Many directors cite Spielberg as a key influence, but who does Spielberg himself look up to? Here, I look through some of the most significant influences on Spielberg’s career, from Norman Rockwell to Walt Disney.
Born on 3rd February 1894, Norman Rockwell was one of the pre-eminent painters in American history. Tapping into the every day life of American citizens, Rockwell captured a somewhat idealised portrait of the United States, but always laced his paintings with social commentary. He became famous for his Saturday Evening Post magazine covers across five decades, and among his most well-known works are The Five Freedoms and The Problem We All Live With, both of which Spielberg has referenced in his work. “Whenever my Dad would bring home a Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell was the cover art,” Spielberg has remembered. “I just looked forward not to even opening up the Post to see what was inside, I was mainly interested in seeing what story this painter was telling on the cover.”
Dubbed The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchock was born in August 1899 and went on to become one of the most iconic film directors of all time. Starting his career in his native England, Hitchock’s flair for the macabre got him noticed and he was soon in the US, beginning his Hollywood career with Rebecca in 1940. Masterpieces such as Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Rear Window and Strangers on a Train followed, each one featuring one, several or all of Hitchock’s signature elements (icy blondes, voyeurism, and fugitives among them). Spielberg has been fascinated by Hitchcock throughout his career, doffing his cap to him in thrillers like Minority Report and Bridge of Spies and even referencing Vertigo’s famous reverse dolly zoom in Jaws. In his younger years, Spielberg even got to meet Hitchock – albeit briefly. “I was on the Torn Curtain set for about 10 minutes before someone came and told me to leave,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I got to see Hitchcock and Julie Andrews, but… they were far away, and I had just come through an entrance.”
Born in February 1894, John Ford was an abrasive but brilliant figure who redefined the American Western. Across 50 years, Ford explored masculinity, American identity and the rugged Western landscape in masterpieces such as Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man and The Searchers. The latter film, which reshaped how the Western was seen, is regarded as Ford’s defining work, but it’s for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was M Valley and The Quiet Man that he won his four Best Director Academy Awards. Spielberg has used footage from The Quiet Man in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and spoke at length about Ford during promotion for War Horse. “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures,” he said. “But I think the thing that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford celebrated the land. I just thought that of all the films I’ve made in recent years, this offered the opportunity to make the land a character.”
Capturing some of history’s most significant images, Robert Capa was a photo journalist who was on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Born into a Jewish family in Budapest in October 1913, Capa learned his craft at Berlin University, but had to leave Germany for Paris after the Nazis came into power. Prior to his iconic work on D-Day, Capa captured images from the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese resistance to Japan in 1938 and the US invasion of Sicily in 1943. His raw, frenetic Magnificent Eleven images from the D-Day landings caught Spielberg’s eye and the director looked to capture that same energy when making Saving Private Ryan. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has said that he had to “throw the camera’s shutter out of sync to create a streaking effect from the top to the bottom of the frame” in order to emulate Capa’s style.
Known for his breathtaking epics, David Lean had a significant impact on the young Spielberg, who counts Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as one of his favourite films. Lean was born in March 1908 and began as a film editor before moving into directing with 1942’s In Which We Serve. With 1955’s Summertime he moved beyond his native England, working with the likes of Columbia and MGM in a remarkable period of film-making that produced The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia. Lean and Spielberg almost worked together on Empire of the Sun, which began as a Lean-directed film that Spielberg would have produced, only for Lean to drop out and Spielberg to take over. “Lawrence of Arabia was the film that set me on my journey,” Spielberg told the American Film Institute. “I look at that picture as a major miracle.”
Described as “the greatest director you never heard of,” Michael Curtiz was one of the great directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Born in Hungary on Christmas Eve 1888, Curtiz made a name for himself in Europe before forming a fruitful partnership with Warner Brothers in 1926. It’s with the famous studio that he made his most well-known films, including Angels with Dirty Faces, The Sea Wolf, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce and Casablanca; the latter of which won him an Academy Award for Best Director in 1943. Curtiz’s phenomenal work-rate (he made 102 films during his Hollywood years) and ability to work in any genre inspired Spielberg and his own ability to juggle different tones and styles. “People like Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz I identify with more [than the likes of Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles] because they didn’t have styles,” Spielberg told the American Film Institute. “They were chameleons and they could quickly adapt; they could go from a story about heaven and the afterlife to the Civil War. They could do a lot of different subjects and they could do them well because they were good craftsmen… but they didn’t impose who they were on what that was. And I always felt I was more in their game.”
As mentioned, Fleming is another director Spielberg greatly admires for his ability to switch genres, tones and styles. Born on February 23rd 1889, Fleming is best known for his iconic masterpieces Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (for which he won Best Director at the 1940 Academy Awards), but his long and varied career also includes the likes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island, The Virginian, Joan of Arc and A Guy Named Joe, which Spielberg remade in 1989 as Always. Further nods to Fleming’s work can be seen in War Horse (whose finale borrows liberally from Gone with the Wind) and Empire of the Sun (in which a Gone with the Wind poster can be seen shrouded in mysterious fog). “We honour his movies and don’t know him, because he did his job so well,” Spielberg said, again highlighting his admiration for Fleming’s chameleonic talents.
Another versatile Golden Age Hollywood master, Wyler was born in 1902 and went on to win Best Director Academy Awards for Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives and Mrs Miniver. Along with a handful of other major Hollywood directors, Wyler enlisted in the armed forces with America entered the Second World War in 1941, making films about the conflict to help morale and keep the war effort going. Mrs Miniver came out of this era, and it drew praise from President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill for its sensitive portrait of courage and dedication under fire. Spielberg speaks at length about Wyler’s work in the three-part Netflix documentary series Five Came Back, which explores his war service.
One of the most enigmatic directors in film history, Kubrick was famous for his meticulous nature and attention to detail. Born in July 1928, started his career as a photographer for Look magazine before moving into film with 1956’s The Killing. His breakout film came a year later with World War One film Paths of Glory, which set off a career littered with masterpieces, including Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. During the 1980s, he formed a friendship with Spielberg that culminated with Spielberg directing A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which Kubrick had originally planned to helm but ultimately felt he was not right for. “He was a chameleon,” Spielberg has said of Kubrick. “He never made the same picture twice. Every single picture is a different genre, a different story, a different risk. The only thing that bonded all of his films was the incredible virtuoso that he was with craft.”
One of the most famous entertainers in American history, Walt Disney was born on 5th December 1901 and went on to build an empire. After setting up a film studio in the 1920s, Disney – with the help of his brother Roy and animator Ub Iwerks – developed the Mickey Mouse cartoons, a variety of groundbreaking animated shorts, and in 1937, the world’s first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A host of classics, including Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty followed, before Disney branched out into television and theme parks. It’s those early films that had the biggest effect on Spielberg though. “I was probably more influenced by Walt Disney than by anybody else,” he has recalled. “I loved cartoons as a kid, and I remember that I was more frightened by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia than by anything I ever saw in a movie before or since.”