Epics: A Brief Comparison of Spielberg and DeMille.

Guest Author Trevor Tillman is a filmmaker and screenwriter who studied film at Academy of Art University.

Steven Spielberg is the most commercially successful director of all time with three, all-time number one hits in three different decades: Jaws in 1975, E.T. the Extra- terrestrial in 1982, and Jurassic Park in 1993. His most popular films contain spectacle, but merely as a backdrop for a more introspective story. When watching a Spielberg epic, be it Close Encounters or Raiders of the Lost Ark, it can be easy to overlook his influences. An avid lover of history and cinema, Spielberg has acknowledged being a student of David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Victor Fleming, and Frank Capra. Perhaps the most akin to him, at least during Spielberg’s most popular period, would be Cecil B. DeMille.

Like Steven Spielberg, Cecil B. DeMille was a showman, known for making gargantuan epics such as Cleopatra (1934), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and The Ten Commandments (1923, and again in 1956). Nearly every Spielberg film incorporates pastiche--John Ford's The Quiet Man playing on the television in E.T., the film noir being projected in Minority Report--and in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Spielberg makes constant references to DeMille. When we meet Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family, they are watching The Ten Commandments. In the same scene, Neary tries to explain fractions to his son using a model train that looks like it came right out of The Greatest Show on Earth. In the film’s climax, the clouds signifying the arrival of the alien mothership are a visual cue from The Ten Commandments. Roy Neary has to climb up the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming--in a chase scene which notably is very similar to the one on Mount Rushmore in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest--to finally see the arrival of aliens firsthand. Roy witnesses men talking to other intelligent beans upon crossing the threshold. Similarly in The Ten Commandments, a man has to climb the mountain where he will encounter God. The compositing of the rolling clouds even suggests a visual reference to the movie. This homage aside, Spielberg is more tied to DeMille by his sense of scale. They make non-esoteric films for the masses to enjoy.

DeMille had an obvious enthusiasm for Biblical tales, and he made many during his lifetime. It is appropriate then, that Spielberg would use DeMille as an influence for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The opening shot of the film is a distorted Paramount Pictures logo that dissolves to a real mountain somewhere in Peru. Spielberg created a new Paramount logo for this, meant to be reminiscent of the one used from 1954-1975. This is noteworthy because DeMille opened three of his movies with a distorted Paramount logo: Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments. In this sense, the Raiders saga is intertwined with the films of DeMille. Raiders of the Lost Ark also uses a MacGuffin--Alfred Hitchcocks' word for an otherwise insignificant object that is used solely to advance the plot--that is directly tied to The Ten Commandments: the Ark of the Covenant. In the Bible, the Ark of the Covenant is the last resting place for the Tablets of the Law that Moses carried on Mount Sinai. The film uses the same visual cue with the clouds from Close Encounters twice: when Indiana Jones unearths the Well of the Souls, and during the film’s climax when the lost Ark is opened. During this sequence, Indy is filmed heroically in the foreground, just as Moses is when answering God’s call. In both films, we get a demonstration of God’s power. At the end of Raiders, the power of the Ark destroys all who look at it. In The Ten Commandments,

God’s fire etches the tablets onto the mount, and keeps the Egyptians from following Moses as he crosses the Red Sea. In a perhaps smaller reference to Samson and Delilah, Indiana Jones knocks down a statue of Anubis to escape from the Well of Souls. In addition, neither Samson nor Indiana Jones sees when God manifests his power physically--Samson is blind, and Jones knows better.

It is clear that Spielberg has a certain admiration for the works of DeMille, based on his constant references to his work. What is more interesting is how, like true artists, each produced work that displayed their individual worldviews. Cecil B. DeMille, as a filmmaker, was a devout Christian, and he used the medium to recreate fantastic, Old Testament tales. One only need to skim through his filmography to see this. Likewise Spielberg has voiced his Jewish heritage in his films very similarly. Most would probably think that Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade contain little more than a fun ride. However, while we're getting an awesome thrill ride, we're also witnessing Spielberg’s childhood fantasies of adventuring and killing Nazis come to life. As a child, Spielberg says his heritage made him feel like a bit of an outcast. E.T. the Extra-terrestrial is a product of Spielberg’s childhood in which two outcasts find each other, the themes of divorce and broken homes notwithstanding. We see the boy grow up. Spielberg has shown signs of his maturity as well in recent years. The same year Jurassic Park came out, Spielberg defied expectations and made Schindler’s List, an uncompromising look at the tragedy of the Jewish holocaust. With Munich (2005), he made a film that looks at the ongoing conflict between the Jewish and Palestinians, and related it to how we respond to terror today. While these films bare little obvious photographic similarity to DeMille’s work, they are similar in what that they are covered in the fingerprints of their creators. Like Spielberg, DeMille not only used cinema to entertain, but to offer up a consistent point of view. These entertainers used the medium to express themselves, consciously or not.

While I chose to showcase the similarities between Spielberg and one of his grandmasters, by no means am I suggesting that Spielberg is DeMille's heir--he isn't, at least not any more than DeMille was anyone else's heir. The truth is one could make similar comparisons to any number of filmmakers who managed to connect with a mass audience. One thing that gets taken for granted with the great escapist movies, is that they work on us because in our guts we know we're witnessing another person's emotional truth. These two filmmakers’ celebrity at times transcends their work. Just as Spielberg has made cameo appearances in a few films (remember the opening to Austin Powers in Goldmember?), DeMille’s persona is ingrained in popular culture. He even played himself in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard. But more important both of their reputations as great showmen, Spielberg and DeMille used their vision to weave tales that allowed us to take a tour of their minds.

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