(Credit: Gage Skidmore)

The 10 films that inspired Steven Spielberg

“’E.T.’ began with me trying to write a story about my parents’ divorce.” – Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s imperial legacy in cinema cannot be easily challenged. Among the greatest and most influential filmmakers in the history of the film-art, he is regarded as one of the founding pioneers of the New Hollywood era along with colleagues – an elite group which includes the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, and Woody Allen. He became a household name as the director of Jaws, which was critically and commercially successful and is considered the first summer blockbuster. His succeeding films are also among the highest-grossing of all time, while his total work makes him the highest-grossing film director in the history; all the while being among the most critically successful filmmakers ever, receiving widespread praise for his directing talent and versatility.

However, what essentially separates Spielberg from the rest of his New Hollywood mates is perhaps the fact that he, for his entire career, has devoted himself in making films which complemented his own appreciation for mass-storytelling and the entertainment that the art of cinema brought forward. He is a filmmaker who blends his influences seamlessly into his work, as opposed to someone like Brian De Palma or Woody Allen, who wears them loudly and ostentatiously on their sleeves.

Spielberg is often quick to propagate the notion of himself as a humble craftsman, rather than an egotistical auteur or Hollywood trailblazer. In an interview with the American Film Institute, he said: “I’ve always envied filmmakers like Scorsese, who make quintessential Scorsese pictures. I’ve never felt that of myself, I never felt I had a style.”

In his analysis of the directorial great in Spielberg Vs. Spielberg, the film journalist Cassidy Robinson summed up the dichotomy: “Steven Spielberg has become perhaps America’s most beloved and successful filmmaker. Through his career, he has made popcorn friendly adventure movies, truly suspenseful creature features, and grounded dramatic efforts dealing with war, poverty, and social injustices.”

He continued, “There seem to be two different kinds of filmmakers within the mind of the one director, but what separates him from the legions of other directors in Hollywood who also jump from genre to genre is the love and craft that he gives to both of his creative sides. Whether it’s a movie about a cave-dwelling adventurer out to find an ancient treasure or a sullen family man out to find vengeance through political assassination, it is always clear that the man behind the camera is working towards a certain kind of harmony to resolve the contrast of his cinematic interests.”

For someone who has inspired multitudes of emerging filmmakers and cinema lovers, it is worth knowing the films that influenced the filmmaking of the master himself. Here, we list ten films that have left an indelible mark on the great Steven Spielberg.

Ten films that inspired Steven Spielberg:

The French Connection (William Friedkin – 1971)

William Friedkin’s 1971 classic cop-thriller tells the story of New York Police Department detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, whose real-life counterparts were Narcotics Detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, in pursuit of wealthy French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier.

Spielberg studied The French Connection in preparation for Munich, his morally ambiguous take on the aftermath of the 1972 Olympic Games massacre. In particular, his use of zoom lenses was informed heavily by Owen Roizman’s Oscar-nominated cinematography. More recently, the wordless and beautifully choreographed on-foot chase through New York that opens Bridge of Spies feels particularly influenced by Friedkin’s work here.

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean – 1962)

Known for his breathtaking epics, David Lean had a significant impact on the young Spielberg, who counts Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as one of his favourite films. One of the most influential American films of all-time, Lawrence of Arabia was the feature, as Spielberg acknowledges: “the film that set me on my journey.”

It taught him the importance of setting; that an environment can be almost like a character in the film, which was apparent in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lean and Spielberg almost worked together on Empire of the Sun, which began as a Lean-directed film that Spielberg would have produced, only for Lean to drop out and Spielberg to take over. “Lawrence of Arabia was the film that set me on my journey,” Spielberg told the American Film Institute. “I look at that picture as a major miracle.”

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick – 1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey, even now – an astounding fifty years after its original theatrical release – continues to be among the most influential and defining films in the entire history of cinema. It stands as a colossal testament to that of the sheer genius of Kubrick, who with this film completely changed the landscape of the prevailing film-art.

During the 1980s, Kubrick formed a friendship with Spielberg that culminated with Spielberg directing A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which Kubrick had originally planned to helm but ultimately felt he was not right for. “He was a chameleon,” Spielberg has said of Kubrick. “He never made the same picture twice. Every single picture is a different genre, a different story, a different risk. The only thing that bonded all of his films was the incredible virtuoso that he was with the craft.”

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa – 1954)

Since its release, Seven Samurai has consistently ranked highly in critics’ lists of the greatest films and was also voted the greatest foreign-language film in BBC’s 2018 international critics’ poll. It has remained highly influential, often seen as one of the most “remade, reworked, referenced” films in the cinema.

It is not very surprising that Spielberg found some of his inspiration from this masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s unconventional use of compositions: blocking and camera movement, particularly in Seven Samurai is seen echoed strongly in Spielberg’s more action-oriented films like Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report. Also, the use of smoke to create foreboding in Spielberg’s 2005’s remake of War of the World’s is reminiscent of how Kurosawa uses it in Throne of Blood.

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming – 1939)

It shouldn’t really take much of thinking to realize that The Wizard of Oz was one film that influenced the filmmaking of Steven Spielberg immensely. For Spielberg, most of his films deal with ordinary characters searching for or coming in contact with extraordinary beings or finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances; just like in Victor Fleming’s classic The Wizard of Oz.

In an AFI interview in August 2000, Spielberg commented on his interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life and how it has influenced some of his films. Spielberg described himself as feeling like an alien during childhood, and his interest came from his father, a science fiction fan, and his opinion that aliens would not travel light years for conquest, but instead curiosity and sharing of knowledge.

Further nods to Fleming’s work can be seen in War Horse (whose finale borrows liberally from Gone with the Wind) and Empire of the Sun (in which a Gone with the Wind poster can be seen shrouded in mysterious fog). “We honour his movies and don’t know him, because he did his job so well,” Spielberg said, again highlighting his admiration for Fleming’s chameleonic talents.

Play Time (Jacques Tati – 1967)

In Playtime, Tati again plays Monsieur Hulot, the popular character who appeared in his earlier films Mon Oncle and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. Set in a futuristic Paris dominated by a hyper-consumerist society, the story is structured in six sequences, linked by two characters who repeatedly encounter one another in the course of a day: Barbara, a young American tourist visiting Paris with a group composed primarily of middle-aged American women, and Monsieur Hulot, a befuddled Frenchman lost in the new modernity of Paris.

Shot in 70 mm, the work is notable for its enormous set, which Tati had built especially for the film, as well as Tati’s trademark use of subtle yet complex visual comedy supported by creative sound effects; the dialogue is frequently reduced to the level of background noise. Similarly, Spielberg’s The Terminal is about an Eastern European man (Tom Hanks) fated to live in New York’s JFK Airport following the collapse of his fictional home country. It is however noteworthy for its incredibly elaborate purpose-built set, inspired directly by Jacques Tati’s avant-garde Play Time.

The Searchers (John Ford – 1956)

Spielberg claims he tries to watch a John Ford film, particularly The Searchers before he begins a new screenplay. The brilliance of John Ford’s photography is how he used scenery to paint his picture. In an interview with the AFI, Spielberg explained: “I try to rent a John Ford film… before I start every movie, simply because he inspires me…. He’s like a classic painter, he celebrates the frame, not just what’s inside it.”

John Ford was an abrasive but brilliant figure who redefined the American Western. Across 50 years, Ford explored masculinity, American identity and the rugged Western landscape in masterpieces such as Stagecoach, Young Mr Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man and The Searchers.

Spielberg has used footage from The Quiet Man in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and spoke at length about Ford during promotion for War Horse. “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures,” he said. “But I think the thing that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford celebrated the land. I just thought that of all the films I’ve made in recent years, this offered the opportunity to make the land a character.”

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock – 1963)

A young Steven Spielberg was dismissed openly and vocally by one of his childhood heroes – Alfred Hitchcock. It’s no secret that one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest heroes was the supreme auteur Alfred Hitchcock. Therefore it’s also no wonder that Spielberg is said to be hugely disappointed that he was never able to meet the “Master of Suspense” before he died in poor health in 1980.

Alfred Hitchcock’s fingerprints are all over many of Spielberg’s most thrilling moments – compare Raiders of the Lost Ark’s boulder chase sequence with the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest, or the use in Jaws of the dolly zoom effect created for Vertigo. But it’s The Birds that has had perhaps the most significant impact on Spielberg’s filmography. Similarly, the shark in Jaws is kept out of sight, with only a camera POV to insinuate its presence. If there’s anything Spielberg took from Hitchcock, it was how to create suspense.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles – 1940)

By the late 1930s, there was a definite trend toward a deep-focus style. It was Citizen Kane that in 1941 brought deep focus strongly to the attention of spectators and filmmakers. Orson Welles’s compositions placed the foreground figures close to the camera and the background figures deep in the space of the shot, and all were kept in sharp focus. In some cases, the image was achieved through matte work and rear projection, not cinematography on the set. Overall, Citizen Kane helped make deep focus a major creative option within classical Hollywood style.

What struck Spielberg so much about Kane and Welles, is the courage and audacity of a filmmaker making a movie completely his own way. Welles, only 25 at the time, didn’t know what he couldn’t do. Using his theatre experience to breathe new life into the medium. He gave not only Spielberg but also countless filmmakers the courage to stick to their artistic vision.

From Jaws onward, Spielberg used deep-focus tactics reminiscent of Citizen Kane. Spielberg and Lucas also led the move toward the digital sound and high-quality theatre reproduction technology. They wanted the modern equivalent of the showmanship that had characterized such 1950s innovations as Cinerama and 3D.

Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske – 1940)

One of the most famous entertainers in American history, Walt Disney was born on 5th December 1901 and went on to build an empire. A host of classics, including Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty followed before Disney branched out into television and theme parks. It’s those early films that had the biggest effect on Spielberg though. “I was probably more influenced by Walt Disney than by anybody else,” he has recalled. “I loved cartoons as a kid, and I remember that I was more frightened by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia than by anything I ever saw in a movie before or since.”

This exquisitely rendered tale of a wooden puppet’s quest to become a real boy remains one of the Mouse House’s finest efforts, inspiring wonder and fear in equal measure, and delivering a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, alongside a spot of occasionally stern moralizing.


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