Please Mr. Spielberg, No More Historical Films.

Posted: August 20, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time in years. I think it is fair to say that Steven Spielberg is America’s most famous, if not most popular director. This is a bit surprising since  Spielberg’s oeuvre the last couple decades provides evidence that he is obsessed with history, a subject American’s are notoriously NOT obsessed with.  Since 1993, he has released films such as Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, War Horse, and Lincoln. Surprisingly, each has been commercially successful.


Raiders of the Lost Ark: What Spielberg does well.

As a history teacher, I definitely understand Spielberg’s love of history, and I appreciate that he utilizes his considerable influence to create and produce films about historical events.  That being said, I need to make an unlikely request. He should stop making historical films, and  stick with his true calling:  Fantasies, adventures, and feel good dramas.  His films like Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Catch Me If You Can and Jurassic Park are great fun, and I, like most people, enjoy them. The issue I have is that the methodology Spielberg uses for such lighthearted fare is the same he uses for his serious historical films.   He directs films about the Holocaust or the Atlantic Slave Trade in an oddly similar fashion to his films about dinosaurs and aliens.  In adventure/fantasy films, his methods work splendidly.  In historical dramas, they are overbearing, saccharine and misplaced.  Here are three examples:

  • Too Much Mood Music: Perhaps Spielberg’s repeated use of overly-emotional music is not that surprising, considering some of his early successes.  Just try to think of a shark at this point without humming the song from Jaws.  The heroic tune for Indiana Jones is almost as iconic.  Of course, in those movies such music works; but in a historical film, music must be carefully selected since it can create quick, and intense emotional reactions that can cloud the complexity of history.  Spielberg evidently can’t help but use soaring, emotive scores for his films, which has the tendency to transform Abe Lincoln into Indiana Jones, or Oscar Schindler into ET.  Spielberg’s music is so sentimental, and ubiquitous, that it becomes overbearing. This is most notable in his 1997 film Amistad, during which the emotional music was almost constantly played during the 2 1/2 hour film.  Each scene of that film had harmonies that pushed your feelings into the director’s desired corridor.  Scene on the slave ship: Ominous music.  Scene in the Supreme Court: Uplifting music.  Such easy emotional ploys simplify the human complexity of the past, creating good and bad guys by use of a melody. (See Lincoln Preview below for a taste of Spielberg’s methods)
  • Misplaced Humor: Spielberg can be a master of understated humor.  In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s sarcastic zingers are worth the price of admission alone.  However, in historical films, Spielberg’s understated, sometimes goofy humor falls flat.  You can see this most clearly in Spielberg’s most critically acclaimed, and serious film, Schindler’s List.  On the whole, the director avoided such moments in his 1993 masterpiece, except for one instance of strange, awkward levity.  Early in Schindler’s List, we see a large number of Jews being forced into the ghetto, while Polish children yell at, and women spit on, them as they pass. One rich Jewish family grabs our attention, since they are so obviously shocked by the hatred they face.  In the next scene, the rich couple settle down in their enforced apartment, and the wife says the housing situation could be worse. The husband screams in reply, “How could it possibly be worse!?!”  At precisely that moment, five or so Hasidim men and women walk into the apartment, each saying hello to the couple one at a time with bows and raised hats.  Up until this moment, the audience had been focusing on this couple’s loss of privacy, freedom and dignity.  After this goofy representation of cultures clashing (rich/poor; non-practicing/Orthodox; Western/Eastern), the audience is transported into a dour ‘Laurel and Hardy’ sketch.
  • Monologue Speeches:  Last November, I saw Spielberg’s Lincoln in the theater. The movie felt like three hours of monologues.  Most characters in the film had at least one emotional, individual speech, while Abe Lincoln had too many to count.   When Lincoln pontificated about slavery or the war, every character in the room went silent, and listened to the wise sage.  No one argued. No one moved. The camera came in close, and the audience was made to listen and learn. Immediately after I walked out of the theater, I just assumed Spielberg had done what so many others had done before: Transformed Lincoln into a brilliant martyr who evidently understood the future of humanity. Part politician, part cherub. But, after watching Private Ryan, I realized Spielberg imparts monologues in most of his serious films.  In Ryan, there were two to three scenes that were blatant examples that had me rolling my eyes. For instance, in the scene linked below, George C. Marshall reassures some of his doubting underlings that American troops must be sacrificed in order to rescue Private Ryan.  Marshall waxes poetic by reading a letter by none other than Abe Lincoln to prove the necessity of a rescue operation.  The music swells, the camera zooms, and we now have our moral lesson.   How predictable. How ridiculous.

So, Mr. Spielberg, I plead with you, focus exclusively on aliens, spaceships, dinosaurs and comic-book archaeologists.

What’s that?  You have plans for an Indiana Jones 5?  Excellent.


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