As the economics of the industry changed, small studios became an anomaly. Films such as John Guillermin’s The Towering Inferno (1974) packed in audiences eager for escapist entertainment in the Watergate era. Then two new faces came on the scene, with films that solidified the hold of blockbusters on cinema audiences: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) are both action-driven films that lack depth but provide nonstop thrills and espouse a new, more effects-driven visual style.
Spielberg took to movies from an early age, making a plethora of Super 8 mm shorts as a child. With a short student film, Amblin (1968), under his belt, he went from directing television shows such as “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Night Gallery” to being handed the reins of a television movie, Duel (1971), in which a man driving on a business trip is chased by a monster truck for no apparent reason, with the frenetic action culminating in a violent conclusion. In addition to its U.S. television broadcast, the movie was released theatrically in Europe and received significant attention from critics.
The Sugarland Express (1974) proved that Spielberg had a flair for action comedy, and then Jaws (1975) catapulted him in a single stroke to the top ranks of the American commercial cinema. With a mechanical shark that often broke down during shooting, Spielberg relied on music cues and sharp editing to bring the material to life, while also getting solid performances from stars Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw. But it was the saturation booking and marketing campaign that really set Jaws apart from the rest of the pack. The movie opened simultaneously in nearly 500 theaters, an unprecedented number, and it was aggressively marketed during the summer as an “event” in and of itself. Its wild success led to a new style of filmmaking that echoed the Saturday morning serials of such directors as William Witney at Republic Pictures in the 1940s: the hard-driving, action-centered adventure movie. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a metaphysical science fiction film, followed in short order, and then came Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), an action-adventure movie more indebted to the serial format than any other Spielberg film up to that time. With its breathless chases, exotic locale, cartoonish Nazis (which Spielberg later regretted), and epic sense of adventure, the film set Spielberg firmly on the path to his mature style as an action filmmaker without parallel.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) was a more sentimental, family-oriented film, essentially a fable of tolerance designed for mass consumption. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) was a violent follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark, in what would become an ongoing series. The Color Purple (1985), based on Alice Walker’s novel, and Empire of the Sun (1987) demonstrated that Spielberg was looking for something more than spectacle and kinetic excitement in his films, and both were respectable successes at the box office. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was a return to form for the action specialist, while Always (1989) and Hook (1991) fared less well with the public. With the dawn of digital special effects, Spielberg got in on film about a theme park with real, live, hungry dinosaurs
and other prehistoric creatures that had been cloned by the park’s somewhat mad impresario. The movie is more of a thrill ride than an actual narrative; once the situation is set up, it is simply a matter of who will survive until the final reel, as the theme park’s numerous safeguards fail and the newly reconstituted creatures go on a rampage. Filled with eye-popping special effects and deftly directed for every last ounce of suspense and narrative drive, Jurassic Park was an enormous hit and has since spawned several sequels.
But even as Jurassic Park was breaking records, Spielberg had embarked on the most personal and challenging film of his meteoric career, Schindler’s List (1993). The film demonstrated greater depth and maturity than any of the director’s works thus far, as well as real commitment to the material. The film chronicles the struggles of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Kraców, Poland, to survive the horrors of World War II, led by the unassuming Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). The Jews of the ghetto are pressed into service by Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who initially sees them merely as a cheap labor force for his factory. But gradually, Schindler becomes drawn into their plight, and when the ruthless Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes, in one of his finest performances) liquidates the ghetto, killing most of its residents in the process and shipping the survivors off to a concentration camp, Schindler bribes Goeth to let him continue his factory work inside the walls of the camp.
Stern, functioning as Schindler’s accountant, adds numerous Jewish intellectuals, writers, rabbis, and other workers to the factory payroll; now, as Goeths predations grow ever more ferocious, Schindler launches his own plan to save as many Jews as he possibly can from Hitler’s Holocaust, at great personal risk to himself. Shot in newsreel black-and-white with splashes of color to highlight key visual elements, the film is a tribute to Spielberg’s Jewish heritage and also a moving personal testament of faith. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and Spielberg, who had heretofore often been dismissed as a mere entertainer, was now being taken seriously as a dramatic filmmaker. He followed this film with Amistad(1997), a drama about a mutiny on a slave ship in 1839 and the trial that followed in the United States; it was perhaps less successful, yet contains moments of great power.
As if to demonstrate that he had not lost his touch with genre entertainment, Spielberg then launched into The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), a nail-biting sequel that did not improve on the original but still delivered a satisfactory share of thrills. Saving Private Ryan (1998), a World War II action drama, opened with a bravura sequence in which hundreds of soldiers storm a beachfront stronghold and sustain disastrous losses, deftly choreographed for maximum visceral and visual impact. For many observers, the film brought home the horror and sudden death of combat with more immediacy than any film before it.
The most commercially successful filmmaker of his generation (along with George Lucas), Spielberg is one of the owners of the production company DreamWorks and produces television series, movies, and even cartoon series under his own banner of Amblin Productions. A mainstream artist, Spielberg is nevertheless a canny observer of American values and mores, and his films not only reflect but also have helped to shape the face of American cinema today.
George Lucas has also had considerable commercial success, but his work as a filmmaker is much more circumscribed, with only a handful of films to his credit as a director. After graduating from the University of Southern California with a short film THX 1138 (a k a Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, 1967) in hand, Lucas created a longer, more ambitious version of THX 1138 for theatrical release in 1971.
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