Scenes involving characters interacting around a table have proven popular as part of Steven Spielberg’s dramatic narrative. Here we look at some of the best sequences including the Pilot House in Jaws and Marion’s introduction in Raiders of the Lost Ark…
The table – often in a dinner room setting – plays a perhaps surprisingly pivotal role in almost all Steven Spielberg films. That is, in part, due to prevailing themes – whether contained in sweeping historical epics or swashbuckling action-adventures – focusing on the family unit.
In its most subtle form, the table becomes a stage from which exposition can be seamlessly conveyed as well as a place where characters are introduced, their individual arcs or conflicts established.
Spielberg is also playful with his use of a table, at times making it a convenient way to propel the plot (the Nurhachi deal-gone-wrong in Temple of Doom or Sophie’s attempts to evade capture in The BFG, for instance). Reoccurring motifs can also be seen – the mimicking of action at the dinner table, for example – Chief Brody’s son copying his father’s expressions in Jaws and the robot in A.I. overeating in an attempt to prove his human-like existence.
Meanwhile the dinner table is often a place where characters begin their journeys from everyman to hero – Brody drinking wine with Hooper: “Why don’t we have one more drink and cut that shark open?”; Peter learning to use his imagination in Hook and as such beginning his route back to becoming Peter Pan.
In Spielberg’s fantasy films he intelligently uses the recognisable aesthetic of a dinner table scene to counter balance the otherworldly aspects of the story. This grounds the audience in a sense of reality that enables our emotions to retain an authenticity despite the drama concerning dinosaurs, aliens or a sadistic shark.
Let’s begin with a couple of honourable mentions…
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln makes the table an additional character in the scene when he discusses the ending of slavery and the war that has befallen the country. He slams his fist against the wood to make his point and continues to badger the table with fist or pointed finger as he says: “I can’t listen to this anymore! I can’t accomplish a goddamned thing of any human meaning or worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war, and whether any of you or anyone else knows it, I know I need this!”
The BFG (2016)
Escape and Survival
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel features a little girl called Sophie discovering the world of the giants through the eponymous hero’s kitchen table. Everything is huge – from the glass containers to the ingredients used in the Giant’s cooking – making the table an adventure playground in itself.
Discover More: Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films
Now on to the top 10…
10. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Our introduction to the character of Marion Ravenwood is about as fun and playful as they come. Significantly, a table gets centre stage as Marion is found at her Nepalese tavern enjoying a drinking game with one of the locals. The hard-wearing rustic barroom table plays host to the array of pre-poured liquor shots, the competing drinkers consuming each one in turn before replacing the empty receptacle upside down on the table with a meaty “clunk” of glass against timber.
9. Saving Private Ryan (1999)
The table in this instance plays an almost insignificant role. However, the image of a dead Nazi soldier, his body riddled with bullets and sitting lifeless on the table top is compelling in its unsettling singular portrait of war. What is revealed to be a French home’s kitchen where Germans were either hiding or taking a brief moment to recuperate is now a setting for battle, its aftermath making the once simple pleasures of cooking, eating, familial bonding, conversation and laughter an after-thought to blood speckled carnage.
8. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Mimicking movements and expressions is a reoccurring theme in Spielberg’s work. The famous example of this is in Jaws when Chief Brody’s son begins copying his father’s movements which leads to a wonderful moment of father-son bonding when the pair exchange playful facial contortions. In A.I., there’s an important scene when the robot named David tries to prove his humanity by eating food like the real life son of the Swinton family. This causes the robot to malfunction and his face to contort. It’s an unsettling scene and provides the beginnings of David’s journey to discover more about himself and whether he can ever be a “real boy”.
7. War Of The Worlds (2005)
In one of the more subtle uses of a table in a Steven Spielberg film we find a father, conflicted by his supposed failed efforts to raise his children, pick up bread and throw it at the kitchen window. The table, once clean and tidy, becomes messy as the dad begins to haphazardly prepare peanut butter sandwiches. The patchwork meal perhaps showcases a failure to establish the traditional aspects of a conventionally perfect family life.
6. E.T. (1982)
The dinner table in E.T. is a perfect slice of suburbia – showcasing the family unit and, importantly within the realm of Spielberg suburbia, the lack of a father. It’s a place where we get to know the main players – Elliott, his brother Michael, his sister Gertie and his mother Mary – in this wonderful story of otherworldly childhood friendship. The dynamics of the group are established here – Elliott’s big brother syndrome and his alienation from his mother over his relationship with his father, for example. It’s subtle but important to the story as E.T. the extra-terrestrial becomes a part of it. Both in terms of the humour Spielberg extracts from the alien’s fish-out-of-water introduction to Americana and the pre-teen protagonist’s character arc.
5. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Mashed Potato Mountains
Roy Neary has a dream. He’s unsure what the dream means or even what it really is but is compelled to build a clay mountain in his living room. What begins on the dining room table in mash potato continues in Neary’s den on a table once used to play with a miniature railway. This table has subtext – the suburban father’s eagerness to cling on to his childhood, notably the pre-adulthood imagination he wants to reignite. The miniature (toy) train set and the clay from which he builds his mountain showcase a man who hasn’t lost a childlike wonder at both the world that exists in front of him and the otherworldly things that emerge from his subconscious. The table in this instance is a conduit to his inner childlike innocence.
4. Jaws (1975)
There’s a wonderful moment when Chief Brody bonds with his young son at the dinner table. It’s a subtle but pivotal scene, setting the stakes Brody is willing to sacrifice to save Amity island from the killer shark and acknowledging the hard-working man’s humanity and commitment to his family. There’s also a wonderful sense of improvisation which adds to the scene’s authenticity as child actor Jay Mello copies Roy Scheider’s movements – the hands clasped together, taking a drink and replacing the glass on the table, and pulling faces at each other.
3. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while being the lesser of the three adventures produced by Spielberg in the 1980s, it contains some of the eponymous hero’s greatest scenes. Think: the underground railcar escape from the child labour camp or the finale on the rope bridge that hangs above the crocodile-infested water.
And one of the film’s other great sequences happens around a table. In fact, it’s Temple of Doom’s opening in Shanghai when Indiana is poisoned by Lao Che and must find the antidote while avoiding a flurry of bullets and protecting future love interest Willie Scott.
The table in the scene is one of those that includes a turning circle to allow food to be passed to other diners conveniently. Here it is used in a deadly game of cat and mouse as the fearless archaeologist tries to extract the agreed fee for finding and delivering Nurhachi, an artefact containing the remains of the first Emperor of the Manchu Dynasty.
2. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984) & Hook (1991)
The dinner scene – so pivotal to Steven Spielberg films. The scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Hook are two of the most fun. Temple of Doom is particularly eventful as the table plays host to an array of very obscure – certainly to closeted American Willie Scott’s eyes – delicacies including snakes filled with live snakes, monkey brains served in monkey heads, and sheep eyeball soup.
The scene in Hook is just as entertaining if a little more important to the narrative. It is here when Peter Panning discovers his ability to use his imagination like he once did as a child. It’s the cliff edge from which the everyman becomes the hero.
1. Jaws (1975)
The most famous table in a Steven Spielberg movie is situated in the Orca’s pilot house. It’s here where Hooper and Quint compare “war wounds”, Chief Brody joins a rendition of “Show Me The Way To Go Home”, and Quint delivers his haunting U.S.S. Indianapolis speech.
It’s a wonderful scene, offering at once breathing room between the initial shark encounters and later the battle to survive a sinking ship. But, despite bringing a welcome light touch to proceedings – Chief Brody considering a tall tale regarding his appendix scar to rival Quint and Hooper’s war wound stories and the drunken singing – it maintains the thrills of this brilliant film with perhaps one of Jaws’ most unsettling moments.
The dark horizon depicting a seemingly endless and inescapable seascape stages Quint’s frightening recollection of the sinking of the U.S.S Indianapolis and, alongside his fellow sailors, a long battle to survive shark infested ocean.
Over to you: have a favourite Spielberg scene set around a table?
Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens
If you liked the top 10 film scenes set in a bar you might also like:
Top 10 Times A Table Became An Additional Character In A Quentin Tarantino Film || Top 10 Spontaneous Dance Sequences in Film || Top 10 Movie Train Rides To Avoid || Top 10 Films That Get Better On Second Viewing || Top 10 1980s Films About The Eighties || Top 10 Movie Lawyers You Can Rely On To Win A Courtroom Battle