From Twilight Zone To Amazing Stories – How Spielberg Turned Tragedy Into Art
By: Chris Darkes - September 30, 2015
By 1985, Stephen Spielberg had already established himself as the top-tier director, gaining praise in virtually every genre. After riding high on the expected success of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg decided to try his hand at a completely new subject matter…
Well, sort of.
Being a completely obsessive Twilight Zone series follower of the 60’s, Spielberg made it a goal that some time in his career he would get the opportunity to direct an episode in some way, shape, or form. That opportunity came knocking on his door in 1982, when Warner Bros. handed him the Twilight Zone movie project. He decided to co-produce and co-direct the ambitious throwback with his good friend (at the time). John Landis, who’s success had also climbed in the early 80’s, with hit features such as: Animal House, The Blues Brothers ( in which Spielberg has a cameo), and An American Werewolf in London agreed to the massive undertaking. But after the cataclysmic incident that tarnished Landis’ reputation and put Spielberg in hot water, he decided the Twilight Zone was sacred ground, best left to Rod Serling. The infamous situation severed ties between the two pals for good; Spielberg vowing never to talk to Landis again.
The fact that two children died on the movie was a massive hit to Spielberg who was (and still is) known for working in-depth with children in most of his films. Spielberg was reportedly so upset about the death of Vic Morrow and the two Vietnamese children, he wanted nothing further to do with the project. But after very brief phone call from one of the studios executives insisting he not stir up any water, and thumbed the contractual obligation into the earpiece, Spielberg complied and finished his segment. Needless to say, it was uninspired, bland, and lacked that polished feel we’ve come to enjoy from his work.
It was then Spielberg decided to stick to what made his movies loved by audiences the world over. He teamed back up with his winning Amblin producing roster of Kathrine Kennedy and Frank Marshall to create Amazing Stories, in 1985. The Twilight Zone-like anthology was a throwback to a popular science fiction magazine Spielberg recalled as a kid, and adapted the project to the small screen. The first two episodes (which happened to be my favorite) were directed by Spielberg himself, and delivered a nostalgic touch.
Inspired by Spielberg, who remembered living in New Jersey as a young man, would often hear the faint whistle of a train in the still of the night. Spielberg channeled that memory into this story about an elderly man (played by Robert Blossom of Home Alone shovel guy fame), who as a child inadvertently caused a terrible train accident that took the lives of everyone on board. Now living with his grown son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, he awaits the return of the train to finish what it had left undone 75 years earlier. The rest of the family seems to fondly feel like he’s losing his mind. The problem, they realize, is that their new house is built right over the old train tracks.
The episode is whimsical, endearing, and explores the innocence of childhood. Something Spielberg seems best at capturing. I won’t tell you the ending because it’s probably on Netflix, and it’s better to watch it for yourself. All I’ll say is it definitely eclipses Spielberg’s episode of the Twilight Zone.
This one is based off a short story Spielberg wrote called “Round Trip.” An hour long episode involving a WWII bomber flight crew who runs into trouble when one of their gunners (a cartoonist known for being the crew’s lucky charm) gets trapped in the plane’s plastic turret while firing under the plane’s belly. With the landing gear refusing to drop down, and the plane rapidly losing fuel, the pilot has no choice but to bring the plane down. However, it would ultimately crush the trapped gunman in the process.
This episode has several things going for it. The first is that it features a then-unknown Kevin Costner, who plays the crew’s pilot and faithful leader. Costner met Spielberg two years earlier, while filming Fandango with one of Spielberg’s former students, Kevin Reynolds. Next is a young Kiefer Sutherland, who also plays a pivotal dramatic role that would make him a fixture of future 80’s classics. Finally, it displays one of Spielberg’s favorite themes: World War II. The sense of camaraderie between the men feels like Spielberg realized he could base an entire movie just on that (Saving Private Ryan). The production value, the mood, and the story are all reasons it’s worth watching.
Although both episodes have a fantasy angle to them, The Mission has a more serious tone, and gives an insight as to what it must have been like during war times in those cramped planes. Most of what Spielberg wanted to capture was the twist-ending magic of his darker tones and play them out as a more family-friendly version so we could all enjoy it at home, in front of the television screen (or tablet today.) It’s fun to watch a medium that inspired Spielberg incorporating everything he loved as a kid – the trains, the importance of a father figure, the childlike fantasy and imagination. It almost seemed that he tried to rewrite the horrible wrongs of the Twilight Zone movie, and came up with this series. If you’re bored and trying to remember what the best parts of the 80’s were – check these episodes out. But forgive the opening credits. They leave something to be desired.