There’s an interesting shift in Spielberg’s depiction of fathers that can be seen in his war films Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and War Horse.
In Empire of the Sun, Jim is presented with a number of insufficient father figures. His own father is negligent, while the ‘fathers’ he meets during his time in a Japanese internment camp (Basie and Dr Rawlins) mistreat and misunderstand him. Empire of the Sun is about the toll that bad father figures take on their ‘sons’.
In Schindler’s List, the father figure (Schindler) is also negligent but learns care and compassion, eventually putting humanity over money. He ends the film surrounded by his ‘children’ (the Schindlerjuden), weeping at how he could have saved more, had he been less ignorant earlier. Schindler’s List is about becoming a good father.
In Saving Private Ryan, Captain John Miller is undoubtedly a good father figure, but the pressures of war force him to compromise his morality. He refuses to save a young girl from a decimated French town because it will distract from the main mission and later unnecessarily tries to take out a German machine gunner, leading to the death of his company’s medic. Saving Private Ryan was a tribute to Spielberg’s own father (who fought in the Pacific) and focuses on the difficulties of being responsible for the lives of others.
In War Horse, Albert learns the difficulties of fatherhood by experiencing what his father, Ted, had experienced: the horror of war. At the start of the film, he is told that Ted is not proud of his service in the army and the killing he had to do as part of that service. Albert says that he would be proud, but when he serves as well, he comes to appreciate his father’s point of view. Representing this journey is Ted’s war pennant, which changes hands several times during the film before eventually returning to Albert. War Horse is about the need for a child to understand and honour their father.