We explore the E.T. director's love of history, and why he keeps going back to the past.
Bringing history to life has become Spielberg's forte
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is the latest in a long line of films from the director that have drawn on or re-enacted moments from history. But why would a filmmaker who made his name on big, brash blockbusters make the decision to become a kind of Hollywood historian?
Known for the first half of his career as a teller of fantastic stories such as E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, in the late 1980s he began to draw on history for his projects. His Second World War drama Empire of the Sun was critically acclaimed but not a hit, with audiences not used to such sombre fare from the director. However, 1993's Schindler's List, a story of how Oskar Schindler saved more than a thousand people from the Nazis, was universally adored. Released the same year as his greatest blockbuster Jurassic Park, it was a multi-Oscar winner and started a trend of Spielberg-helmed historical epics such as the slave-era drama Amistad, the Tom Hanks-starring Saving Private Ryan and Munich.
But what is the motivation behind this love of history? As the director himself revealed in a press conference for War Horse, it stems from being part of a generation that grew up hearing first-hand about the exploits of their elders in the Second World War, in particular from his father, Arnold. "I love history. It was the only thing I did well at in school," he revealed. "I'm not ashamed to admit that I was not a good student but I was great at history. My dad fought in World War Two; I grew up hearing his war stories. So, that part of history was always [present]."
The filmmaker's journeys into history have certainly had their successes (Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are considered by many to be among the best films ever made). However, not all of his history lessons have been as beloved. Amistad failed to connect with audiences, while his first comedy, 1941, is considered a rare misfire. One consistent criticism many have made of Spielberg's work is that often, the re-enactment of history can often be overridden with sentimentality, a criticism levelled at 2011's War Horse and even some parts of Saving Private Ryan.
Regardless of criticism, these dramas have opened up discussions on history that otherwise might not have taken place, popularising as well as drawing attention to moments in time in a far more compelling way than any textbook. In this context, Spielberg's history lessons have been a resounding success.