Steven Spielberg Directed 1 of His Classic 1980s Movies Because a Legendary Director Turned It Down

One of Steven Spielberg’s movies was almost helmed by another famous director. However, the other director lost interest in the project and Spielberg made the film instead. Audiences reacted to the film very differently from the way they reacted to Raiders of the Lost Ark, another Spielberg film set during the same era.

Steven Spielberg wearing a suit
Steven Spielberg | Michael Tran/FilmMagic

This was Steven Spielberg’s 1st World War II movie to be serious and historically grounded

In the 1970s, Spielberg became famous for directing popcorn movies like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. During the following decade, he still directed popcorn movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.; however, he started to tackle more mature projects such as The Color Purple. Around the same time, Spielberg made his first World War II movie that was serious and grounded in reality.

In 2006, Spielberg did an interview with DGA Quarterly’s Richard Schickel. Schickel opined that Spielberg’s film Empire of the Sun was a “totally different take on World War II” compared to his comedy 1941 and his adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg revealed David Lean was instrumental in getting him to direct Empire of the Sun. Lean was a director most known for Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, and Great Expectations.

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Why David Lean didn’t turn the book ‘Empire of the Sun’ into a movie

Spielberg discussed Lean’s role in the making of Empire of the Sun. “I had become friends with David Lean, and David called me and said, ‘There’s a book I fancy directing called Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard. I understand that the rights might be tied up at Warner Bros. Could you investigate it for me?'” Spielberg recalled. “And I did.”

Spielberg revealed Lean wasn’t able to get the job at first. “I called Terry Semel, the head of Warner Bros., and Terry confirmed that there was a director attached to it, and Tom Stoppard was working on the screenplay,” he said. “So I called David back and told him that it was indeed spoken for. And then six, seven months later, Semel called me and said, ‘The elements have changed.’ And I called David back, and, in the time that had passed, he had changed his mind.”

The Independent notes that Lean’s collaborator, Christopher Hampton, said Lean was not pleased with the screenplay of Empire of the Sun. “Funnily enough, Spielberg had asked Lean for his opinion of the script for Empire of the Sun, which Lean thought was terrible, but he didn’t think it was his place to say anything,” Hampton recalled.

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Empire of the Sun was not one of Spielberg’s major successes. According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed over $22 million. By comparison, Box Office Mojo reports Raiders of the Lost Ark grossed over $389 million and spawned a film series, a television series, comic books, novels, and merchandise. While Empire of the Sun isn’t as famous as Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lean’s minor involvement gives it an interesting backstory.