“What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away.”
— Stan Jones, theme song from The Searchers
“Face to face…with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Steven Spielberg loves The Searchers (1956). He has repeatedly cited that film and its director, John Ford, who once gave him advice when he was a teenager, as touchstones. Ford’s influence is palpable in the films Spielberg has made throughout his career, in ways that are both conscious (the dance scene in The Quiet Man literally inspires a similar one in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and unconscious (the celebration of the majestic English countryside in War Horse). But of all of his films, few of them bear the influence of Ford’s work in general and The Searchers in particular, while also serving as a clear expression of Spielberg’s artistic voice, more than Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). This isn’t that surprising when you learn that Spielberg watched The Searchers at least twice while making his film.
Close Encounters, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, takes place primarily in Muncie, Indiana. Electrician Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) sees an alien spaceship during a blackout. The encounter leads him to become obsessed with the experience and prone to compulsively making models of a strange structure. Meanwhile, a mysterious team of government scientists partially led by a French scientist named Lacombe (acclaimed director François Truffaut) travels around the world finding evidence of extraterrestrial encounters with Earth. Both Neary and the team of scientists converge on Devils Tower, Wyoming, which is a structure strikingly similar to the one that Neary has been creating.
The Searchers clearly had a visual influence on Spielberg’s film. The most famous shot in Close Encounters — in which a child opens a door to gaze at the bright lights from an alien spaceship — is strikingly similar to the opening and closing shots of Ford’s film, which also prominently feature a doorway. Ford and director of photography Winton C. Hoch (whose camerawork capturing cloudy skies for Ford on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon resembles the many shots of cloudy skies in Close Encounters) filled The Searchers with beautiful long shots of Monument Valley that captured all of its majesty and wide-open beauty. Spielberg and his director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, who won an Academy Award for his work on this movie, employ a similar use of long shots to capture the great beauty of their film’s locations. The climatic location of Devils Tower is similar to the many rock formations in Monument Valley, where Ford had filmed many of his westerns, including The Searchers. Spielberg and production designer Joe Alves actually intended to build the landing site where the scientists finally encounter the aliens in Monument Valley, but were unable to due to climate reasons.
The Searchers influenced Close Encounters on more than a surface level, however. Ford’s film is about Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a man whose life becomes defined by an obsessive search. Much like Edwards, Neary gives his life over to a quest to find something — in this case the aliens who made contact with him — to the point where he loses his job, the respect of his community, and even his family. Spielberg has often been criticized (wrongly, in my view) for making films that are overly sentimental, but his deft handling of the negative impact of Neary’s newfound obsession, especially in the scenes where it scares and angers his family, prove that he has been plumbing the darker side of American life for a while. His vision of Neary’s obsession may lack the violence which Edwards used to employ what he wanted, but he is just as unafraid to show the emotional violence Neary unwittingly inflicts on his wife and children as Ford was to show how Edwards’ obsession led him to hurt others.
But while Close Encounters does bear the influence of Ford and The Searchers, it is also very much an expression of Spielberg’s own idiosyncratic style. It features early depictions of what would become some of his recurring thematic subjects, ranging from divorce to “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,” as Lacombe’s assistant David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) describes it. Spielberg uses images that he would return to again and again, such as children reacting naturally to something astounding and wide shots of beautiful landscapes. Spielberg also frequently demonstrates his once-in-a-generation ability to create visually striking shot compositions, which encompass not just sequences involving visual effects but ones with intriguing blocking, as in his superb use of subtle camera movement and a frame-within-a-frame when Neary argues with his wife on one side of the screen while a TV plays a news report which will contain his first glimpse of the real Devils Tower.
Close Encounters works well as a domestic drama and even has a sequence (in which aliens abduct a young boy) where it works effectively as a horror film. But more than anything, what this film does best is generate wonder. It does so through a number of technical elements. Aside from the cinematography by Zsigmond and a murderer’s row of directors of photography who did pick-up shots (John A. Alonzo, László Kovacs, Douglas Slocombe), the key things which generate a sense of the wondrous are the special effects by Douglas Trumbull and the music by John Williams. Trumbull, who was the special photographic effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), creates beautiful circles of light which move in a more lyrical way than most spacecraft do in movies. Conceptual designer Ralph McQuarrie designed the mothership, which has a grandeur that makes it look like it could serve as a small city. But perhaps the most important aspect of this film’s success at generating wonder is the score by John Williams, which was his third for Spielberg. It has a sense of majesty and grandeur which goes perfectly with the increasingly magical images. It is perfectly paced, from the quickening tempo to convey the mounting excitement of the alien ships’ arrival to the slow glissandos from the strings as the mothership lands. The theme which the humans use to communicate with the aliens is justly iconic, but the whole film is full of beautiful passages of music that will make you want to walk outside at night so you can gaze up at a starry sky.
Close Encounters is a wonderful tribute to the visual greatness and thematic darkness of The Searchers. It also serves as a fantastic expression of Spielberg’s incredible technical skill and knack for working with talented collaborators to create wonder onscreen. It has enchanted audiences for 45 years and I imagine that it will enchant them for a much longer time to come.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind will be screened at IU Cinema on March 29 as part of this semester’s Science on Screen programming. The film will be followed by a discussion entitled “Closer Than We Think: Social and Cultural Roots of UFO Conspiracy Theories” led by Dr. Susan Lepselter, an associate professor of American studies and anthropology at IU.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.