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5 Great Spielberg Moments by Fran Del Pizzo

Guest blogger, Fran Del Pizzo lists five great Steven Spielberg moments

I’ve Lost Him (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989)
A sequence which elicits simultaneous heartbreak and laughter over three minutes, this is the climatic ending to the tank chase scene which sees Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) saving his father Henry (Sean Connery) and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) from the clutches of Donovan’s (Julian Glover) men. When Henry, Marcus and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) peer over the side of the cliff believing that Indy has perished, we are treated to a wonderful moment of dramatic irony as our hero drags his exhausted body back over the peak of the cliff out of view of his friends and father.

Every single comedic beat here feels flawless and each one perfectly captures the personality of the characters in an instant: Indy looking over the cliff himself next to his oblivious friends to see what the fuss is all about, Sallah respectfully removing his Fez, Indy nodding and silently acknowledging his own luck, Henry’s double take when he sees his son, Marcus confusingly pointing to Indy and then to the ground in order to figure out how his friend survived (to be fair he got lost in his own museum once so of course he’s perplexed), Henry’s almost embarrassed reaction after hugging his (at this point, estranged) son… the list goes on. Aside from the father-son relationship that Last Crusade is characterised by, it is these comedic elements which make this my own personal favourite of the Indiana Jones films.

As well as simply being funny, the moment is a true turning point in the relationship between Henry and Indy. It’s Sean Connery’s shattered reaction here which makes it even more of a memorable scene when it dawns on him that he never told his son how much he loved him. Time is precious and Henry has realised that (seemingly) too soon as he laments the fact that he didn’t take advantage of their recent time together. As Henry embraces Indy and a smile emerges from his son who finally realises that his father does truly love him (not to mention Sallah’s quiet elation) it’s difficult not to get teary-eyed. Not content with letting Indy get some well-deserved rest and recovery (another humorous moment sees Henry pretty much letting him fall back to the ground like a sack of potatoes), the three men push on and return to their horses to finish their adventure just as the wind blows Indy’s iconic hat perfectly into frame.


Joey Runs through No Man’s Land (War Horse, 2011)
Truly one of those spine tingling moments that only films are capable of achieving, this scene from Spielberg’s 2011 film War Horse finds our four-legged hero Joey desperately alone following the death of Topthorn, a horse with whom he had bonded with since being sold to the British army. After a German retreat, Joey is trapped between an oncoming tank and the barbed wire surrounding him, until the steed leaps on top and runs through the front lines of the trenches. When watching this short but no doubt painstakingly filmed moment in the cinema when I was 18, it felt like a moment akin to witnessing the end bike chase in E.T. for the first time. 

It’s an emotional pay-off for many reasons. Whilst he has learnt to plough and recognise the sound of Albert’s (Jeremy Irvine) owl whistle (abilities which save his life at different points), Joey has been reluctant to learn how to jump when in the care of various people on his journey. An extraordinary animal in every sense of the word, this is the one skill he seems incapable of succeeding in, something that one of his carers, Émilie (Céline Buckens) is determined to set right. After Joey has escaped the tank, editor Michael Kahn cuts to the precise moment of a flare being released when to our surprise, the horse emerges from the right side of the frame to heroically leap over a German trench. Unfazed or perhaps spurred on by the surrounding explosions, Joey doesn’t stop running when he falls down, continuing to sprint within the trenches themselves and eventually through the obstacle-ridden hell of no man’s land. Early on it’s made obvious that very few people believe Joey to be a horse of much use due to his short stature, a clever visual joke at the start of the film sees a gallant shire horse at auction being lead away only to reveal the comparatively tiny Joey behind it. Perhaps no scene in the picture better encapsulates the themes of both courage and perseverance, characteristics that this initially unremarkable animal possesses and that are also mirrored in his owner Albert, who has just demonstrated his own bravery in combat. 

John Williams’ soaring score is here to accompany Spielberg’s technical prowess, which itself is impossible to ignore as you question just how in the world this sequence was filmed. It really is a breathtaking moment of cinema on par with Spielberg’s most iconic scenes. Despite the absolutely desperate setting on the front lines of WWI, it manages to be majestic and inspiring, setting up another memorable segment where a British and German soldier must put their differences aside to save the life of Joey after he gets trapped in barbed wire.


Saluting Japanese Pilots (Empire of the Sun, 1987)
A scene now all the more poignant considering the recent passing of cinematographer Allen Daviau, but also a moment acting as a perfect, ever lasting testament to his talent. Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G Ballard’s 1984 novel follows a precocious young boy called Jamie (Christian Bale) who is separated from his parents during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, becoming a POW and learning to fend for himself in an unforgiving world without his Mum and Dad. Shortly after being taken prisoner, he spots a fighter plane on the runway near his camp. While admiring it, a nearby prison guard readies his rifle as three Japanese pilots approach Jamie. Paying no attention to the guard’s warning, Jamie slowly turns to face the pilots and salute them, who all return his show of respect by saluting themselves. 

Jamie’s obsession with aviation is one reason why this scene is so powerful. Amongst the devastation of war and the fear that he may never be reunited with his parents again, Jamie is able to find brief solace by embracing the aircraft, something he is utterly fascinated and moved by. It’s also a perfect encapsulation of Jamie’s unwillingness to be prejudice against others. Unlike the adults in his life, Jamie’s innocence allows him to look beyond the shallow negative perceptions of the Japanese enemy that others have and instead admire their bravery and fortitude. Whilst he is naive in many ways, Jamie’s unique respect for his captors saves his, and other people’s lives at several points throughout the film and by learning their language and customs, this child is able to survive in an environment that most of the adults aren’t even capable of. Just like his later, near wordless relationship with the young Kamikaze pilot on the other side of the camp’s barbed wire, this is a moment which transcends any language barriers existing between its subjects. No sound is required besides John William’s (as usual) beautiful score which peaks just at the second that these people, who seem very different on the surface, are captured saluting each other in the same frame.

When rewatching Empire of the Sun, this fleeting moment of joy is made more moving when considering the tribulations to come, which extinguish this childish sense of wonderment. Jamie’s childhood has prematurely ended by the time he meets his parents again and as he hugs his Mum, his eyes seem almost empty; only exhaustion and weariness fill his face as he is barely even able to register who the two people stood before him are. Whilst family and aviation once defined Jamie, he now seems unrecognisable compared to the boy on that runway, his school uniform now replaced with a bomber jacket and a green camouflage outfit as if a veteran himself (he even discards his name and is known by “Jim” when in the camp). Empire of the Sun is a bittersweet and melancholy picture acting as a vivid precursor to Spielberg’s darker works that were to come in his career.


Air Traffic Control (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977)
We know Spielberg is an expert at building tension and creating suspense (the masterful, dialogue empty cat-and-mouse opening of 2015’s Bridge of Spies could have easily been on this list), and here he crafts a scene a little over three minutes long building around a potential mid-air collision between two aircraft and a, well… no one knows. Like Jaws, whose notorious technical problems on set benefited the psychological horror of the picture by reducing how often audiences actually saw the shark, this scene may not have been as effective as it is had it not been for a happy little accident. In his definitive behind the scenes book on the making of Close Encounters, Matt Morton writes that for tax reasons which would ultimately help to secure much of the film’s budget, production had to start before January 1976 - but how could the crew do this in time if they had no principle actors or sets constructed? Simple, use an existing air traffic control facility which would not only solve their problem but also inject an air of authenticity to the scene, something that may not have been achieved to the extent it is had they constructed the set themselves.

It’s a chaotic sequence, but on a small scale as Spielberg refuses to move beyond the walls of this one room, instead jumping between reaction shots of the workers and glimpses of the radar system which soon buzzes with danger to warn of a conflict incoming (sometimes, even when we see a shot of the radar screen, it is captured in a way that gives us an uninterrupted view of the actor’s performance in the reflection). We are invited to use our imagination here and imagine the panicked faces on the pilots as they navigate the skies trying to avoid a flying object that they aren’t able to identify. Spielberg will pull a trick like this again in the next scene, when the young Barry (Cary Guffey) sees one of the extra-terrestrials standing off-screen; while we see the starstruck reaction on the boy’s face, we don’t see the alien ourselves. This constraint to not show too much, too soon is prevalent in many Spielberg films (it’s about an hour until we get our first glimpse of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park), and the ability to hold back is what makes the reveal of both the mothership and the aliens at the end so special, since it’s been denied to us for so long prior.

Picking just one scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a near-impossible task (I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I think about the last 20 minutes of this film on a daily basis) but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that this scene is so well-crafted that it could be released as a short movie and stand up on its own as a masterpiece of storytelling in spite of the restrictions in its location. The final frame which sees the now gathered workers huddled around one another with their eyes fixed to the computer screens echoes how the scientists greeting the mothership at the end will similarly be united in their shock, relief and amazement. We are also shown in only this short scene, how important the theme of communication will be to the overall narrative. At two points, the characters are forced to talk over one another as well as the chatter and alarms coming from the radio, in stark contrast to the perfect harmony of the musical conversation at the climax which unites both extra-terrestrials and humans.


High School Teacher (Saving Private Ryan, 1998)
Although rightly lauded for its epic battle sequences, Saving Private Ryan is just as effective in its quieter, contemplative moments. Perhaps not more so than in the scene when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) defuses an argument amongst his soldiers by revealing his peacetime profession (a topic that his own men are having a pool on). He not only exposes their supposed secret bet to the wider group, but justifies his reasoning for sparing a German solder, giving them a rare insight into his personality which he feels is now unrecognisable when compared to the man he was before WWII. What occurs here is the result of the fallout from the death of one of the squad’s most beloved members, a consequence of what some may see as an ill-advised tactical decision on Miller’s part. 

The death of medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is a devastating scene in its own right considering the slow, painful, drawn out nature of his demise and the fact that his own squad mates are forced to intentionally put him out of his misery with an overdose of morphine, but it hits home in particular because he was very much the compassionate being of the group. Whilst Miller, a man tasked with an unthinkable responsibility, is the leader of the squad, he still makes questionable moral choices such as refusing to take a civilian child to the next town over in Neuville as well as joining in as his squad are mocking the dogtags of KIA soldiers. On the other hand, Wade is the first to remark upon how much Ryan’s (Matt Damon) safe return will mean to his mother who has lost three of her sons, the one to copy Caparzo’s (Vin Diesel) blood soaked letter to his father as well as the person to break up the insensitive joking around of the aforementioned dogtag scene. The death of this virtuous character and the presence of a German prisoner that most of his squad believes should be killed has such ramifications for Miller that he is forced to reflect upon his own humanity while the group starts to crumble apart and debate the futile nature of their mission.

Miller’s initial unwillingness to intervene in the argument between Reiben (Edward Burns) and Horvath (Tom Sizemore) shows, for a brief moment, his refusal to take on any more responsibility given how much guilt, burden and pressure is already heaped upon him. It’s a subtle show of vulnerability where we are given the impression that Miller feels as though he may not be up to the task of leading his men any more. The revelation that he had such a normal job before the war makes any errors he might have made all the more understandable; he is not, as Rieben suggests, a super soldier made up from the body parts of dead G.I’s, but a schoolteacher with weaknesses and regrets just like anyone else. Who wouldn’t snap under the toll of his experiences? All of this adds such depth to Miller, who is ultimately a great leader as well as incredibly courageous but also made to be both occasionally morally grey and most importantly, human. All of this in a genre that could have so easily painted its characters as invincible, flawless people, which was indeed something Spielberg wanted to avoid: “The Second World War seems really cut and dried, or black and white. But inside a war, and inside combat, it’s technically chaotic and personally chaotic and personally very contradictory”, he said to critic Richard Schickel. When Miller tells Ryan to “earn” the sacrifice that has been made for him in his last dying breath, audiences are given a stark reminder that we too must live up to the sacrifices of the veterans of WWII, which was won at the hands of people like Miller who were as ordinary as any of us, battling not just the enemy but the realisation that they would have to live with what they saw and did forever.

Guest post by Fran Del Pizzo: http://dialmformovies.co.uk/
If you enjoyed Fran's guest post, why not read this amazing article on Steven Spielberg's Always which is also written by Fran Del Pizzo?


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