During the press for War Horse, Steven Spielberg talked about the film’s connections to the work of John Ford. “I grew up with John Ford movies and I know a lot about his work and have studied him,” he explained. “I think the thing [in War Horse] that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford celebrated rituals and traditions and he celebrated the land. In War Horse, the land is a character.”
Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s beautiful shooting style certainly does make Dartmoor a character in War Horse, but the film is by no means the first time the director has used land and nature so symbolically or significantly. Beginning with Duel and continuing through to both War Horse and his other 2011 film, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Spielberg has often presented nature as a visual symbol of his characters’ emotional journeys. A few of the most important examples are given below…
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
When the aliens descend in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they do so against rich rural backdrops. Roy Neary’s first encounter comes when he’s called out by work. Leaving his suffocating suburban home, he heads out into the wide open country and Spielberg shows us an extreme wide shot of Neary’s car set against a beautiful starry sky. In the top left-hand corner of the screen, a small star moves, following Neary across the frame.
Later, we see Jillian Guiler and her three-year-old son, Barry. Her house is isolated from suburbia and surrounded by natural beauty – similar to the location Neary occupies during his encounter. The aliens take Barry in a sequence that, through their actions alone, seems terrifying. But Spielberg’s use of warm, sun-like light establishes it as the opposite. This is a moment of wonder that is taking place, yet again, amongst nature.
The aliens plant an image in Roy and Jillian’s minds and it’s only when Roy constructs the image out of mud and soil (in other words, the Earth itself) that he understands what it is: Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. A gigantic natural wonder, Devil’s Tower draws humanity together in a moment of communal bonding. The aliens’ arrival has helped us connect not only with other planets, but also our own.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Spielberg’s follow-up alien film uses nature to represent escape and maturation. Here though, the natural symbols are not mud and dirt but the sun and moon. Speaking to interviewer Michael Sragow in 1982, Spielberg discussed his use of night in the film, saying, “Remember in Fantasia, Mother Night flying over with her cape, covering a daylight sky?…I wanted the opening of E.T. to be that kind of Mother Night.”
‘Mother Night’ also appears in one of the film’s most beloved sequences – E.T. and Elliott’s moonlit bike ride. It is one of the few purely fantastical scenes in a film that rarely breaks out of suburbia and marks the pinnacle of E.T. and Elliott’s connection. The alien has not only helped his friend forget his parents’ divorce, but enabled him to transcend the laws of gravity and fly (literally) into the comforting arms of ‘Mother Night’.
The sequence is echoed later in the film, when E.T. and Elliott take off again. This time though, their bike ride is set against the sun, which, as in so many Spielberg films, symbolises truth and emotional realisation. By this point, E.T. has died and been reborn, forcing Elliott to experience pain and understand the need for his friend to return home. He has matured and the sunset ride represents both the end of ‘Mother Night’ comfort and the beginning of adult responsibility.
Always is based on 1943 melodrama A Guy Named Joe, but Spielberg changes the story’s context significantly, so it focuses not on WWII pilots, but aerial firefighters. That single change shifts the film’s themes too, making this tale of a deceased pilot (Pete) who returns as a ghost to help his partner (Dorinda) cope with her grief, another exploration of man’s relationship with nature.
Before his death, Pete is a childish man who takes unnecessary risks, hypocritically refuses to let Dorinda do the same and possesses a sense of dominion over nature, mastering flight and quenching fires when they run out of control. When he dies (literally becoming at one with the Earth), Pete is guided by a spirit called Hap, who is frequently associated with nature and is first seen in an oasis of floral tranquility within the remains of a burned-out forest.
She tells Pete that he must provide Spiritus (“the divine breath”) for a pilot called Ted, who is Dorinda’s new love interest. It’s a difficult and painful journey, but during its course Pete sees Dorinda’s potential, and in the film’s conclusion his new maturity is put to the test when he has to help Dorinda navigate a forest fire. The fire is slowly put out and Dorinda guides the plane through the billowing smoke and towards a clear and starry night. The craft eventually runs out of fuel and falls into the sea, taking Dorinda and Pete from one natural extreme to another. It’s a moment that echoes their emotional journeys, with both characters gaining a sense of clarity and a purifying fresh start. Dorinda can begin a new life with Ted, Pete can bring a satisfying conclusion to his.
Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1993, 1997)
Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movies share themes in common with Duel and Jaws and complete his Monster Series. Like those films, both Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park are about man’s tussle with primal nature, but here our bid for power is taken to God-like levels, with John Hammond not only hoping to control primitive beasts, but create them.
Of course, the forces of nature and chaos theory eventually put paid to those hopes and Spielberg highlights nature’s triumph with a neat shot that shows a mud-scarred Jurassic Park logo. The characters then escape the island in a helicopter and are joined in their flight by a flock of pelicans. This, Spielberg says, is the natural order; the descendants of dinosaurs (or so the film argues) alongside, and not merged with, man-made technology.
The film was made around the same time as Schindler’s List and it also says important things about the roles of fantasy and reality in our lives. This point is picked up on and evolved in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, where the existence of a second island (Site B) is revealed. Here dinosaurs are allowed to run free, so the island is a sort of man-made natural paradise. Hammond’s nephew, Peter Ludlow, wants to bring that paradise to the mainland (again to make money), but his aspirations come to an end when a T-Rex rampages through San Diego.
The film concludes with footage of dinosaurs once again roaming free on Site B. Hammond gives an interview in which he explains that it is imperative man stay away from the island to allow the creatures to flourish. Spielberg, who would follow the film up with historical dramas Amistad and Saving Private Ryan and not return to escapist blockbusters until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is saying the same about fantasy. Sometimes we must leave dreams behind and embrace reality. Life, real life, must be allowed to find a way.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg uses nature sparingly but effectively in Saving Private Ryan by suggesting that war infects the natural world in three key sequences. The first comes after the men embark upon their mission to recover the title character. Rain has started to fall and Spielberg cuts to close-ups of raindrops hitting leaves and puddles. However, the sound of splashing is quickly replaced by that of gunfire and explosions. The characters cannot escape the war. Even the Earth itself has been poisoned by it.
Spielberg echoes this point later in the film. Caparzo has become the first member of the team to be killed and Spielberg symbolises the tragedy of his death with an extreme wide shot that pictures the men marching across a horizon. The scene is completely black with only exploding bombs illuminating the way. All life has been removed from the world. The only features that remain are the ones created by gunpowder and man’s wrath.
Nature isn’t always used to reflect the misery of conflict though. As I’ve discussed, the sun is a key element of Spielberg’s mise-en-scene, and while it’s largely absent (or muted) in Saving Private Ryan, it’s put to significant use in the scene at the German machine gun turret. Another man dies – the company’s medic Wade – and infighting ensues as the men argue over what to do with the German gunner who killed him. The bickering eventually stops thanks to Captain Miller’s interjection and the soldiers get to burying their colleague. While doing so, they are lit by a setting sun and seen only in silhouette. Spielberg then cuts to identical one-shots of each man against a green field. Their bond is strong again, and nature is reflecting this. It may be fleeting, but colour – life! – is restored to the film.