History and Hope: How Spielberg Remembers the Past Through Objects

“Nothing matters more than memory. Without memory we learn nothing, without memory there’s no coherence, no progress. I’d image that’s why historians ultimately write history and why human beings hunger for history and, I have to add, for fiction based on history. It’s the hunger we feel for coherence, it’s the hunger we feel for progress for a better world. And it’s much the same hunger, in other words, that compels soldiers in a just war to fight — the hunger for justice. Because I think justice and memory are inseparable. Without remembering what has happened, what went wrong, what went right, the blessings that justice brings — dignity, real prosperity, individual and social health, peace — these blessings will not and cannot arrive. History lights a path towards justice, so without history there’s no hope.”

Steven Spielberg discusses the importance of history during a speech at an event marking the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 2013.

When Steven Spielberg stood at Gettysburg to give that speech on the 149th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s iconic address, he was standing at the centre of history. President Barack Obama had recently been voted into his second term and the economic and social change he’d promised five years earlier was starting to come into fruition. Spielberg himself was feeling the hands of history weigh heavy as well. Lincoln was enjoying critical success, garnering awards recognition and, most impressively of all, proving an unexpected box office smash. The fascination with the film, and the way it reflected not just America’s past, but also its present and, potentially, its future, was pleasing reward for the director, not only because he’d been planning it for over a decade, but also because it fit in with his personal vision of history. As he said in his speech, this look back at what had been was giving hope for what could be.

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Spielberg has always been interested in history, and from a young age he was taught the importance of remembering it. When he was growing up, his grandfather Fievel (for whom the mouse star of Amblin’s An American Tail films is named) would tell him stirring stories of his life 19th Century Russia. With the number of Jews able to attend school restricted, Fievel had to be inventive with his education, even if that sometimes came at the cost of his own well-being. “They [allowed] Jews to listen through open windows to the classes,” Spielberg has said. “So he pretty much went to school — fall, winter, and spring — by sitting outside in driving snow, outside of open windows.”

The telling of such stories was a common occurrence in the Spielberg household. The boy who’d grow up to make Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan learned to count by studying the numbers tattooed on the arms of Holocaust survivors and got his first glimpse of conflict through his father Arnold’s memories of service. “He never did it because he was trying to teach me something. It was just his life,” Spielberg told The Independent in 2011. “I was born a year after the war ended. And all of his friends were veterans, from the Second World War. They used to hang out together in years and years, so I grew up with these stories… That’s the great thing about making movies and telling stories. History opens up new worlds to film-makers all the time.”

While Arnold’s storytelling may not have been geared around imparting any particular life lesson to his son, Spielberg’s storytelling most certainly is. His historical films are accessible tales that are designed to compress large and unwieldy periods into something more manageable. It’s why he insisted writer Tony Kushner focus his initial, hugely comprehensive 500-page script for Lincoln on just a small part of the President’s life, and why he repeatedly employs the storytelling technique I’ll explore in this essay: the symbolic use of special objects such as toys, pictures and dogtags. It’s history through microcosm and these key objects cease to be mere items under Spielberg’s direction, they become totems that the characters, and by extension the audience, must learn from.

The four films I’ll study in this article are listed below, alongside the items they feature.

Empire of the Sun: In this story of a young boy (Jim) and his attempts to survive life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, Spielberg uses a couple of different key items: Jim’s toy plane and a replica of Norman Rockwell’s famous painting ‘Freedom From Fear’. These help comfort Jim in times of distress but also act as a reminder of how disconnected from reality he is.

Schindler’s List: Spielberg’s Holocaust drama uses the list itself and the ring given to Oskar Schindler at the film’s conclusion as its key objects. The ring is inscribed with the Jewish saying ‘He who saves one life saves the world entire’ and acts as an ongoing reminder of the Holocaust and those who suffered and died in it. The candles that bookmark the film, and perhaps even the Schindlerjuden themselves, are also important objects in the film.

Saving Private Ryan: A few items are dotted throughout this film, with Private Carparzo’s letter home and the dogtags of deceased soldiers that Captain Miller looks through being the most prominent. Like in Schindler’s List, Spielberg also uses humans as the object, with Miller (and his grave) this time becoming the item via his dying insistence that Ryan ‘earn it’.

War Horse: Albert’s horse Joey is both lead character and significant item here. Criss-crossing through multiple stories involving multiple characters, Joey becomes the thing that ties them all together. The war pendant attached to him (an invention of Spielberg and screenwriter Richard Curtis that’s not a part of Michael Murpurgo’s source novel) also performs this role.

There are a number of historical films not included in this list, including Amistad, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. These have been excluded so the essay doesn’t run too long, but they still contain key items: the Presidential busts John Quincy Adams gives his speech against in Amistad, the photographic plates of slaves Tad views in Lincoln, the painting given by Abel to Donovan in Bridge of Spies. While it’s a shame to remove these items, the list of Spielberg’s totemic historical objects is simply too long to allow for total comprehensiveness, and I feel that the four films chosen illuminate his use, and the way his use has changed, well.

In the rest of this essay, I’ll break each of these films down and explain how Spielberg’s use of significant objects highlights his representation of historical events as something we must carry with us and learn from.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Spielberg’s first serious attempt to document the Second World War was this haunting adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s same-titled autobiographical novel. Avoiding much of the actual conflict, Spielberg chose to depict the Second World War through Jim’s loss of identity and innocence, a potent approach for the director, who called the war “the loss of innocence for the entire world.”

Jim is something of a totemic object here: he acts as an avatar that represents the sense of loss and emotional disconnect the film depicts. However, while he’d come to use human beings as his totems in later films, Spielberg was more focused on actual inanimate objects at this stage, and gives Jim a number of them throughout the film. The most significant is the Time magazine reprint of Norman Rockwell’s famous ‘Freedom From Fear’ painting that Jim carries with him. So important is this to Jim’s psychology that Spielberg re-stages the painting during a moment of familial harmony in the film’s early stages.

The painting is a double-edged sword. It represents the warmth and comfort Jim yearns for, but it’s also a fantasy: an ideal that hasn’t been achieved and may never be achieved. There’s disconnect from reality here for both Jim and Spielberg, who wants us to question the role fiction plays in our real lives. Does it enhance our understanding of life or distance us from it? This question is underlined when Jim walks past another key item: a smoke-shrouded poster for Gone With The Wind. The romantic vision of war the film depicts, and that the poster represents, stands in stark contrast to the dirty, terrifying reality that Jim’s experiencing. It almost looks comical in comparison. How can this obvious falsehood possibly have any role to play in real life?

Spielberg focuses his most significant criticism on his depiction on planes and flight. Both have been key symbols in all Spielberg’s films, from the flying bikes of E.T. to the crashed plane seen in War of the Worlds. Reflecting this interest, Jim is also obsessed with planes and early on in the film, he stumbles across a downed fighter while playing with a toy replica. He gets in, dons a pair of aviator sunglasses and make-believes that he’s in the heat of battle, readying the decisive shot that will destroy his foe. Reality soon encroaches though and Spielberg reveals that the boy’s in enemy territory. A Japanese battalion is nearby, and again Jim’s fantasy of conflict is undercut by the reality. He retreats with a mounting sense of dread.

Jim’s obsession with planes finally ends when the American air force descends on the Soo Chow internment camp to liberate it. The planes attack the camp in a blaze of fire and explosions, and suddenly Jim’s split: thrilled by their appearance but terrified of the very real threat they pose to him. In a moment of magical-realism, Spielberg has an American fighter swoop past Jim in slow-motion. Resembling something from a Rockwell painting, the plane is flawless chrome and the pilot an all-American guy who smiles and waves as he flies past. Unable to reconcile the wonder of what he thinks is real with the brutality of what’s actually real, Jim enters into hysterics before being brought back down to earth by his surrogate father within the camp, the English doctor, Rawlins.

“I can’t remember what my parents look like,” says a distraught Jim, crashing after his euphoric high. “I can’t picture their faces anymore.” Jim and Rawlins embrace, with Spielberg’s camera drawing us into a close up of Jim’s eyes, which are shot through with pain and desolation. Spielberg rhymes this shot with another at the end of the film, in which Jim is reunited with his parents and hugs his mother. Again we see his eyes, but here they close with deathly finality before Spielberg cuts to a shot of Jim’s suitcase — filled with his Rockwell picture and toy planes — floating in a river. Jim has tried to beat the world away with an array of objects and the fantasy they represent. But reality has finally caught up and the objects are now nothing more than trash drifting to nowhere.

Schindler’s List (1993)

When taking on an issue as significant as the Holocaust, Spielberg knew he needed to adapt his style. So he threw out the meticulous storyboarding he’d normally engage in before shooting, and stripped the film of colour. Schindler’s List subsequently became known as a very different Spielberg film that bore little in common with his other work. Certain Spielbergian elements remain though: the ambiguous father figure, the prominence of children, the striking use of John Williams’ music. And, of course, the use of significant objects to underpin key beats and themes.

The most famous of these is the red coat seen on the girl who wanders alone through the Krakow ghetto as it’s being liquidated. Watching events from a nearby hill, Oskar Schindler is for the first time struck by the reality of the Holocaust when he sees her. She acts not just as a reminder of the suffering that persists but also of those who’ve already lost their lives under the Nazis. The moment is so notable because of the fiction Spielberg employs — the splash of red in an otherwise black-and-white film. By adding this cinematic detail, by breaking with the film’s determination to match the reality of the Holocaust, Spielberg is giving the object and the girl much more prominence. It isn’t enough that Oskar simply sees her and has his change of heart, he has to experience her, to comprehend what her presence and her plight actually means emotionally. The audience needs to do the same.

This is something Spielberg does throughout Schindler’s List. Simply making the film was an act of remembrance — both for Spielberg himself and for society as a whole — and he needed to give the objects he uses as much weight as the intangible, passive world of cinema possibly can. It’s why he uses close-ups in the film’s opening bookend, which sees Jewish families marking an event by lighting candles. We see the match struck and the wick lit in detail; the scratch of match against matchbook and fire burning wick fills the soundtrack. He wants this act of remembrance to puncture the screen and reach out to the audience.

Of course, the film’s most significant object is in its title: the list Schindler draws up to save Jews from the concentration camps. Spielberg imbues the creation of the list with the same kind of intensity he does the candles. Schindler and his right-hand man Ishtak Stern sit in a room putting the list together. The names struggle to leave their lips at first, as they stumble over some and find themselves unable to remember others. To add further drama, we then cut to another factory, at which Schindler is bargaining with a friend for more workers. Spielberg lingers over the workforce before whip-panning to Schindler and his friend. By capturing the moment like this, Spielberg makes it clear that the names on the list aren’t just names: they’re real people whose lives are on the line.

As the sequence continues this significance only grows stronger. We’re given a running count of the list’s length and never allowed to forget that every single entry on it is a person, a life. “850, give or take,” Stern replies when Schindler asks how many entries are on it. “Give or take what, Stern? Give or take what? Count them. How many?” comes the response. Interspersed throughout are close-ups of the list being written, Stern’s typewriter thumping the letters onto the paper. Every letter comes into being in front of our eyes, the clack of the keys filling the soundtrack, the arms creating a black flash across the screen, almost like a cut, every time a letter is typed. “The list is life,” Stern says as the task is completed. He’s right. The list is life – because Spielberg’s imbued it with life.

This point is further underlined at the end of the film when Schindler says goodbye to those he’s saved. The Schindlerjuden have crafted a ring that’s inscribed with a Jewish proverb: “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” Schindler is visibly moved by the gesture and struggles to find the words or even to stand up straight. He drops the ring before sinking to the floor to retrieve it. Despite saving 1,100 Jews, Schindler believes he could have saved more, and condemns himself for living in luxury while others died. “This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep this car? Ten people, right there.” He says the same of a golden pin, which he says could have saved one person. “It would have given me one. One more. One more person. One person is dead… for this.”

The objects Spielberg uses throughout Schindler’s List begin as power symbols that distance Schindler from the Holocaust. By the end of the film, however, they’ve become reminders — searing guilt trips that never allow Schindler to forget what he didn’t do to help, of those he could have saved but didn’t. In this way, the film itself becomes a totemic object. By its end, we the audience must ask ourselves why we have become so wrapped up in the power of luxury, and what we can do to break out of it and help those we’ve been previously blind to.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Bearing the tagline ‘The Mission Is A Man’, Saving Private Ryan expanded upon Schindler’s List’s closing thoughts that “he who saves one life saves the world entire” by focusing entirely on one person. In the grand scheme of the war, James Ryan is a nobody who’s the subject of this mission because his three brothers have all died in combat and the idea of the fourth and final Ryan sibling being killed is too disastrous for morale. The mission to find and recover him is ridiculous and it costs people their lives. Most of the men in the battalion, including its leader Captain Miller, are killed in the process of saving Ryan and giving him a free ticket home. FUBAR, indeed.

This, however, is very much Spielberg’s point. If Schindler’s List is about the value of life, Saving Private Ryan is about the value of death. What is a death worth? What is sacrifice worth? How can we earn it? Spielberg even makes the link between the two films explicit during the scenes in Neuville, when Carparzo tries to help a French family by offering to take their young daughter to safety. Knowing that the girl would simply slow his men down and get in the way of their mission, Miller refuses, so the moment becomes an inversion of the Girl in the Red Coat sequence. While Schindler’s morality is awakened by the sight of an imperiled child, Miller’s is compromised. Pragmatically, he’s right to refuse, but by doing so, he loses the moral good that the war is being waged to preserve.

It’s during this sequence that the film presents us with the first of its objects. Carparzo is killed in a firefight while trying to help the girl, and with his dying breath, he calls out to his comrades and asks them to take a note he’d been writing to his parents. Incomplete, spattered with blood and drenched with rain, the letter becomes the property of the company’s medic, Wade, who goes about rewriting it on a fresh piece of paper, without the rain or the blood. In doing so, Wade has an epiphany, tearfully remembering incidents from his childhood when he pretended to be asleep so he didn’t have to speak to his mother. “I don’t know why I did that,” he says with an air of futility. Lost in the arena of war, Wade is reminded by Carparzo’s letter that he may never make up that squandered time. Relationships, like a letter home, are fragile.

The sheer weight of death is further explored later in the film, again through Spielberg’s use of objects. The group arrive at a US base and are presented with a pile of dogtags. If Ryan was part of this battalion and has died, his dogtag would be among the pile. So Miller and his men sit down and start rifling through them. Two soldiers make a game of it, betting on whether or not Ryan will still be alive. Laughter is generated when one mispronounces a name, and there’s a sense of frustration as piles spill over into one another, the men acting like young boys trying to achieve a simple task. Even Miller shares the sense of fun, raising a small smile as he and his men seek the needle in the haystack. It’s an intentionally warm scene, a moment of levity in an otherwise unrelenting film, and we welcome the respite.

However, the mood shifts when Spielberg shows us the soldiers passing by. They watch as Miller and his team callously handle the tags, not appreciating that they once belonged to real people: friends and fellow soldiers. The men wander past and we have no idea of their names, their stories or what they’re doing in the war. Spielberg is forcing us to view them as a homogenous mass, just as Miller and his men are – we’ve become complicit in their cruelty. However, he pricks our conscience by presenting us with a couple of close-ups and we see that they’re appalled at Miller and company, and so finally, are we. The mission may be one man, but countless others died in incidents surrounding it. Miller, his team and even we the audience have forgotten this. The objects need to remind us.

Ultimately, of course, it’s Miller who needs to be remembered. His death at the film’s close is a tragic one that leaves the audience in a state of shock because it’s so unexpected. Spielberg has been criticised for his tactics to keep this ending a surprise: his use of a dissolve between the elderly man we see at the start of the film and Miller readying himself for Normandy makes us think the two are one and the same and that Miller will survive into old age. Of course, the elderly man is actually Ryan and while this may be a cheat, it’s not an unjustified one. Before death, Miller tells Ryan to ‘earn it’: justify the sacrifice he, and countless others, have had to make by carrying their legacy with him and living the kind of good, honest life Miller couldn’t. The early transition simply strengthens the bond between the two men.

In this respect, the very gravestones we see in these bookend sequences become Saving Private Ryan’s most potent symbolic objects. Just as Miller shouldn’t have forgotten the men behind the dogtags, we must never forget that the gravestones of the war dead are more just granite: they’re representations of lives cut down too soon and the sacrifices needed to keep evil at bay. If we forget this then we lose the war. Another object – the American flag – closes the film out. It flaps solemnly in the wind, its bold red, white and blue paled by the sunlight behind it. It poses the film’s most important question: Ryan has earned Miller’s sacrifice, but can we? Spielberg fades out and insists that only we can answer through our actions.

War Horse (2011)

During the first decade of the new Millennium, Spielberg started experimenting with genre and tone. A.I. and Minority Report blended dark sci-fi with blockbuster spectacle, Spielberg dubbing the latter a “gourmet popcorn movie”. Comedies arrived next in the form of Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, as Spielberg dipped his toes into waters not visited since his notorious misfire 1941. War of the Worlds and Munich provided two very different, but equally bleak, takes on the War on Terror, while even a return to the action-adventure of Indiana Jones couldn’t stop Spielberg’s desire to be diverse: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an unusual blockbuster that spends as much time probing American insecurity as it does the nooks and crannies of ancient tombs.

By doing this, Spielberg was indirectly exploring the boundaries of film: what he could achieve within which generic parameters. When he returned to historical drama with 2011’s War Horse, he was ready to be more direct and make a clear statement on the form itself. Released in the same year as his motion-capture rendering of Tintin, War Horse looked back at cinema’s past, while the Herge adaptation looked ahead to its future. Referencing John Ford in general and Gone With The Wind specifically, War Horse does more than simply ask us to remember the past; it explicitly foregrounds the medium of that remembrance, proving through its self-aware cinematicness that we consider cinema itself as one of the most important forms of remembrance.

So in War Horse, film is the totemic object Spielberg focuses on, but so too is a pendant owned by Ted Narracot, the father of the film’s hero, Albert. Ted carried it with him during his service for the British army in the Boer War, a bloody conflict during which Ted had to commit morally dubious acts he wasn’t comfortable with. This discomfort stayed with him after the war, driving him to alcoholism. In some ways, Ted’s a version of Captain Miller if had he survived the Second World War, or maybe even Empire of the Sun‘s Jamie as an adult. Having lived beyond the conflict’s conclusion, Ted is forced to settle his actions with his own morality, a task he ultimately fails at.

For much of the film, Albert can’t relate to his father’s recklessness. He finds him distant and frustrating, and when Ted sells Joey into army service, Albert follows the animal into battle. By this point, he’s acquired Ted’s pendant and fixed it to Joey, and as the film progresses, the pendant becomes a representation of much more than Ted’s fraught morality. With Joey criss-crossing through different narratives (the British army, the German army, an elderly Frenchman and his young grand-daughter), it acts as a common thread through which a variety of stories and people are linked. We’re not so different, it reminds us. Even in war, our similarities are stronger than the things that separate us.

In the film’s final scenes, Albert and Joey return home and Albert hands the pendant back to his father, who he embraces having finally grown to understand his senior’s plight. The moment is Spielberg’s most overt reference to Ford and Gone With The Wind, with the latter’s sweeping sunset landscapes being nodded to. It’s the final link in the chain of Spielberg’s overall thesis. The pendant doesn’t just mark the remembrance of Ted’s past and Albert’s connection to it, and it’s not solely about the connection of different kinds of people. It’s about the method through which that connection happens: cinema. The past lives on through the stories we tell and the objects we use to tell them. By remembering those stories and holding those objects dear, we’re remembering the past.

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Whatever the film, whatever the history, whatever the object, by emphasising significant items as he does, Spielberg gives history a sense of tangibility and so makes it impossible to forget or ignore. If we do lose sight of it, he tells us, we risk not only our past but also our future. History is indeed hope, and the object Spielberg holds dearer than anything else – film itself – is the totem needed to keep that hope alive.