harbor is conjured up through the omnipresence of the Japanese planes and pilots. The boys’ toy planes hanging from the ceiling, with the rays of light fluttering through the window, also look like a reenactment of the attack, as observed by Kendrick who also explains that, in the film, eleven-year-old Jim is planning to join the Japanese army because they have better planes and pilots, which again voids the hatred that the Pearl Harbor attack ignited among the allies (147). Making a film on British colonialism and the Second Sino-Japanese war, Spielberg, as an American director, positions himself as an external witness of historical events. However, his decision to connect Jamie’s situation to Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear can be seen as a way to “Americanize” the story of the boy. Indeed, the painting illustrates F.D.R.’s famous speech of the Four Freedoms delivered in January 1941. Interestingly, still according to Kendrick, the painting is associated with a toy plane Jim always keeps with him: both will be part of the few belongings he keeps in a suitcase during his three-year internment in a Japanese concentration camp (155). The turning point of the film occurs precisely when the child drops his toy plane on the floor, while he is fleeing Shanghai with his family during the Japanese attack. He lets go of his mother’s hand while retrieving the toy, causing the three-year separation the film relates.

37Kendrick sees the inclusion of Freedom from Fear as a means to “embody the film’s melancholic sense of loss and symbolize the film’s primary theme that safety is an illusion” (153). This lends credence to the thesis that Spielberg’s references to Rockwell are often made at the expense of historical or ideological purposes. Indeed, Rockwell’s illustration, though reflecting America’s emotional state after Pearl Harbor, was only published in the March 13, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, making it impossible for Jamie to possess a copy of it in 1941. The anachronism draws attention to the filmmaker’s favoring a symbolical and psychological content over historical verisimilitude, a tendency that can be observed in Spielberg’s other retro/nostalgia historical films, including Lincoln (Stokes 81). In choosing this specific painting by Rockwell, Spielberg, who explains that he first came across this image among his father’s collection of Saturday Evening Post issues (Braver 2010), merges his own childhood memories with Ballard’s.

Ahistoricism and Ideological Commitment in Nostalgia Films: The Spielberg Paradox

38In his chapter on 1950s nostalgia, Michael D. Dwyer argues that, even though the participation of the band Sha Na Na at Woodstock marks the “prehistory of 1950s nostalgia,” what really made this event a turning point is not the band’s reinterpretation of 1950s music itself, but the time and place of the performance. With hindsight, 1950s nostalgia is mostly connected to the 1980s and the Reagan era, and is thus associated with the renewal of conservatism, not with the counterculture of the 1960–70s, which was meant to debunk 1950s conservative values. “But just as Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” can be understood as a simultaneous reclamation and critique of “American-ness” for the counterculture, Sha Na Na’s performance in that specific time and place functions as another sort of reclamation and critique, of another sort of fifties” (Dwyer 49). 1950s rock’n’roll was part of a counterculture that inspired The Rolling Stones, The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), and other products of 1960s counterculture. For Dwyer, American Graffiti is thus “not a retreat to the past, but rather a rumination on the 50s held in cultural memory” (51). Indeed, one of the film’s first lines—“You can’t stay seventeen forever”—instantly places nostalgia at the core of the story. The film was released in 1973, a year of deep political turmoil in and outside the U.S. Playing the 1950s nostalgia card at a time when American values were jeopardized by the Nixon administration and called into question in some New Hollywood films and many independent productions, American Graffiti subtly reflected the social and political tensions of the time, addressing America’s loss of innocence by offering a snapshot of characters growing up from teenagehood to adulthood. In a way, and as clearly alluded to at the end of the film in the vignettes explaining what happened to the protagonists, Lucas’s film suggests that the U.S. had already lost its innocence in the 1950s, even though the decade is remembered as a happy one.

39In his book, Jameson explains how, in the 1950s, the high culture tried to set the standards of “real life” by ignoring TV and popular culture, which were booming at the time. In the 1980s, however, representations of the 1950s were based on televised representations. Consequently, for Jameson, there is a possibility that “the sense people have of themselves and their own moment of history may ultimately have nothing whatsoever to do with reality” (281). Rockwell’s idealistic portrayal of America participated in the same phenomenon by discarding most of the social and political troubles the country was going through. His famous 1956 portrait of president Eisenhower for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post fulfills the same purpose: showing only the good side of America, which explains why his most severe critics consider his illustrations as mere government propaganda. His Four Freedoms series was said to have been “used successfully by U.S. government as home front propaganda during WW2 to sell war bonds” (Manning and Romerstein xxxviii); Rosie the Riveter, which praised women’s contribution to the war effort, is another example. As Henry Allen (1996) ironically remarked in a Washington Post article: “In his portrait of Eisenhower, Rockwell took the general’s canny power and rendered it as impish exhilaration. He turned Nixon into everybody’s second choice for the romantic lead in a college play.” Allen goes so far as to compare Rockwell’s illustrations to Nazi youth or communist propaganda, which, although very provocative and exaggerated, is a criticism worth considering, as it points to the disturbing nature of this portrait of a flawless America. While his technique and style belong to the realist tradition, Rockwell chose to ignore what he did not like about American society. The truth is that he stayed away from the big cities and their evils, cultivating, like Capra, a small-town-America spirit, as if he had been working in a time capsule. Apart from his stance against racism and segregation in the 1960s, Rockwell was never known for his political activism, which can be disturbing considering he was an observer of American society from the 1910s to the 70s. Of course, many artists remain apolitical, but unlike them, Rockwell worked for a newspaper and was therefore associated with journalists.

40Lucas and Spielberg’s retro films conspicuously borrow from Rockwell’s paintings aesthetically, but they do not always preach American perfection. Their tribute to 1950s America is, in fact, a bit more complex than Rockwell’s, and their patriotism less straightforward. Indiana Jones, for example, could have been one of the scouts in the painter’s illustrations—and he is depicted as one in the prologue of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—but as a grown-up, he is never portrayed as a flawless character, and in the four films, a lot of Americans happen to be as corrupt as the Nazis and Russians.

41Spielberg said about his obsession with planes: “It’s a fetish I guess.... I think it is interesting to be psychoanalyzed via my films, and I agree with the idea because I consciously like flying and have flying in all of my films. But I’m afraid to fly in real life, so there’s an interesting conflict here” (McBride 392). Spielberg’s retro films reflect, in effect, several such “conflicts:” he is fascinated with history, yet usually foregrounds fiction more than historical facts; he adapts narratives based on true stories, yet usually distances himself from the source material; he addresses controversial issues, but observes political correctness; he criticizes the dark side of America, but remains deeply patriotic. It seems that his taste for Rockwell’s paintings and the frequent allusions to them in his films contribute and confirm the Spielberg paradox: that he is a committed director who makes fairly conventional, patriotic films. In a way, Hook neatly encapsulates what connects Spielberg to Rockwell: an awareness of the evils of society concomitant with a desire to transcend them by reestablishing justice in Spielberg’s case or by disregarding them in Rockwell’s. Both men have an idealistic vision of what American society ought to be, which they convey through art. But unlike Rockwell, Spielberg cannot be accused of showing only the bright side of America. Cruelty is never downplayed in his films—villains are very real—while heroes are magnified and somehow bring a form of redemption to a wounded American nation. Unlike Rockwell, Spielberg does not disregard what he dislikes about his country’s history, but, like the artist, he emphasizes good, righteous Americans in order to reconcile the people and their country. What he borrows from Rockwell’s aesthetics serves his purpose very well. Referring to America as a model country through Rockwell’s visuals emphasizes the director’s hope in American society as intrinsically good, reasserting, like the painter, the values of the Founding Fathers—Adam’s speech in Amistad and Lincoln’s letter in Saving Private Ryan come to mind. The two artists share a worldview that is essentially hopeful. Spielberg juxtaposes very violent sequences and candid, even corny Rockwellian scenes of Americana—in Amistad, for instance, the unbearable torture sequences and J.Q. Adams asleep at the House of Representatives. This may explain why people remember the positive outcome of a movie like Amistad more than the outrageous treatment of the slaves. The same can be said of Schindler’s List; although it is not about American history strictly speaking, it involves a hero who is reshaped by Hollywood standards. Saving Private Ryan, his most realistic historical film, is thus an exception. Even if it, too, emphasizes Americana, including Lucky Strike cigarettes, chewing gum and Rockwellian tropes (the deaf soldier, the rescuing of the French girl, brotherly affection between the soldiers, or the visit to Mrs Ryan in rural Ohio), the harsh realism of the combat sequences and the deaths of almost all the protagonists leave the viewer with an unforgettable feeling of waste and injustice.

42Nevertheless, however critical of some dark periods of American history he may be, Spielberg’s politically committed films (including the recent Bridge of Spies) are not to be compared with Kubrick’s cynicism and cold judgement in his three antimilitary films—Paths of Glory (1957), Dr Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987)—because, as controversial as they might be, they never condemn the American system. It seems that the Rockwellian intertext underpinning many of those films plays a great part at muffling their ideological subtext and reflects their tendency to favor fiction over history. Spielberg’s aesthetic and narrative choices set him apart from more explicitly politically-committed directors like Oliver Stone, precisely because of his attachment to heartland America and his nostalgia for a Rockwellian American past at the core of what I would call the visual myth of Americana. In a way, the director’s aesthetic choices, which tend to embellish the past, seem to contradict his intent to offer a truly critical comment on American history by admitting to the failure of the system. The paradox of his retro films is that they indulge in beautiful cinematography that relies on lighting, colors and props of the 1940s and 1950s, relegating his critique of the period to the margin. In short, the beauty of his films and his love for retro America ultimately weaken their ideological thrust.

43Spielberg’s dilemma when he wanted to celebrate Lindbergh as an American hero epitomizes the dilemma that underlies his whole career: how do you celebrate American culture and history in spite of its darkness? After disregarding the issue for almost fifty years, Rockwell finally chose to fight for race equality in the 1960s. Spielberg has never disregarded them, but he has always balanced them through his faith in core American values, institutions and ordinary heroes.


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Always. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Blu-ray. Universal, 2015.

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1 Our Heritage (1950) employs a similar effect. It shows two boy scouts looking to the left, with George Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge, hazy blue in the background, placing Lindbergh, once again, on the same level as a founding father. The two paintings are remarkably similar in terms of composition, emphasizing Rockwell’s very distinctive profile view, “a vision that allows the audience to understand what the subject is thinking” (Marling 70). This technique stresses the importance of looking towards the future to honor heroes of the past and was (famously) reproduced by Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as the group of scientists is shot from the side, looking to the future. The shot symbolically includes François Truffaut, one of Spielberg’s heroes whom he meant to honor.

2 The director’s name gave way to a neologism “capracorn,” which, for Robert Sklar and Vito Zagarrio, “has become an instantly recognizable signifier, loosely defined but clearly understood, standing for a particular strain of national self-conception” (1).

3 In the DVD extra “Into the Breach” on the DVD of Saving Private Ryan.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — 1941: the street panic scene reminiscent of a musical.
Fichier image/jpeg, 250k
Titre Fig. 2 — Always: the plane in the blue light before Pete’s final flight.
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Titre Fig. 3 — Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale and the fashionable Pan-Am stewardesses.
Fichier image/jpeg, 228k
Titre Fig. 4 — Catch Me If You Can: Abagnale’s Rockwellian family.
Fichier image/jpeg, 217k
Titre Fig. 5 — Empire of the Sun: an American B-51 pilot waves at Jim.
Fichier image/jpeg, 185k
Titre Fig. 6 — Empire of the Sun: bedtime scene with Jim that reproduces Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear.
Fichier image/jpeg, 225k


Université d’Artois.

Julie Assouly is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the Université d’Artois (Arras, France). She is the author of L’Amerique des frères Coen (C.N.R.S. 2012, 2015). Her research focuses on the representations of American society and myths, as well as pictorial intertextuality in contemporary American films.

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