Before Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, before the trio of Oscars, director Steven Spielberg's most impressive work was not an entire film—not Jaws or even E.T.—but the opening 40 minutes of a little-remembered 1987 effort, Empire of the Sun.
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Taken from an autobiographical novel by J. G. Ballard about his experiences during World War II, Empire's memorable introductory segment, which evokes events surrounding the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, displays Spielberg's singular gift—unexpected for someone who has often said "I dream for a living"—for bringing history to vivid life.
This gift, and the director's determination to use it in the service of persuasion—to bring history alive in order to spread its lessons—turned out to be the making of Spielberg. That gift saved him from becoming a servant of the marketplace. It made him a filmmaker of stature, someone who today puts serious observations about the fate of humanity into even commercial ventures such as War of the Worlds.
His paradoxical willingness to use detachment and reserve almost to the point of withdrawal in order to get the most emotional power out of historical re-creation was first evident throughout an entire movie in the Holocaust-themed Schindler's List, which examined a subject that Spielberg, with personal and emotional ties to the world of Eastern European Jewry, clearly hungered to do justice to. He also established the Righteous Persons Foundation to give away, in grants, his portion of profits from the film.
The touchstone of Schindler's List is the way it depicts the incomprehensible brutality that took place under the Nazi heel. Working extensively with a hand-held camera and functioning almost as a documentarian, Spielberg, understanding how important it was to show the casualness of the nightmare, had the nerve to simply let those dreadful scenes play out without special emphasis. As a consequence, he created as indelible and realistic a picture of the Holocaust as fiction allows.
If Amistad, the story of the momentous aftermath of an 1839 shipboard rebellion of 53 African slaves off Cuba, was not as commercially successful as Schindler's List, its visual evocation of the past was equally impressive. Many of the film's most lasting moments, like a ravaged slaver passing an elegant party listening to shipboard chamber music, re-create reality so beautifully without dialogue that they recall the wordless triumphs of the great silent films. Amistad's strongest scene, a depiction of the torments of the middle passage—the journey newly sold slaves made from Africa to the Americas—also plays without dialogue.
Similarly, for the epochal D-Day invasion scenes that open Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg's respect for material compels both a brutal honesty and the greatest restraint. The son of a World War II combat veteran, Spielberg was determined to trivialize neither the nature of war nor what it does to participants. As a result, Private Ryan—as much an experience we live through as a film we watch—is a darker and more pessimistic look at battle than we are used to. Spielberg got so close to the chaos of warfare that the film led veterans who had never spoken to their children about combat to do so.
The slaughter starts immediately. Men are enveloped in flames, shredded by bullets, dead as they set foot on the beach, or they succumb in slow motion, dragged underwater.
"I didn't think this would be tolerable to audiences; I thought this was going to be inaccessible," Spielberg admitted when I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times shortly after the film's release. (In person, the director, who is now 58, projects a calm assurance that may stem from having been a public figure for more than half of his life—not to mention being the father of seven children.) "I said to my cast midway through shooting, 'Don't think of this as something we're going to go out and make a killing on, but just as a memorial. We're thanking all those guys, your grandparents and my dad, who fought in World War II.'"
Spielberg understands that when handled correctly, nothing brings history's lessons alive as indelibly as film. If anyone takes to heart George Santayana's dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," it is this Hollywood director turned historian.