Perhaps like me, when you heard Spielberg was re-making West Side Story, you asked yourself… why bother? Movies achieve classic status precisely because they nailed it. I wondered if Steven wanted to take on the challenge because Wizard of Oz was a musical. Being of his generation, I remember West Side Story exploding onscreen in 1961 as a novel departure from that era’s elaborate stage productions converted to film. West Side Story’s transitions from plot action to song and dance numbers in the slums of NYC came off more natural than other musicals did, especially when the ‘juvenile delinquents’ were performing. I could understand why it might be the only musical that fit into Steven’s boyish repertoire.
Right off the bat, the viewer is flown in for an aerial view of the dismal destruction of the Jet’s neighborhood. These homes are not fabled safe havens. They look more like the bombed out villages we saw in Saving Private Ryan. Small-scalewar is a way of life for the displaced inhabitants.
Color is muted to subtle shades of hopelessness.
The first pop of red and yellow comes with the sign for ‘Doc’s Druggist’ where we are introduced to Tony’s safe haven.
Hilariously, he enters his basement quarters by the same means as a storm hatchto a Kansas tornado shelter!
Maria’s bedroom is reminiscent of Dorothy’s, particularly the metal bed with its smattering of old fashioned worn covers. She sprawls across it much like Dorothy does.
The morning after meeting Tony, Maria opens the bedroom door and her family’s apartment is cloaked in a riotous mass of color with hanging fabric of every hue like the brilliant setting in OZ. She is entering a new phase of her life, transformed by falling in love.
Hues of red and yellow abound in the festive Puerto Rican ghetto, costumes as well. The inhabitants are as joyful in their unfettered exuberance as the munchkins ever were.
When Tony and Maria marry themselves before the stained glass window, there is a brief flash of bright backlighting. If you are familiar with Spielberg imagery, you know the significance—this streaming bright light emphatically defines the following scene at the bar when the handgun takes center stage. Danger is imminent. We have been shown both the victim and the means of his demise.
Note the promenade of cop cars before the rumble, echoes of Sugarland Express.
Speaking of promenades, Steven loves a little crowd support. The solidarity of a group having each other’s back is one of his favorite devices. What better venue than West Side Story to feature strength in numbers. My personal favorite procession is when we see the rival gangs crossing the railroad yard…I swear at one point they sound like the witch’s soldiers chanting Oh ee yah, ee oh ah.
As their confederates congregate at the salt shed to rumble, Tony and Chino have to slide under the closing metal door like the tin man, scarecrow and lion make it through the witch’s castle gate at the last moment. It’s been a long time since I watched Indiana Jones or a Jurassic Park but pretty sure that trick might be in those as well.
As long as we’re thinking about the witch’s castle scene in WOO, when Anybodys (the wannabe Jet), peeks over that hill of salt did it remind you of lion tin man and scarecrow peering over the surrounding cliffs? A similar scene appears in Close Encounters.
I could expound on the many creative takes in Spielberg’s interpretation of the original West Side Story (like having Tony and Maria initiate their romance behind the school bleachers, aww, nostalgic) but that kind of critique is not the focus of this website. Still I think it’s pertinent to point out the inherent complications of shooting certain iconic scenes, moments that were the ‘memes’ of yesteryear. I wonder how long he pondered how to cope with “I Feel Pretty”. He ends up garbing Maria in a green scarf at the department store. Green is an unusual color for Steven to emphasize so I right away perk up my antennae. It soon becomes clear with Maria posturing on podiums that she is clowning for her comrades like the Cowardly Lion does in his green cape while waiting for an audience with the wizard. ‘I am king of the forrrrest’ becomes ‘I Feel Pretty.’ Both scenesoffer comic relief before high drama comes back into play.
The minute Anita, swathed in black, is dragged to the morgue to identify Bernardo I visualized the slap that would be forthcoming. Who will ever forget the dead boy’s black veiled mother in Jaws and herslap across the sheriff’s face? Sure enough that resounding slap of death propels Maria into grim reality. Not exactly WOO, but all Spielberg!
Just one last minor detail I’d like to mention. West Side Story, 2022’s version, is the first movie I’ve seen in a theater since the pandemic began. It took some strong-armed coercion to talk my Valentine into this holiday date but even the curmudgeon admitted it was the shortest two and a half hours he ever had to sit through. High praise indeed.
In 2017’s political climate, where ‘reporting unflattering portrayals’ got labeled ‘fake news’, this film was rushed for a timely release. As if the punishing deadline wasn’t proof enough of how seriously Steven took the theme, viewers will find only the subtlest references to Wizard of Oz in this piece. Similar to other sober endeavors like Lincoln, Schindler’s List and Munich, Spielberg restrains the urge to get too playful with his subject.
That said…AHA! Discovered a WOO image in this one that makes me want to go back and re-check all the others. It’s all about the stairs.
But let’s set it up before I reveal…
“What makes the muskrat guard his musk?” Much is made in this film of Kay Graham, a woman from the post World War II era, when proper females kept to their assigned gender roles. She must strive for the courage to overcome her lack of confidence as she navigates amidst a storm of testosterone. To paraphrase the cowardly lion, “I’m going in there. Only one thing I want you to do: talk me out of it.” And the guys do try.
Some crucial scenes, not to mention movie promos, feature Kay and Ben Bradlee on the steps of Supreme Court. It struck me suddenly that in Wizard of Oz, key moments of courage and steadfastness in the face of adversity are also set on staircases. Dorothy and her entourage must mount stairs to get in past the guard to see the wizard. The lion sings his famous song about courage on stairs. Toto runs for help down the witch’s stairs. Her friends rescue Dorothy after running up those same stairs. Dorothy bears her dire wait for the sands to run out on a small podium of stairs leading to the crystal ball. Even the mountain on which the witch’s castle is perched is a precipice of rocky steps.
I have pointed out before Steven’s penchant for ascending and descending between levels of reality. Here, the trip up and down the Supreme Court steps represents an awakening — not only for Kay who realizes what she is capable of achieving, but for Ben, jolting him out of his elite social stance with the ‘governors’ back to that of a hard hitting journalist, a champion of the ‘governed’. One must often cross an intimidating barrier to reach one’s full potential.
We experience a fateful wind blowing in the window in one of the very first scenes as Kay awakens. It actually ripples a curtain on the opposite wall to emphasize this main character is about to undergo a huge challenge. I’ve pointed out this connection to Dorothy’s bedroom window in the tornado too many times to count.
When Daniel Ellsberg is shown sneaking the papers out of the Rand offices, note the sinister blue light bathing the set in monotone color. The overhead fluorescent bulb even flickers as in Joe vs. the Volcano. Black and white, sepia tones, and occasionally blue tones as in E.T. are Steven’s way of suggesting an air of hopelessness reminding us of the bleak landscape of Depression era Kansas.
Bright morning sunshine streams in through velvet-dimmed restaurant windows, backlighting Ben Bradlee when Kay meets him for breakfast before the crisis begins. The dazzle of brilliant white light always signals danger ahead for the protagonist(s) in every Spielberg film.
Steven’s favorite color combo of red and yellow makes frequent appearance again, livening up otherwise dull building exteriors and interiors. Note the prophetic Art Buchwald/Uncle Sam poster in Bradlee’s office, Have I ever lied to you? Kay wears a red and yellow silk dress in several scenes. Neil Sheehan sports a red and yellow tie. The camera lovingly dwells upon red and yellow cabs, street signs, drapes and carpets. Watch for it; you’ll find no end of examples. By now, I shouldn’t have to remind you…ruby slippers, yellow brick road.
In the audio cue department, we do hear three bells ring when Kay declares they will publish the Pentagon papers’ content. Twice the typewriter pings and — to punctuate — we hear a third bell ding from the elevator. Steven likes to mark significant plot peaks with a chime of one kind or another à la Glinda.
I was amused at a new take on the “Run, Toto, run!” concept. Usually Spielberg shamelessly employs the ‘Run’ line to amp up action and empathy for a beleaguered hero. But in this case, when Kay decides to ‘run’ the story, running involves taking offensive rather than defensive action. Fun twist on Steven’s incitement to excitement.
I will admit I was shocked at the lack of a bicycle in a movie about newspapers, particularly in the scene when the Post’s big headline hits the streets. So shocked, in fact, I’m willing to bet the farm there was a newsboy cameo that landed on someone’s editing floor. OUCH, Amblin, who prevailed and why? Too cute? Too retro? Not D.C.-ish enough?
No matter, Steven squeezed in plenty of cyclonic motion with the printing press machinery, shaking desks, rolling pencils, truck tires, helicopters.
Which leads me to the final WOO parallel — the pageantry. Spielberg loves to showcase the bystanders, especially when they stand behind the protagonists as did the munchkins and the citizens of Emerald City. And there’s plenty of eye smarting support to be had in this film, (the protestors, the other newspapers), just as in other powerful pictures like Schindler’s List, The Terminal, Empire of the Sun, Sugarland Express to name a few.
Freshest WOO moment: “I am your humbug servant,” says the word-bumbling BFG to the Queen of England. We all remember this scornful accusation hurled at the great and powerful Wizard of Oz when Toto revealed he was nothing more than a humble little man ‘behind the curtain’.
The film and trailers showcase an open window, the curtain blowing inward, the tempting light and Sophie’s irresistible urge (despite sensible warnings to herself) to peek out. She spies what she ought not to have seen, resulting of course in the giant being forced to abduct her.
They fly in soaring leaps against the moonlit blue sky recalling shots from E.T. Transcending reality by means of flight to enchanted lands is standard Spielberg/WOO fare.
I was amused by the scene where the squadron of British helicopters must follow BFG to the land of giants. In other Spielberg projects such aerial armies hearken back to flying monkeys. Here he reverses himself and they are portrayed instead as a promenade of solidarity for Sophie’s cause. Natch—flying monkey references always denote evil.
This seems like a good time to point out Spielberg’s essential theme: Sophie’s overwhelming desire to return ‘home’, complicated by the conflict that ‘home’ is no longer safe from marauding giants.
Leading of course to the requisite ‘quest’, to stop the evil giants.
Steven’s mysterious recurring green goo gets another cameo as Sophie emerges from the snozzcumber.
The set for BFG’s house is whirring with cyclonic motion, spinning water wheels, circulating wheel barrels, even Steven’s beloved bicycle re-tooled as a hand mixer to whip up the ingredients for the queen’s dream.
Finally I must point out yet again prodigious use of red and yellow, (Steven’s homage to RG color space?) I noted it first with the little red jacket Sophie turns inside out to spare BFG his painful memories. Its subtle tones of scarlet and ochre enhance her chameleon goldish-red glasses and her blushing lips. Later I detected that even her shabby nightgown was sporting a faded pattern of red and yellows. The pigment duo boldly moves to multiple repetitions of crimson and gold at the queen’s palace: the guards, servants, walls and carpets.
Steven’s return to an emphasis on red and yellow set design in his latest undertaking jumped out at me right away. If you check out my remarks on his early films, you will note he tended to hit hard on the Technicolor pairing of ruby slippers and yellow brick road hues featured in Wizard of Oz. Here, the introduction to downtown Brooklyn lingers on red and yellow signage. Note the red and yellow paint on the artistic spy’s desk. As the movie progresses, you will see red and yellow wallpaper in the Donovans’ house as well as a faded version in the dumpy apartment in East Berlin. Courtrooms and embassies, both stateside and abroad, are resplendent with crimson and gold. Add to the list the neon motel sign where the pilots are recruited. Even the climactic phone booth provides a glowing backdrop for our hero with its eye-catching palate.
A playful WOO reference by insurance lawyer/negotiator Donovan crops up at the beginning when he uses the example of a tornado destroying someone’s house rather than the more typical scenario of fire or flood.When James Donovan first encounters Rudolf Abel, Spielberg silhouettes Tom Hanks against the blaring light of windows in the background. It happens again in court and in Vogel’s office. If you’ve explored my website, you know that the bright light which lured Dorothy into Munchkinland foreshadows danger lurking ahead for the protagonist.
When James Donovan first encounters Rudolf Abel, Spielberg silhouettes Tom Hanks against the blaring light of windows in the background. It happens again in court and in Vogel’s office. If you’ve explored my website, you know that the bright light which lured Dorothy into Munchkinland foreshadows danger lurking ahead for the protagonist.
The oft-used device of ascent and descent from normality to a whole other dimension of reality is touched on when Lt. Francis Gary Powers soars over then crashes down into Soviet territory. Steven makes the most of cyclonic motion with the spinning exploding chaos of the doomed aircraft. Note the camera sees it from above, much as we see Dorothy’s rooftop twirling downward.
Berlin, east and west, exhibits an air of hopelessness by use of subdued dreary colors, a Kansas air of greyness.
The Amblin’ bicycle makes its first cameo in East Berlin as Pryor attempts to execute an escape through the last portal of the famous wall. It pops up again—complete with Miss Gulch’s whimsical basket—as a means of delivering mail in the embassy.
In the embassy bike scene, listen for the bell ringing. AHA! This is the Glinda chime moment. Pay attention now; you are about to be treated to a crucial plot twister…Sure enough, immediately afterward, Donovan confides his bombshell to the hapless ambassador’s assistant: the deal must include ‘two for one’ or there will be no deal at all.
An interesting prop appears on Vogel’s desk; it is the same hourglass that we saw on Indiana Jones desk in Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, a smaller version than the Wicked Witch’s sand sifter that terrified Dorothy.
Through a train window, James Donovan is assaulted by the horrific sight of refugees being gunned down as they try to scale the wall. He relives this memory at home in Brooklyn when from a subway window he sees a gang of boys leaping a chin link fence. Normal scenes surveyed through windows take on surreal undertones in Spielberg fare like Dorothy’s bedroom view of the world caught up in a tornado.
Check out how at the end James collapses diagonally across the bed. It is very reminiscent of Dorothy’s position after her bedroom window knocks her out. When he awakens, we are assured he will find himself safe at home again.
How and why does Steven Spielberg decide which projects he’s interest in taking on? Like Wizard of Oz, the story usually involves the theme of someone wanting or needing to return home again. Certainly that is the case for these three ‘spies’. ‘Is home really safe?’ —another question Steven likes to play around with comes up again in this film. The Donavan household undergoes a lot of safety angst not only from cold war propaganda, but due to the community’s disapproval of James’ quest. Ah, yes, the quest, the lending of a helping hand to get someone home where he/she belongs comes straight out of Wizard of Oz.
Finally we meet again the trickster. Only through James Donavan’s clever manipulations will the main characters be able to attain their noble goals. To complicate this obvious theme, we even have layers of tricksters like the CIA agents’ insistence that James appear to be acting alone, like the Soviet and East German official’s similar insistence upon no traceable government involvement.
If you haven’t seen this in a few decades like me, it’s worth re-watching. Somehow I mis-remembered it as a Smokey and the Bandit farce—which it definitely is not. Great character development throughout.
Spielberg wrote the script based on an actual event. Did the project appeal to him specifically because it centered on an individual quest that attracted a huge procession of followers, even well-wishers? Check out two scenes: one where Lou Jean asks for hair curlers etc. and the one where they drive through the center of town’s impromptu parade. This pageantry echoes back to Munchkinland and Emerald City, both of whose populations cheered Dorothy on to her adventures with the same pomp and enthusiasm. See The Terminal, Joe vs.the Volcano, Twister, The Color Purple, Catch Me if You Can for other calvacades.
By the way, there is a small sign outside the parade town that reads Val Verde, Spanish for Green Valley…symbolizing Emerald City?
Early on is the favorite backlit moment when innocent Baby Langsdon opens the front door of the Sugarland house. Interior of house is dark and shadowed, outside is brilliant….alluring but full of danger. That is the classic image of how Dorothy enters OZ. Langsdon’s father will be fatally shot right out there. The scene is repeated later with grownups at the door: however, they perceive the threat and begin to collect the fragile vases. See Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters, 1941.
After the massive police car pile-up, Lou Jean suddenly realizes her errand is no longer just a personal mission. All the hoop-la will not fade away once she’s accomplished what she set out to do. “Clovis, honey, don’t do no good runnin’ from a tornado,” she prophecies. There will be no safe place for them, just as getting home was not enough to prevent the twister’s power from sucking Dorothy up into its maelstrom. See WOO, Empire of the Sun, Close Encounters, Catch Me if You Can, (1941) for other instances where ‘home’ did not live up to its illusion of safety.
Steven’s love of kids and bikes is spotlighted. At one point, a bunch of mischievous boys ride through the center of a roadblock despite the cops’ protestations. At another, the vigilante complains when he finds his flashers have been commandeered to adorn the handlebars of his son’s bike. See Munich, Adventures of Tintin, Amistad, 1941, Always, Super 8, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun,The Goonies, Sugarland Express, Jaws, Inner Space.
There is a predominant color palate in this film of red and yellow. Clovis has red hair, Lou Jean blond. Clovis wears a red and yellow plaid shirt. The interior of the Sugarland house is done in red and yellow. Red and yellow fringe decorates the Car Dealership’s lot where they spend the night. The motor home is red and yellow, inside and out. The TV/radio van that inspired all the publicity is red and yellow. Before they enter the downtown parade, there is a lingering shot of the yellow traffic signal with its red light shining. As they proceed, the interior of car is aglow with red roses juxtaposed against yellow gold stamps. Many shots of crowds show extras dressed in stand-out reds and yellows. Just before Lou Jean, Clovis and their hostage crash the final time, you see red road signs against golden turf. The entire film features gold and red sunset skies. One of the enduring images of WOO is the close-up of Dorothy’s ruby slippers with the yellow brick road as the backdrop. Schindler’s List, Jaws, 1941, Joe vs. the Volcano, Twister, Inner Space, Jurassic Park, Used Cars, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Do I even need to point out that the entire caper is to get Baby Langsdon home to his real mother where he belongs? See Empire of the Sun, A.I., Hook, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Catch me if You Can, The Color Purple, Poltergeist, Jurassic Park (to Grampa) and WOO (to Auntie Em).
NOT WOO BUT… Let me urge you to sample this early Spielberg if for nothing more than to check out the scene where Lou Jean points out Roadrunner playing at the drive-in next-door. Clovis provides his own soundtrack for her amusement. When Coyote takes his final dive, Clovis foresees his own demise. Absurdly awesome.
Professor Marvel’s (AKA Wizard of Oz) hot air balloon has a cameo role as the rounder upper of expendable robots for the flesh fair’s show.
Gigolo Joe with his tap dancing on road and curb—not to mention his clever patter—brings off a respectable homage to Scarecrow’s, Tinman’s, Lion’s best song and dance antics.
Going to Rouge (red) City to ask Dr. Know=going to Emerald City to ask Wizard (rouge alternative to ruby as in slippers?) See The Terminal, Minority Report for other quests to find ‘wizards’.
‘All roads lead to Rouge City’=Follow the yellow brick road
Dr. Know appears in explosion of light, however only his head and hands show up. The Great Oz too appears as a talking head. Both are tricky fellows who don’t play fair all the time. Dr. Know counts off the first bogus question unfairly and his answers to the others aren’t quite correct. Professor Marvel/OZ was a manipulator/showman pretending to know more than he did. See See Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, Lincoln, Munich, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Always, Goonies, Jaws, Catch Me if You Can. Schindler’s List for tricksters.
Teddy is as loyal a companion to David as Toto is to Dorothy. Like the little dog, he is occasionally very helpful getting David rescued—like at flesh fair.
The quest imposed by Dr. Know on David to find the Blue Fairy (to become real so Mommy will love him and let him come home)=Dorothy’s quest to witch’s castle to fulfill wizard’s bargain to get her home. For more quests, see Always, Amistad, Joe vs. the Volcano, Tintin, Poltergeist, Twister, Sugarland Express, Lincoln, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Jaws, Inner Space, The Terminal, Schindler’s List, Super 8, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Catch me if You Can, Always, Twilight Zone the Kick the Can episode,
Home references abound. “If I become a real boy, can I come home?” “After I find the Blue Fairy, then I can go home.” “Teddy, we’re Home!” almost verbatim Dorothy’s, “Toto, we’re home!” “Mommy, we’re home.” See Jaws, War Horse, The Terminal, Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun, Catch Me if You Can, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Super 8, 1941, Amistad, Minority Report, Hook, Poltergeist for other characters anxious to get home to safety.
The Blue fairy’s gentle voice is so reminiscent of Glinda, good Witch of the North. With creepy, modulated kindness, both sorceresses pound in nail-hard facts. Your mommy’s dead. The witch is after you. The road is long. You had to find out for yourself.
David sleeps at the end, home at last with Mommy dying. He goes to a place ‘where dreams begin’. Dorothy sleeps as tornado strikes, then after clicking heels of ruby slippers, wakes up at home, ‘her dream ended’. Where is home really? Here in physical world or there in dreams? See Joe vs. the Volcano.
Tinkling wind chimes in a window signify magic is coming…David will find Mommy waking up. This pre-magic moment (or significant change coming moment) presaged by a tinkling sound appears in many Spielberg films. You will remember that we always knew Glinda was coming when we heard the chimes begin. See Always, E. T., The Color purple, Jaws, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Super 8, Twister, Twilight Zone, Joe vs the Volcano.
Check out the Gone with the Wind scenery look-alike when Gigolo Joe is silhouetted next to a tree as robots scavenge for parts in the dump. (see War of Worlds, War Horse). For a long time I attributed this scene and several others in various Spielberg pictures to GWTW. Recently though, I realized the small bridge where Scarlett shelters in creek with horse as the Union army crosses is awfully similar to one seen in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy runs away to Professor Marvel. Victor Fleming directed both films so it seems plausible that he found a double use for that particular bridge…and maybe the set with the tree and split rail fences as well? I realize King Vidor directed much of WOO, especially Kansas scenes, but does that preclude possibility that Victor and he occasionally shared sets? Is Steven purposely doing the same thing?
Hello, Cyclone! You will see a cow(or two) flying by mooing just like in Dorothy’s version and a boat—minus the fisherman. In fact, producer Spielberg’s tornado is chockfull of good stuff. I think I even spotted the insane tractor trailer from Duel! See War of the Worlds, Super 8, Poltergeist for more cyclonic ‘clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caligenous junk’.
The intro shows a defining moment in Jo’s childhood when a tornado unexpectedly strikes in the middle of the night. On her bed is a Toto-like terrier named Toby who, despite scampering at Toto-speed, almost doesn’t make it into the storm cellar. See The Adventures of Tintin. Also see War of the Worlds for another unsafe storm cellar!
Is it me or does Jo’s old farmhouse sport that ‘air of grayness’? Re-occurs when Bill prepares ‘Dorothy’ in the hailstorm; there is a shot up the curving, hilly road with fence-posts. The color washes away to black and white and—for a moment—viewer is back in Kansas. The absence of color hints things may get a bit hopeless. See E.T. the Extraterrestrial, War Horse, Schindler’s List, Twister, Joe Vs. the Volcano, Twilight Zone the Movie Kick the can Episode, Poltergeist.
The telemetrical prototype is named ‘Dorothy’.
Looked to me like the footbridge Jo and Bill cower under during first tornado was identical to Victor Fleming’s old fave in WOO and GWTW. See A.I. for more detail on similar sets.
At the drive-in, Bill’s new girlfriend is in her room when a gust suddenly blows the window curtain inward. This is a classic Spielberg sign that life is about to radically change for her as it did for Dorothy after the bedroom window knocked her out cold. Sure enough, Melissa breaks up with Bill moments later. See Empire of the Sun, Catch Me if You Can, Hook, Twilight Zone the Movie Kick the can Episode, Joe vs. the Volcano, Poltergeist.
We glimpse Judy Garland on the TV at Aunt Meg’s house before the F-5 hits.
Aunt Meg’s artwork consists of giant whirligigs that chime conspicuously to warn us the Big One is coming. When Jo gets the idea of how to make the measuring devices inside ‘Dorothy’ fly, we hear chimes. Chimes sound again when the pinwheels fly up inside the twister. WOO always forewarned us of Glinda’s approaching magic with chimes. See Always, A.I., E. T.,The Color Purple, Jaws, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Super 8, Twister, Twilight Zone, Joe vs. the Volcano, Poltergeist.
At one point, in F-5 you will see an exact replica of Gales’ farmhouse roll by on its side—an amusing twist on the classic shot of its rooftop from above shown in WOO and other Spielberg films. See Minority Report, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Close Encounters.
The main characters dash on foot through a field of sunflowers…a sure sign they will prevail over trials ahead. Certainly the WOO companions did after surviving the poppies. Fields test characters and generally mark turning points in Steven’s works. See Always, Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, Lost World Jurassic Park.
Interesting references to Sugarland Express: the entourage of rival black SUV’s that dog Bill’s company echo back to that long line of cop cars.
Also a repeat of the red and yellow color scheme can be found at the drive-in. See Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,Schindler’s List, Jaws, 1941, Joe vs. the Volcano, Inner Space, Jurassic Park, Used Cars, Sugarland Express, Poltergeistfor other homages to the red and yellow commercial for Technicolor devised by WOO.
Also Jo and Bill defy Lou Jean’s opinion that ‘it don’t do no good runnin from a tornado‘ by doing exactly that! See Minority Report, War Horse, WOO for references to “Run, Toto, run”.
Despite the utter destruction wreaked by the F-5, the conclusion shows a family’s home unscathed. The haven untouched. Sanctuary. See See Twister, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Catch me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, The Color Purple, Munich, Poltergeist, The Terminal for safety of home.
Viktor Navorski meets and befriends three steadfast companions in this nether world between Krakozhia and New York City just like Dorothy did in Oz. Mulroy, Enrique, and Gupta represent the qualities of Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion. Enrique searches for his heart (love of Dolores). Paranoid, fearful Gupta searches for the courage to return to his family in India and face imprisonment. Mulroy is the brainy one. He keeps Gupta’s silliness in line—much as Scarecrow reigns in Lion—and he imparts savvy hints to Viktor to help him survive in this often hostile environment. See Goonies.
Of course Frank Dixon plays the Wicked Witch of the West, trapping Viktor out of sheer meanness and his own desire for power/promotion.
Viktor’s goal is to find a ‘wizard’, in this case the virtuoso jazz musician whose signature will complete his father’s collection. See A.I., Minority Report
Gupta uses a mop to delay the Krakozhia flight, affording Viktor time and opportunity to get his wish and go out into NYC. You will recall the witch’s broomstick was the tool required by Wizard as compensation for the companions’ wishes to be granted.
As Viktor promenades down the center of airport toward his exodus, he is encouraged and cheered on by his companions and bystanders, again much like Dorothy in Munchkinland and Emerald City. See Joe vs.the Volcano, Twister, The Color Purple, Catch Me if You Can, Sugarland Express, Used Cars.
In the climactic parade scene, on the upper level, the camera flashes upon a distinctly yellow floor like yellow brick road. However close-ups do away with the pigment.
At the end, Frank’s security guards—like the witch’s soldiers in the castle—are only to happy to defy previous orders and former protocol. They let the captive go free.
Gupta triumphantly reassures Viktor from tarmac that everything is okay; he is returning home. See WOO, A.I., E.T., Super 8, Jaws, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun, War Horse, Saving Private Ryan, Sugarland Express, Hook, Close Encounters, Catch Me if You Can for other characters’ touching faith in safety of home.
Viktor initially complicates matters when he refuses to confirm he is ‘afraid to go home’. Pure at heart and untouched by Frank’s evil influence, or those overthrowing his country’s government, he can never accept that home is anything but a safe place for him. Dorothy shares the same viewpoint despite events to the contrary like Miss Gulch and the tornado. See above notationfor characters with equally naïve notions about the sanctuary of home. See Twister, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Catch me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, The Color Purple, Munich, Poltergeist
The film’s finale has Viktor confidently answering the cabbie’s request for a destination, “I am going home.” If he doesn’t exactly close his eyes, he certainly narrows them. See WOO Dorothy’s ‘no place like home incantation’, Empire of the Sun, A.I.
Krakozhia: some say the country is named after Krakow…maybe…but is also pseudo-anagram for Kansas and Oz.
Famous for the moment this black and white film moves to color. Wizard of Oz was also renowned for that trick. Note: I do think on his serious films, Steven uses a very light hand when sprinkling in his bit of WOO flavor. I get why he sometimes has to be sly or vague about it. No use risking spoilage of delicate material. So if you think I am reaching on some of my examples…maybe you’ve got a point…or maybe he purposely inserted it so deep that it would be perceived only subliminally.
I wonder if Spielberg didn’t originally intend to put the little girl in red shoes, but decided to fly under radar and use the red coat instead. He does finally use the red shoes in Saving Private Ryan. No accident that the hues Steven features in this film when B&W goes to partial color are yellow hair and red coat. Those two primary colors defined WOO’s commercial eye appeal. They were specifically chosen to make the most of a brand new process called Technicolor. The yellow brick road contrasted better with red so Baum’s silver slippers became ruby ones instead. See Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jaws, 1941, Joe vs. the Volcano, Twister, Inner Space, Jurassic Park, Used Cars, Sugarland Express, Poltergeist for other highlights of red and yellow.
WOO’s creators wanted to create an ‘air of grayness’ for Kansas scenes, meant to imply a sort of hopeless environment, hence Dorothy’s wish to go over the rainbow. Steven employs that air of grayness throughout this film to emphasize the plight of the persecuted. See E.T. the Extraterrestrial, War Horse, Twister, Joe Vs. the Volcano, Twilight Zone the Movie Kick the can Episode, Poltergeist.
Note too the sepia tones that accompany Schindler’s color sequence. WOO’s intro was filmed in sepia but televised in B&W, so fans know it both ways.
There are a profusion of key scenes framed by windows… but camera slips over each with the barest gliding touch. Steven decided not to make a big deal of them so neither shall I. See WOO, Empire of the Sun, Catch Me if You Can, Poltergeist, Lost World of Jurassic Park for other surreal glimpses through windows. Like Dorothy’s peek into the center of tornado, everyday sights take on a bizarre twist.
Oskar Schindler is the consummate trickster. Spielberg returns again and again to the mischievous enabler in so many of his films. An honorable protagonist often needs some underhanded finagling to achieve his/her goal. In WOO, Professor Marvel (AKA Wizard of Oz, Gatekeepers 1 and 2, Driver of horse of a different color) often uses his guile to the betterment of all. In the case of Schindler, our rogue transcends to martyrdom. By his willingness to get dirty, Schindler achieves a noble goal at great personal cost, the sacrifice of his purity. His soul may never be at peace with his former deeds. SeeEmpire of the Sun, The Color Purple, Lincoln for other benevolent tricksters. In both Munich and Saving Private Ryan the protagonists’ missions carry out the virtuous aims of invisible tricksters. On a lighter note, you also find tricksters in WOO, A.I., Always, Goonies, Jaws, Catch Me if You Can, Joe Vs. the Volcano.
When Joey is rescued from the barbed wire and brought back to camp, snow begins to fall…and that begins the healing for both horse and Albert from Devon. In WOO, snow falling on poppies is the antidote to their poison. Glinda banishes the sleeping death and secures the companions’ momentary release from witch’s evil influence. Snow revives Dorothy and the lion, cures them and sets them back on the path of life, eventually to find their way home.
Going home (to Mom) once again shines as the beacon for the main characters (boy and horse) in this movie. See Empire of the Sun, A.I., Sugarland Express, Hook, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Catch me if You Can, The Color Purple, Poltergeist, Jurassic Park (to Grampa) and WOO (to Auntie Em).
When Colin walks through No Man’s Land, he is reciting a prayer for courage, like a mantra…the Lord is my shepherd. This is reminiscent of the WOO mantra ‘lions and tigers and bears oh my’. See Minority Report for another mantra.
No Man’s Land recalls the landscape where the witch’s castle was located, dark, bleak, and barren. We reach for courage in a terrifying, evil world. Also I am reminded of the Kansas landscape, black, grey and white, tumbleweeds deserted roads before the tornado strikes. This ‘air of grayness’ was an effective device in WOO to portray hopelessness. See E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Schindler’s List, Twister, Joe Vs. the Volcano, Twilight Zone the Movie Kick the can Episode, Poltergeist
Bells ring at the announcement of end of War as they do in Lincoln at passing of 13th. It’s a WOO thread: “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” Evil has been extinguished. Triumph of the perseverant!
The sweet, chubby German who reluctantly must do his job—warhorses under his direction will die pulling artillery—looks suspiciously like the tenderhearted Gatekeeper of Emerald City, AKA gatekeeper for Oz’s Hall. Same center part in middle of slicked down hair, mustache, and body type. Same sentimental character that disobeys orders to help hero. If he had a slightly bigger part, I’d call him a trickster.
This German hollers out ‘Run! Run!’ to Joey, the horse, encouraging him to escape. Dorothy hollers to Toto at witch’s castle, “Run Toto, run!” See Minority Report, Sugarland Express, Twister.
At the end, when Joey and Albert get home, look at the sunset scenery for a very GWTW homage to Victor Fleming who also directed WOO. See A.I., War of the Worlds.