In Spielberg Movies, WWII Can Be Hilarious (1941) or Deadly Serious (Schindler’s List)

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Few directors can match Steven Spielberg’s résumé. During his 40-plus-year career, he’s tackled subjects as diverse as alien invasions, slavery, and even dinosaurs. But there’s one subject matter he comes back to again and again: World War II. One could even argue he’s obsessed with it. In addition to producing flicks like Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima and mini-series like The Pacific and Band of Brothers, Spielberg’s directed flicks on the war. And with millions of stories to tell, he seems determined to cover it from every angle. Here we take a look at four perspectives he’s taken thus far and his evolving view of the war, starting with his first foray into the time period.

Hilarious Home-Front Hysteria – 1941
Not many WWII flicks tell tales of what took place here at home while our boys were fighting overseas. And this one doesn’t exactly either. The satire is one of Spielberg’s earliest movies (his fourth feature) and his first to take on WWII as a subject. Inspired by the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942, 1941 is actually about a Japanese sub that emerges near Hollywood. This isn’t exactly what you think of as a Spielberg war pic: no grim, resolute heroes; no realistic battles; and lots of laughs. Naturally, Spielberg moved on from early flights of fancy and treating the war as comic material. Forget another WWII comedy: Spielberg’s never even done another real comedy again. 

The Nazi Plunder – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Next up, Spielberg sent characters into World War II again, still in a fairly humorous manner. Raiders isn’t comedy, but it’s hardly the dire stuff Spielberg would become known for later. Most notable is Spielberg’s first introduction of Nazis as characters in his movies. Here — before zombie Nazis became a thing — Spielberg adds a supernatural element to the Third Reich’s notorious pillaging of art and artifacts. Hitler’s compulsive collecting extends to the occult, believing that the Ark of the Covenant will make him and the Germans invincible. He dispatches some nasty Nazis to acquire the relic, but, of course, they’re no match for Harrison Ford. The Nazis had well-documented obsession with occult beliefs, so the movie’s actually not far off base in its portrayal.

The Holocaust – Schindler’s List
Over a decade later, Spielberg really hit his WWII stride with this Best Picture- and Director-winning Holocaust epic. The movie is the true story of Nazi party member Oskar Schindler, who experiences a deep change of heart. By employing over 1,000 Polish Jews to work in his factory, the German businessman saved them from being sent to concentration camps and their deaths. This is far from the light fun of Raiders or the farce of 1941. Rather, Schindler’s List is chilling and brutal, the most realistic and scathing film version of the Nazi Holocaust ever committed to film, downright startling in its realism. If you wanted to pick a point where Spielberg’s obsession with the war matured, this is it.

The Frontline Mission – Saving Private Ryan
Much like Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s next — and, to date, last WWII directorial feature — is shocking in its realism and brutality. Right from the opening scenes — the invasion of Normandy — you know Spielberg is not playing around. The director’s staged version of D-day has been hailed as the closest film version to the real thing, and the horror of war is evident in every second. The flick’s plot centers around a group of soldiers, led by Tom Hanks, tasked with rescuing a man whose three brothers have already died in the war. But more important than the specific plot is that Spielberg manages to capture the deadly chaos of war and, in its midst, the hope and importance of bringing just one soldier safely home.

The Prisoners of War: Empire of the Sun
Spielberg cast a young Christian Bale to play a British boy imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. The director has said that it was one of his most profound pieces of work, despite being a relative box-office failure. But the film reaches epic proportions visually and is deeply moving in its exploration of prejudices both racially and nationally. It also is a scathing depiction of war’s inevitable effect on children and their often heart-breaking coming of age, as a result.

Filed under: Movie Lists

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