A YouTube search for Steven Spielberg’s 1968 short film Amblin’ turns up, in addition to the film itself, a much more recent interview clip in which the director is shown a poster for his 1968 short. As Spielberg fills with emotion and talks about what the movie means to him today - how it led to his first paying jobs and essentially allowed him to have a career - the interviewer just wants to know if the hat on the poster is a foreshadowing of Indiana Jones.
It’s an interesting moment, but maybe not an uncommon one: a director having to politely smile through a fan reducing their life’s work to fetishized iconography. It’s a conversation through which Spielberg has probably sat more than once. And while the seeds of his filmography can indeed be found in the short, it’s possibly more interesting as a study of the 22-year-old learning the language, and getting a bevy of film school tricks out of his system.
Amblin’ is a wordless, 26-minute tale of a young hitchhiker (Richard Levin) who meets another drifter (Pamela McMyler) on the road, and together the two of them make their way to the beach. That’s it; that’s the story. It’s a thin, uncomplicated plot for Spielberg to give himself a cinematic workout. As the two drifters walk across the desert thumbing for a ride, they flirt, spar, struggle, maybe fall in love. Spielberg uses the narrative as an excuse to direct everything from action scenes, to montages, to love scenes. It's easy to watch the film and say "That's from Close Encounters; that's from Saving Private Ryan." But so too can you say "That's from Sullivan's Travels; that's from It Happened One Night," and neither set of observations is particularly surprising. What does surprise is that Spielberg uses a lot of lifted tricks from the French New Wave along the way, and what’s interesting about their use here is that Spielberg kind of leaves all these tricks in Amblin’, trying them on for size before adopting a more classical style in advance of his film school peers. Jump cuts, freeze frames and innovative transitions that would still seem clever today are all exorcised across the film’s (admittedly long) 26 minutes.
But it's all still very Spielberg. You might indeed see a glimmer of Indiana Jones as our hitchhiking protagonist (frequently outsmarted/saved by his female companion) treks across the desert. And in stark contrast to, say, Martin Scorsese’s The Big Shave or David Cronenberg’s From The Drain, there's none of the film school generation cynicism at play here (possibly because Spielberg didn't go to film school?). Spielberg’s Amblin’ is dripping with old-school sincerity, a heartfelt story looking to connect with as many people as possible, kind of a feat for 1968. In the same year as Greetings and Night of the Living Dead, you won’t see in Amblin’ anything close to De Palma’s fire, or Romero’s anger. But you’ll see a director learning to tell a story with pictures, and starting with a more assured hand than many of his peers. And, remarkably, just when some of Amblin’s counterculture trappings start to feel like a put-on, 22-year-old Spielberg has the awareness to call them out as just that, as his hippie wanderer’s guitar case is opened by his companion to reveal a suit and tie, and a science fiction novel. Though its poster, its title and its soundtrack present the film as a hippie love story, this movie is, ultimately, as old-school Hollywood as the young director could manage. Amblin’ opened at the Crest Theater in LA on December 18, 1968. It played in front of Skidoo, a film starring Groucho Marx and Jackie Gleason in a story lampooning hippies and LSD. That’s kind of a perfect double feature: both films pretending to engage the counterculture, one from a place of obsolescence, and one from a new voice, restless to leave it behind.
As historically important as it is, Amblin' first and foremost stands as a solid example of how to tell a story with the movie camera. Universal head Sid Sheinberg thought so too, and handed Spielberg a seven-year directing contract with the studio. Over the course of that contract he directed two segments for Night Gallery (in which he was directing Joan Crawford by age 23), episodes of Marcus Welby, MD and Columbo, and a handful of TV-movies, of which Duel is the most well known. Four years after Duel, Spielberg was directing Jaws for Universal at age 27.