Welcome back, Mr. Spielberg. Shmoop's seen a lot of you in this "cinema classics" neighborhood.
It's not a stretch to say that Schindler's List was the high point of a staggeringly successful career that began at age 12 with Spielberg's first disaster movie—filming his toy trains crashing in his living room. This was soon followed by a short 8mm film that earned him his first award—a Boy Scout merit badge in photography. (Source)
It took a long time for Spielberg to get to Schindler, and the film went a long way towards defining his career. Not that he was exactly an unknown before this movie, but lots of his films were just dismissed as too "popular" to be taken seriously by critics. (Yeah—Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. We'd say popular is about right.)
People who think of Spielberg as a director of heartwarming or blockbuster material may be surprised to learn that his initial success was in suspense and horror movies. He got his big break at Universal, directing an episode of Rod Serling's TV show Night Gallery at the tender age of 23. That led to a TV movie called Duel about a hapless cross-country drive menaced by a murderous truck driver. It was so good it eventually got a theatrical release, and gave the Boy Wonder the chance to start directing feature films.
His second film after Duel? A little number you might have heard of called Jaws, which broke box office records the world over and pretty much created the concept of the summer blockbuster. After Jaws came a steady stream of hits that are still considered absolute must-sees: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., the Indiana Jones films (yeah, we'll just call Crystal Skull a mulligan and move on) and Jurassic Park, just to name a few.
These films brought him unprecedented success, but many critics still considered them popcorn and wondered whether he was capable of directing anything substantive. He desperately wanted to change that image, and Schindler's List was actually the catalyst for that.
Universal's head mucky-muck Sid Sheinberg brought Thomas Keneally's novel to Spielberg's attention in 1983, but Spielberg didn't think he was ready as a filmmaker to tackle it. He didn't have children yet, and his Jewish identity was still a work in progress. So he performed a couple of warm-up acts with other serious films, starting with The Color Purple in 1985 and continuing with Empire of the Sun in 1987.
Those films gave him the chops he felt he needed, but he still kept offering Schindler to other filmmakers—including the likes of Billy Wilder and Roman Polanski, who had actually lost family members to the Holocaust. They turned it down for various reasons. Polanski felt it was too close to home (he'd escaped the Krakow ghetto during the purge depicted in the film). Martin Scorsese briefly had the reins before Spielberg decided to take on the film and gave Scorsese Cape Fear in exchange.
Still, not everyone thought he was ready to take on a film like this. Some people thought his reputation of a big-budget Hollywood guy would tarnish the film's reputation. Even Holocaust survivors he met in Poland were surprised he was the guy making the film. (Source)
Studio head Sheinberg let him direct Schindler on one condition: he first had to do Jurassic Park for Universal. Spielberg agreed, and later said that he couldn't have made Jurassic Park after going through the ordeal of Schindler's List. Jurassic Park was released in June of 1993, and Schindler's List followed in December. Not a bad year for Spielberg, we'd say. A New York Times film critic called it "the most astounding one-two punch in the history of American cinema."
Spielberg didn't think anyone was going to see Schindler. He took no salary for directing it (he didn't want to take money for such a project), and was convinced it would be a box office flop. But he felt the story was too important and the time was right. He was an emotional wreck during much of the filming; the material was devastating to him.
And as it turns out, the movie became his masterpiece. Far from a flop, the film was a huge box-office success. It was lavished with critical praise and earned him a slew of major awards, including Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. "Oh, wow. This is the best drink of water after the longest drought in my life," Spielberg said after collecting his Best Picture Oscar. From then on, he was no longer a lightweight, and while he continued to make blockbusters at a fairly steady pace, it was peppered with more serious work that people took, well, seriously.
The most noted of these was Saving Private Ryan, an ode to soldiers who fought in World War II, generally considered second only to Schindler in his canon. There's also Lincoln, Munich and Bridge of Spies, as well more meditative mainstream science fiction like A.I. and Minority Report. All of that comes alongside massive credits as a producer in both film and television, and a reputation for angling projects of all varieties.
Big films and small, they're always notable, and even his misfires show his unrestrained joy in filmmaking. And yet for all his accolades—for all the ways he really and truly changed the movies forever—his signature achievement remains this one. Schindler's List may be his definitive cinematic statement, and it's safe to say that he did more than just make a movie. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, even for someone with a career as storied as his.