Film: The man who is directing the war

Saving Private Ryan is Steven Spielberg's latest attempt to tackle the Second World War. What lies behind this dark obsession?

"I THINK IT'S interesting to be psychoanalysed via my films," Steven Spielberg once said. If that is the case, his latest film gives plenty of food for thought. Five years on from Schindler's List, and more than a decade after Empire of the Sun, the blood-soaked Saving Private Ryan loosely completes the director's psychologically revealing trilogy of Second World War films.

Yet his interest in a global conflict that was finished before he was even born bears all the hallmarks of an obsession. By contrast, Robert Altman, a fellow director who was a participant in the war, is, judging by his work at least, far less concerned. What is it that draws Spielberg to the Second World War again and again?

It goes far beyond an interest in the Holocaust. Spielberg made his first Second World War movie aged just 12, and since then he has made four feature films explicitly about the war and several others with a Second World War context (the Indiana Jones series), and others which have updated Second World War stories (Always), featured ghosts from the conflict (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), or have characters scarred by their wartime experience (Quinn in Jaws, whose hatred of great white sharks is caused by a wartime experience), or have segments about the war (Amazing Stories: The Movie).

Self-evidently, the war occupies a special place in Spielberg's consciousness, a fixation which is slightly baffling in a Vietnam-draft generation kid. One explanation may be his idolisation of David Lean. After all, he cited Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1953) as the film that has most influenced him. As a child, Spielberg was particularly fond of acting out to his classmates the scene in which the wounded Alec Guinness falls on a dynamite plunger - a scene partially re-created in Saving Private Ryan.

There was also plenty at home to foster the young Spielberg's fascination with the war. Arnold Spielberg, the director's father, had been a radio operator with a B52 bomber squadron which destroyed Japanese railroads in Burma (among whose targets would have been a certain bridge on the River Kwai). "My father filled my head with war stories," Spielberg once said. "I have identified with that period of innocence and tremendous jeopardy all my life. It was the end of an era, the end of innocence, and I have been clinging to it for most of my adult life."

There was nothing innocent about his childhood love of blood and guts. As a child growing up in New Jersey, his interest in mock Second World War battles went far beyond the martial fantasies of the average little boy. He would stage four-day toy soldier battles in the basement. It was a serious business. A childhood friend, talking to Spielberg's biographer, Joseph McBride, recalled that Spielberg "always played with a box of nails and a hammer. When the soldiers were hit... he'd put nails into them, and use ketchup for blood."

The extraordinarily gory battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan are not as uncharacteristic of the director of ET as might be supposed. Spielberg is a closet gun nut, something which he likes to keep quiet about, according to the actor Charlton Heston in his autobiography, In the Arena. Heston describes Spielberg's personal arsenal of weapons as "one of the finest" in California.

From his earliest days, Spielberg also enjoyed alarming his mother by smearing himself with mulberry juice and rushing indoors to brandish his bleeding "wounds" at her. Blood and death appear to have been inextricably linked in his mind. In his first effective short film, Fighter Squadron, begun when he was 12 years old, Spielberg performed a cameo as a German fighter pilot slumped forwards in the cockpit, with black food-dye drooling from his mouth in imitation of blood.

In the same year he also made the 40-minute Escape to Nowhere (which has remarkable plot resemblances to Saving Private Ryan), a film notable for its liberal use of tomato ketchup. The gory special effects earned Spielberg an amateur film prize and obviously instilled in the nascent director the importance of effective gore. He never looked back. "My special effects were great," Spielberg proudly recalled later.

His early flair for these effects was honed by much of the Second World War paraphernalia which was lying round the Spielberg family home. In one incident, he put his father's flying cap and goggles on to a plastic skull, placed a light bulb inside it and locked his sisters in a cupboard with it. One of the sisters, Anne, went on to write the Tom Hanks vehicle Big - about a boy who suddenly finds himself in a man's body - widely supposed to be a comment on her brother.

But Spielberg has not always been successful in pursuing his war fixation: the 1979 turkey 1941, which John Wayne tried to talk him out of directing, was a misjudged comedy about a Japanese attack on Los Angeles. Many of the war movies he hoped to make never got made. In 1969, soon after his first modest successes, he tried to develop a Second World War "dogfight film" with Carl Gottlieb (who eventually wrote the shooting script for Jaws). Second World War themes continued to gnaw way at him (though in 1973 he turned down directing MacArthur because "he was wary of the logistical problems of staging the Second World War"). He was both attracted to and over-awed by the subject. In Close Encounters, he changed the main protagonist from an airman to a civilian because "I find it very hard to identify with anyone in uniform".

And yet, with his latest film, Saving Private Ryan, he has confounded his own reservations by managing to create convincing military characters who struggle with their masculinity in classic Spielbergian dilemmas (an all-male cast seems to suit him). Though topped and tailed with scenes of cloying sentimentality, the majority of the film ranks amongst the finest work Spielberg has ever done. Once again he has underscored his primal, childish impulses - in this case, a squeamish love-hate of gore - with a range of extraordinary adult emotional themes.

There are more war clouds on the horizon: Spielberg is currently in pre- production with another Second World War-era movie, this one based on Arthur Golden's best-selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Will Hollywood's wunderkind ever get to the bottom of his obsession? With Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg can at least feel that he has answered John Wayne.

"I'm surprised at you," growled the Duke, after reading the script for 1941. "I thought you were an American, and I thought you were going to make a movie to honour the memory of the Second World War."

Twenty years on, Spielberg has done exactly what John Wayne wanted him to do. He has honoured his parents' generation, and perhaps purged some of his own personal demons along the way.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links