If you were to ask the common everyday person who the greatest director of all time is, I’m willing to bet 9 times out of 10 you’re most likely to hear the name Steven Spielberg. If you know film history, you’ll likely take exception to that statement but in the large scale of things Spielberg is more synonymous with the movies than any other director.
As films continued to expand and become bigger, Spielberg was the man most responsible for the magic of the movie screen as he continued to take us on compelling adventures time and time again. For anyone who was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, he captured the imaginations of kids and adults everywhere, and as he’s gotten older has continued with reinventing himself as an artist with more adult works that still captivate.
Despite some of my personal misgivings regarding his work in recent years, I can’t deny the power Spielberg has had on the cinematic world. But there’s many films that paved the way for him to be where he is, and many who’ve been inspired by his brilliance ever since.
So, let’s highlight some of the great works that came before, and some that have come ever since the magic of Spielberg that in some way has captured that same feeling we get when we watch “Indiana Jones” or “E.T.”. These are 10 Films to watch if you like Steven Spielberg.
1. Captains Courageous (1937)
Right alongside films like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Shining”, Spielberg ranks “Captain Courageous” right up there as one of his all-time favorites. You have to imagine Spielberg’s knack for ordinary people and the value of hard work in his films largely came from this film.
A spoiled rich boy (Freddie Bartholomew) falls overboard the fancy yacht his father owns and finds himself in the hands of a fishing schooner “We’re Here”. They put him to work and now all that bad behavior he had previously is slowly fading away as he learns the value of these men, what they do, and how they live. MGM famously dubbed this film as a “coming-of-age classic with exciting adventure.”
That one phrase alone could be used to describe many of Spielberg’s most famous work. When you watch the childhood innocence with a twist of adventure in here, how can you not think of images like Elliot in “E.T.” or Short Round in “Temple of Doom”. Not to mention, this has an Oscar winning performance by Spencer Tracy, one of Spielberg’s favorite actors. There’s a good reason this is one of his favorites.
2. Stagecoach (1939)
“Stagecoach” is a film that can be used in describing many influences in film, not merely just Spielberg. But in terms of Spielberg’s filmography, it’s undeniable. If you watch the documentary short “The Stunts of ‘Indiana Jones’”, you’ll see Spielberg and company list the various influences of action and stunt work that went into making the “Indiana Jones” films, and right there at the top of that list would be John Ford’s “Stagecoach”.
Just take the legendary stunt in which Yakima Canutt jumps on to the horses and then does “the drop” where he lets those horses and the carriage ride over him and you’ll see the inspiration for the equally legendary truck sequence where Indie dangles underneath the bottom of a truck. But more than that, it’s also the manner in which the role of heroism is defined in the central characters.
The way in which John Wayne exhibits natural authority in his rugged way is a clear-cut influence on the traditional heroes of Spielberg’s filmography from Indiana Jones, to Quint, and you could even argue a little bit to Oskar Schindler and Captain Miller. “Stagecoach” is a film that paved the way for everybody and should never be overlooked in a list like this.
3. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
One of the strongest aspects of Spielberg’s talent is his ability to capture true, honest goodness in-between the big moments. When you think of a film like “Jaws” you’ll likely remember the little moments of a dad goofing around, making silly faces with his son just as much as you’ll remember the action with the shark. When you think of “Saving Private Ryan” you’ll likely think of Captain Miller admitting who he is back home before you think of any of the war action. Because more than spectacle, Spielberg understands it’s the humanity of people that makes us remember them.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” is another film Spielberg commonly ranks as a personal favorite, and it’s clear why. It’s a genuine, humble look at life post WWII as veterans of the war try to adjust back into life. We don’t have gratuitous war action to rope us in but rather the real human struggles of who these people are, and the love they have for their family and friends.
Spielberg is probably most famous for his blockbusters, but his more mature works likewise have a similar, if not, greater appeal than his adventures. Stories such as these are rich with spiritual depth and elate with an overpowering sense of human capability, something Spielberg has certainly never lost during his time as a filmmaker.
4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Just look at the image of Humphrey Bogart in this film and you’ll see where Spielberg got a lot of inspiration for Indiana Jones. The ingenuity of the “Indiana Jones” films is that they greatly payed tribute to classic B-Adventure films of the past but revitalized them in such a way for new audiences that came off as a fresh new take on what makes a classic thrill ride.
There’s a lot of films to highlight in this regard, such as “Secret of the Incas”. But “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is a far more interesting film that goes beyond the simple premise of finding lost treasure. Like what we would see from characters like Belloq in “Raiders” or Dr. Schneider in “Last Crusade” is what you see from the characters of this film. The treasure in question poisons their very human nature, weakening them to humanity’s greatest flaw of greed and the quest for power.
The adventure in the film isn’t meant as a thrill ride but rather as an expedition of the characters internal self’s, how much can they stay true to themselves before they lose all semblance of their integrity. Much in the same manner, Spielberg likewise looks for the good in humanity with his films. His universal appeal comes from his desire to teach right from wrong even when confronted with the most challenging of scenarios on both a physical and emotional level. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is a classic that paved the way for Spielberg to be the storyteller he is, be sure to see it if you haven’t already.
5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” was a milestone in science fiction filmmaking. At a time where any other space invader movies showed extraterrestrial aliens as invading forces out to destroy humanity, this offered something completely different. The aliens weren’t there to destroy but rather to be a voice of reason for universal peace, only for humanity to destroy itself with their never-ending quest for war and prejudice.
The simple idea of aliens being a force for good is something Spielberg would personify in two of his all-time greats, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T. The Extraterrestrial”. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” pioneered the idea of the connection between humanity and the extraterrestrial, and Spielberg capitalized on this to further expand upon the concept with his works.
In “Close Encounters” he uses the advancement of technology and persistence to further mirror the advancement of humankind to join larger groups of the universe. In “E.T.” he mixes science fiction with family drama to use a boy and his pet alien as a coming of age tale. The influence the film has had on Spielberg is apparent, and it should be no surprise that Spielberg is currently getting set to direct another Robert Wise classic “West Side Story”. But it started with this, and what a start it was.