I’ve recently finished a rewatch of the entire Steven Spielberg filmography and it struck me that, for a filmmaker who is often accused of emotional simplicity, Spielberg’s heroes and villains are not always as clear-cut as some would have us believe. In fact, his work is replete with antiheroes, perhaps the most interesting of the three categories of character I have decided to explore in these articles. We’ll get to those antiheroes and villains soon enough, but let’s begin by looking at some of Spielberg’s great heroes, chosen not for their virtue but for how interesting and engaging a screen presence they are, while still remaining within the parameters of what we understand to constitute a heroic protagonist.
10. David – A.I. Artificial Intelligence
At first glance, A.I.’s David might seem like an odd choice for the heroes gallery. A humanoid robot programmed with the ability to feel love with an intensity that matches, perhaps even exceeds, that of the humans on which he is modelled, David can seem more like a victim. But ultimately the unabashed single-mindedness with which he pursues his quest for love makes David a clear variant on the classic romantic hero. That this quest is for maternal, rather than romantic, love makes no difference. David follows his robot heart to the ends of the earth, his approximations of life and death registering as powerfully as those of his more conventional equivalents. Haley Joel Osment’s heart-rendingly intense performance seals the deal, making it quite clear why he was Spielberg’s first and only choice for the role.
9. Tintin – The Adventures of Tintin
Though he has often been described by critics as “bland”, Tintin is the archetypal hero, an idealistic boy-scout adventurer with bravery that sometimes borders on impetuousness. Driven in his quest by both a dedication to what is right and a desire to be the best investigative journalist he can be, Tintin’s comparative lack of complexity leaves plenty of room for viewers to project themselves onto the story but his optimism (which, in a rare downhearted moment, he claims is actually realism) and persistent nose for adventure make him an infectious and likeable presence. Spielberg’s take on Tintin plays effectively to these strengths. The motion-capture animation, previously responsible for so many unintentionally eerie atrocities, even helps enhance them, as Tintin is by far the most normal looking character in this world, with the grotesquerie of those surrounding him highlighting his Everyman qualities.
8. James B. Donovan – Bridge of Spies
Tom Hanks has portrayed several different kinds of hero in his collaborations with Spielberg and I could potentially have chosen The Terminal’s resourceful Viktor Navorski or Saving Private Ryan’s classically heroic Captain Miller (surely the popular choice) for this list. Instead, I’ve opted for insurance lawyer-cum-negotiator James B. Donovan from Bridge of Spies. Donovan’s inclusion here raises a problematic element of creating these lists: that of including approximations of real people alongside fictional characters. It is not my intention to minimise real life achievements (or, in the case of the villains list, downplay atrocities) by subjecting them to rankings which might imply they are worth less than fictional events. To be clear, I am interested only in the effectiveness with which Spielberg portrays these real life characters on screen and how audiences view them in relation to established tropes of heroism and villainy.
In this respect, Donovan is an interesting case. We first encounter him discussing an insurance claim in which his primary objective appears to be to distort the facts in the way most beneficial to his employer. While it gives us a glimpse of the negotiating techniques that will soon become key to his acts of heroism, it’s hardly the stuff of a conventional hero. But this scene of a man doing his job, however potentially unscrupulous it may be, is crucial in setting up Donovan as the Everyman who finds his inner hero when the story’s more important choices become entirely his own.
Tasked with defending a captured Soviet spy, something that his employers see as nothing more than a concessional gesture and which Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) understandably sees as a potential threat to their family’s safety, Donovan himself ultimately commits to the case with the conviction that the widely-demonised Soviet spy is no better or worse than the American spies doing the same job. There is an emotional connection between Donovan and his quietly charismatic client (Mark Rylance, in a brilliant Oscar-winning turn) but the implication is that Donovan would go to the same lengths for a man he despised, based solely on his strongly-held personal values. This makes Donovan a classic example of the dedicated, dog-with-a-bone hero, the “standing man” of Rylance’s deeply moving allegorical story.
7. Katherine Graham – The Post
It has often been noted that Spielberg’s cinema is disproportionately male. While the comparative lack of female characters in these lists seems to bear that out, Spielberg is quite capable of giving us strong, well-drawn females and seems more willing to do so than many of his contemporaries. One of the best examples is The Post’s Katherine Graham, played with chameleonic poise by an Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep. Graham is a woman who has been through a lot, stepping up to the job of owner and publisher of The Washington Post following the death of her father and the suicide of her husband. Ignored or shouted down by most of her male colleagues, Graham has long moved in the sort of traditional circles where women adjourn following dinner, and her connections have resulted in close friendships with several of the public figures on whom it is occasionally necessary for her paper to report. These ingrained elements are something she ultimately has to break through in order to assert her well-earned authority.
Streep plays Graham with a masterful understanding of her layered personality. In certain settings she exudes confidence, in others she shows vulnerability. In her best scene, when forced to make a difficult decision on the spot, she displays a mixture of both as she splutters “Let’s go, let’s do it. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Let’s publish.” It’s as if the confidence and vulnerability are shorting each other out, with confidence emerging not only victorious but visibly enhanced in the aftermath.
As a woman who has inherited her position as owner of a major newspaper, it would be easy for the more blinkered viewer to categorise Graham as someone who has had greatness thrust upon them but this is not the case. She fits rather better in the Born Great category, with her circumstances merely giving her the tools to fully unlock that potential. The Post illustrates this beautifully by giving Graham a co-hero in Tom Hanks’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee. Bradlee plays a crucial part in the piecing together of the major story at the centre of The Post, keeping his staff motivated and pushing against the forces trying to stifle the story. But Bradlee is as guilty as anyone of underestimating Graham and he is ultimately forced to face this in a scene where he acknowledges the greater hardships Graham has had to face to be taken seriously and get the job done. In a rare storytelling wrinkle, one hero cedes to the other, acknowledging them as the true heart and soul of the piece.
6. David Mann – Duel
We’ve encountered a couple of Everyman characters already in this list but there can be few protagonists with a greater claim to that title than the unfortunate lead character in Spielberg’s early TV movie Duel. I mean, he’s called David Mann for starters. Richard Matheson’s taut script reveals little else about him. He has a family but they are clearly just a device designed to raise the stakes of the peril into which he stumbles. He has a job but it’s nature is kept to the generic catchall “businessman”. All this vagueness makes Mann easy to project onto, which is crucial as the nightmare in which he finds himself is the sort of situation in which anyone could find themselves if they just happened to encounter the wrong person at the wrong time. That there is nothing remarkable about Mann is what makes him the perfect hero for this story. Pursued by an unseen, obsessive truck driver with vehicular homicide on their mind, Mann has to methodically work out his next move, while also being prepared to think on his feet at any moment. The scene where he stops at a roadside café to try and think his way out of his dilemma is a classic “what would you do?” moment for the audience.
Unlike the heroes we’ve already examined on this list, Mann is forced into the role against his will. Kay Graham may have found herself owner of a newspaper through unplanned circumstances and James Donovan may have had a Soviet spy’s case fall into his lap unasked for but both could’ve walked away from their situations if they so chose. Mann has no such luxury. He has to get heroic or get dead. He didn’t go looking for trouble. He’s no Tintin. But he has to step up and does so with the uncertainty of the classic reluctant hero. The chilling question that Duel poses is… could you?
5. Elliott Taylor/E.T. – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
In compiling film lists, I try to avoid cop-out joint entries where possible. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are, after all, very different films and shouldn’t be allowed to bolster each other’s reputations for a higher spot. Neither should James Whale’s masterpieces Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein be stitched together to form one monster. At first glance, lumping Elliott and E.T. together might seem like a similarly dishonest move but it seems to me it would be more dishonest to separate them. Yes, I probably wouldn’t have included either on this list at all without the other but that’s because Elliott is E.T. and E.T. is Elliott.
The connection between Elliott and E.T. is made explicit throughout E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. That title might draw attention to what E.T.‘s name supposedly stands for but Elliott has also given the alien his own initials, solidifying that connection and implicitly giving it his approval. The bond between the pair gives the film its fascinating, poetic heart but it also makes them a perfect single entry on a heroes list. This is heroism as a metaphor for love, friendship and kinship. Elliott rescues his literal other half with quick thinking, heroic selflessness and, of course, his trusty bicycle but it is E.T. who makes that bicycle fly. As two separate entities unaware of each other’s existence, E.T. and Elliott are outsiders, struggling in a world that feels alien to them. But together they soar, triumphantly and iconically claiming the moon as their own, forever.
4. Marion Ravenwood – Raiders of the Lost Ark/Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The brilliance of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood has been somewhat overshadowed in recent years by discussions of the nature of the character’s original relationship with Indiana Jones before their onscreen reunion. “I was just a kid”, she declares, after socking him in the jaw. “It was wrong and you knew it.” The distinctly sinister undertones of this exchange (to which Indy responds with the standard abuser’s retort “You knew what you were doing”) have soured many on the whip-wielding adventurer but it seems that Marion has suffered for this dated plot point even more, with mentions of her often reduced to nothing but that. So for the sake of balance, let’s set aside this matter and look at the Marion we actually get to see onscreen.
Marion is also regularly overlooked as a classic hero because she shares the stage with a more famous classic hero, something that sometimes sees her erroneously relegated to the role of sidekick. In fact, as she herself declares to the reluctant Indy, “I’m your goddamn partner.” Travelling companions in future Indiana Jones films tended to be less heroic, with Willie Scott portrayed as a liability and Henry Jones Sr. acting as a comedic counterpart. But Marion is a force to be reckoned with right from the opening scene of her emerging triumphant from a drinking contest. Raiders of the Lost Ark never falls into the trap of making her a counterproductive, one-dimensional concession to feminism. That aforementioned controversial exchange with Indy immediately demonstrates her human vulnerability and her heroic resolve. This duality makes her immediately interesting. She’s not a character you can sum up in a one line description.
Another crucial element of Marion’s appeal is her independence. Once Indiana Jones’s name began to appear at the top of his film’s titles (something awkwardly applied retrospectively to Raiders), the assumption was that fans demanded to see him in every frame. But in the first instalment Marion is separated from Indy at a fairly early stage and we follow her progress elsewhere in long, excellent scenes in which she manipulates and outsmarts her captors. These are some of my favourite scenes in Raiders and there’s nary a Jones to be seen in them. These are all reasons why Marion is so popular with fans and bringing her back was one of the few things that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did right. Even as it failed to capitalise on her presence plot-wise, there was still a frisson in seeing that chemistry between Marion and Indy reignited.
3. Abraham Lincoln – Lincoln
There are some historical figures that feel so intimidatingly monumental that portraying them on screen is a risky business. If you can’t live up to that sense of awe bestowed on them by history, you risk creating a distracting caricature that takes you out of the film. Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in many ways onscreen, from Henry Fonda’s Young Mr. Lincoln to Benjamin Walker’s vampire hunting variant. But for Spielberg to successfully bring to life the real man at his most iconic, casting was absolutely key and if there was anything controversial about giving the role of one of the great American heroes to a British actor, Daniel Day-Lewis’s astonishing performance soon put any doubts to bed. Day-Lewis initially feels like the Lincoln monument come-to-life, bearing the weight of expectations with statuesque dignity. But it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to this performance than hagiographic sanctimony and patriotic worship of chiseled marble. This is Lincoln as a real human being, his powerful charisma and determination balanced by visible frustrations, difficult familial relationships and moments of intense self-doubt.
There were those who didn’t take to this reading of Lincoln, arguing for the stoic saint of less nuanced versions. But Tony Kushner’s beautiful script, Day-Lewis’s layered performance and Spielberg’s stately direction manage to give us something more interesting, situated somewhere between those overstated legends and the inevitably more complex real man. In terms of his heroism, this version of Lincoln registers strongly as a quieter sort of hero, delivering lengthy metaphorical parables and using gentle but emphatic good-humoured speechifying as his main weapon of choice. Like the most interesting heroes, he has to juggle his moral ideals and ultimate goal, sacrificing some of the former in order to reach the latter. But ultimately this is a Lincoln that honours many different versions of the man while also offering something new.
2. Joseph Cinque – Amistad
Amistad is not Spielberg’s best or most popular film but for my money it features one of his finest heroes in Joseph Cinque, the leader of a group of illegally-captured Africans who take over a slave ship heading to the USA and end up standing trial for piracy and murder, as well as being fought over by those who claim them as property. As portrayed by Djimon Hounsou in his breakout role, Cinque is an unforgettable presence; a deeply wronged man filled with a strength born of moral outrage and a determination to right the wrongs done to himself and others. Hounsou is so mesmerising in the role that it beggars belief that the Academy nominated Anthony Hopkins for his folksy take on John Quincy Adams while overlooking Hounsou completely.
Amistad has often been raked over the coals for being sentimental and sanctimonious. While there are problems with some of the writing that does see it occasionally veer in that direction, whenever Cinque is on screen, the whole thing comes alive. Scenes that could have completely floundered in the hands of a lesser actor are imbued with an aching sincerity and desperate passion by Hounsou. The scene in which he disrupts court proceedings to loudly and repeatedly demand freedom for himself and his fellow Africans is the most prominent example. Hounsou is so convincing that eyes that start to roll at the beginning of the scene may well be filled with tears by the end.
A hero’s arc is always a fascinatingly powerful part of the character’s effectiveness. For example, if a writer decides to martyr their hero in the final act and this bold step is not fully earned, the results can be disastrous. As Cinque was a real person, his arc was already determined but the final gut-punch in his story, delivered by way of a written caption, is so cruel that I initially felt unfair anger towards screenwriter David Franzoni. Never have I wanted to rewrite a caption, and by implication history, so badly. But this is how the story went and, by imparting the ongoing sorrow Cinque faced following the trial in the form of an onscreen caption, Franzoni and Spielberg acknowledge that there is far more to this story of trauma, and to all stories of trauma, than can be contained in a two and a half hour timeframe.
1. Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark/Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom/Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade/Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Is placing Spielberg’s most famous hero at the top of this list the cop-out act of a lazy fanboy? After all, how can we compare the entertaining but entirely fictional heroics of Indiana Jones with the real life achievements of Joseph Cinque, Katherine Graham or James B. Donovan? It’s important to reiterate at this stage that the character’s achievements are not what we’re assessing here, otherwise any kind of ranking system would be entirely vulgar and disrespectful. Rather, we’re looking at how engaging, entertaining and memorable a screen character each hero is. In that respect, Indiana Jones has an unfair advantage in that he has had four films thus far in which to establish that audience connection. But we shouldn’t write Indy off just for being the obvious choice. There’s plenty to justify his victory.
As a continuation of the American Saturday morning serial tradition, Indiana Jones arrived with plenty of preconceptions on his shoulders. His introduction to the world, in that famous rolling boulder opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, showed that he could easily carry that mantle but it also immediately hinted at much of what makes him such an interesting and satisfying character. This isn’t just the blandly perfect, good-looking cipher of less engaging films. This is a flawed human being whose thirst for adventure isn’t always matched by his competence. His impetuous nature often overwhelms his better judgement, leading him to make potentially fatal miscalculations. And though he emerges from them all with a perfectly performed comedic wince by Harrison Ford, the fallibility makes him far more interesting than the bland precision of unflappable bores like James Bond.
If Indy shares little else with Bond, there is some unfortunate crossover in his attitudes to women. In common with most male heroes of 80s movies, Jones could certainly do with some extra HR seminars. He refers to women with terms like “doll face”, is sometimes too presumptuously forceful with his attentions (look at that kiss he forces on Elsa in Last Crusade) and in the novelisation of Raiders he likes to entertain co-eds in his dressing gown. Given that we’re focusing on the screen hero, we can at least discount that last one, as well as the fact that George Lucas wanted that aforementioned affair with the younger Marion to have taken place when she was eleven. While Lucas’s idea would surely have torpedoed the character even on the film’s original run, Indy’s attitudes to women are at least consistent with his deeply flawed personality and the unenlightened eras in which his adventures take place (as well as the unenlightened era in which the films were made). But the much maligned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, set decades after the original trilogy, at least gives us a glimpse of a more progressive Indy. It might not be 100% consistent (the 50s were hardly a haven of gender equality after all) but it does give guilt-ridden movie lovers some hope onto which they can cling.
I’m aware that in attempting not to sidestep any important issues relating to the character, I’ve made Indiana Jones sound like he might fit more readily on the antiheroes list, or even the villains one! But there’s plenty to counteract that. Jones is a classic hero in many ways, from his dedication to his cause of rescuing artefacts from those who would misuse them or conceal them in warehouses, to his impressive athleticism showcased in those exceptional stunts. That last point is key, for while we may immediately associate Indiana Jones with Harrison Ford first and Steven Spielberg second, he’s actually a character who’s heroism is born of multiple contributors including stuntman Vic Armstrong, who was Ford’s stunt double in the first three films. Armstrong’s exceptional work includes that phenomenal truck stunt in Raiders. While Ford may have been game for performing some of the less demanding stunts, without Armstrong’s work Jones wouldn’t have been half the hero he emerged as being.
If the writing of Lawrence Kasdan, the acting of Harrison Ford, the direction of Steven Spielberg and the stunt work of Vic Armstrong and his team helped make Indiana Jones a great hero, it is the contributions of two more artists that made him truly iconic. Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis kitted him out in that vintage fedora, jacket and whip, while John Williams provided him with theme music fit for a legend. These two crucial elements come together beautifully in an underrated moment from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which the as-yet unseen Indy appears as a shadow and places that famous hat on his head, an action that immediately triggers that theme to strike up on the soundtrack. It’s often said that someone has achieved iconic levels of stardom when they are recognisable in silhouette. If you turned the sound down on this scene you would still immediately know who it was. But equally, if you turned the picture off and just heard the music, you would still know who it was. That’s the sign of a great screen hero, when you don’t even have to see them for their presence to register more strongly than the average protagonist.
So that was my top ten of greatest Spielberg heroes. Next time we’re getting our hands dirty by delving into his most interesting villains.