Filmmaking has come a long way since its origins, and you can thank Steven Spielberg for a lot of that progress. Without him – and a little movie of his about a big shark that you might have heard of – there might very well not be any of the cinematic blockbusters that you’ve come to know and love. That would mean no Star Wars, no MCU, no Avatar, no Fast & Furious, no DC, and countless others without Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) paving the way.
The three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker is a household name for creating some of our favorite movies, with a wide variety of genres appealing to different audiences, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), as well as both the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park franchises, just to highlight a few.
But even those are only a fraction of the thirty-three films that Spielberg has directed throughout his career, including his latest, which you can catch in theaters right now. The Fabelmans (2022) – which has been in the works since 1999 – serves as a passion project for the director, being a semi-autobiographical retelling of Spielberg’s upbringing and his early childhood love of filmmaking. The story is told from the perspective of the fictional Sammy Fabelman, who explores his passion for filmmaking at an early age alongside his family, hoping to break into the industry with a little bit of luck on his side. It’s a reflection of how powerful movies can be and the comfort they provide during all of life’s ups and downs, while still maintaining Spielberg’s magical touch. To further satisfy your Spielberg cravings this holiday season, here are five other lesser-known Spielberg films that you might not have seen before but should still add to your watchlist.
Before there was Christine (1983), there was Duel. While Spielberg’s made-for-television directorial debut doesn’t feature a haunted, possessed car, it does touch on another fear: the fear of the unknown. In this case, that would be the fear of an unknown, reckless driver in a large semi-truck. It’s a simple, relatable concept that turned into a cult classic: being tailgated and chased down by an unfamiliar car, with the fear that absolutely anyone could be behind the wheel. And if they were to ever get the upper hand over you, who knows what could happen. Spielberg heightens the intensity of the situation by upping the stakes at every opportunity: high speeds, unpaved, dangerous roads, incoming trains to dodge, steep mountains, and cars being pushed to their absolute limits, putting them on the brink of breaking down in the middle of nowhere. All of this while the audience is put into the driver’s perspective of having no idea at all what the crazed semi-truck could possibly want with him.
The Sugarland Express (1974)
Spielberg made his theatrical debut with not a smash blockbuster hit, but a much smaller crime drama based on a true story. The Sugarland Express stars Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as a mother and father that flee the law, driving across the country while holding a police officer hostage, to try and reach their son before he is placed in the foster care system. The film also became the first collaboration between Spielberg and legendary composer John Williams, who would go on to provide memorable, iconic scores for all but five of Spielberg’s films, including the Indiana Jones franchise and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Next up for both Spielberg and Williams? Well, you’re gonna need a bigger boat for that one.
The Color Purple (1985)
While not entirely an unknown work, you might be more familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. But did you know that Spielberg was the first to adapt it for the big screen? Unlike Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Color Purple was a shift in Spielberg’s career, allowing him to experiment more with dramas and heavy themes as opposed to large, action-packed blockbusters. It features a stellar cast of Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey – all largely unestablished actors at the time – and tells the heart-wrenching story of Celie, an abused African-American woman that must discover her self-worth with the help of other women in the rural South during the 1900s. While nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it unfortunately didn’t take any home, making it one of Spielberg’s most underappreciated works.
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Spielberg is no stranger to war films, and growing up in a Jewish household while having dealt with many anti-Semite bullies in his youth, he has a particularly close connection with World War II topics. Empire of the Sun is another adaptation and stars a young Christian Bale as Jamie, a wealthy British schoolboy living in Shanghai who is separated from his family and taken prisoner by occupying Japanese forces following the attack on Pearl Harbor. During his imprisonment, Jamie loses his childhood innocence, watching the terrors and hardships of war firsthand, and the tragedy that follows. Ben Stiller also stars in the film, and surprising to many, came up with the idea for Tropic Thunder (2008) while on set. Just yet another example of how far Spielberg’s influence goes.
With his common thematic elements, it’s surprising that Spielberg would take inspiration from a story originally set in World War II and change up the setting to a more modern one. This time, the guiding spirit plot centers around aerial firefighters – pilots that assist with extinguishing forest fires – as Pete (played by Richard Dreyfuss) sacrifices himself to save his friend Al (John Goodman) whose plane has caught on fire during one mission. Now a spirit, Pete is tasked with providing unseen guidance to the girlfriend he left behind and her next relationship following her year-long mourning period. Audrey Hepburn also stars in her final film in this movie as Hap, a fellow spirit and mentor for Pete after his own passing. It’s one of Spielberg’s smaller films, but still maintains that bit of heartwarming magic and grants audiences with an insight into the responsibilities of the often-overlooked heroes of aerial firefighters.