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Spielberg’s WWII obsession

By Bert Ehrmann
2006-05-08 – After one night spent watching movies, I came to the conclusion that director Steven Spielberg has an obsession with World War II. In my estimation, Spielberg has been involved with, in one form or another, over 50 hours of material dedicated to the Second World War.

Spielberg’s obsession with WWII is evident from the beginning of his “big-screen” career with Jaws (1975), where the character of Captain Quint relates that he’s a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, a real-life ship that was sunk by the Japanese during WWII. The survivors of the Indianapolis spent the four days in the ocean battling the elements and sharks for survival, suffering over 800 casualties in the process. (Though how a character that’s obviously played by an actor of German descent would ever end up on an American ship during WWII is anyone’s guess.)

In Spielberg’s next three movies, WWII would play some part.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), researchers investigating aliens discover several WWII era aircraft in the middle of an African desert some thirty years later.

Spielberg’s lone comedic attempt 1941 (1979) centers on the panic surrounding a city in California preparing for invasion by the Japanese after the bombings of Pearl Harbor.

In Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981) Indiana Jones does battle with Nazis bent on finding the Arc of the Covenant to bolster their forces. And in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), both Indy and his father race against Nazis in search of the Holy Grail and eternal life. After spending two movies doing battle with Nazis, Indy puts it, “Nazis, I hate these guys.”

WWII would not escape Spielberg’s attempt at copping The Twilight Zone in his television series Amazing Stories. In one Spielberg directed episode entitled “The Mission,” a WWII B-17 ball gunner (Casey Siemaszko) returning from a mission finds that he’s trapped in the belly of the aircraft after a mid-air collision with a German fighter. When the crew is unable to get the landing gear down due to the damage, Jonathan realizes that he’ll be crushed by the weight of the plane upon landing. While the plane’s pilot and radio operator (Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland) try to figure a way out of the situation, Jonathan flies towards the landing on a wing and a prayer, magically saving his own life.

Spielberg’s first attempt at dealing with WWII head-on came with the movie Empire of the Sun (1987). British ex-pat Jamie (a young Christian Bale) is separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of China and is herded with the rest of his neighbors into a concentration camp crushing rocks and building runways. There, he tries to live a normal a life as possible while suffering brutality upon brutality by the Japanese overseers. (I still get goose bumps when I see the “P-51! Cadillac of the sky!” scene.)

Spielberg would once again tackle the horrors of the concentration camps in his movie Schlinder’s List (1993), this time from the European/Jewish perspective. Schindler’s List would garner twelve Academy Award nominations winning a total of seven, with Spielberg himself receiving Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

In 1998 Spielberg would redefine the “war movie” with Saving Private Ryan, mixing gritty realism with a top-notch cast and story. Saving Private Ryan told the story of an Army squad landing on the bloody beaches of D-Day and making their way across France during WWII. Spielberg would again win Best Director this time.

But that’s not all; Spielberg produced HBO’s Band of Brothers, which focuses on an entire division from D-Day to the end of combat in Europe. Presently, Spielberg is also producing the movie Flags of Our Fathers and follow-up series to Band of Brothers, currently titled The Pacific War, both set to open sometime later this year.

Spielberg’s mantra seems to be “Never Forget,” and I think that’s a good thing.