Steven Spielberg

National Humanities Medal


Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is a man captivated by history. "I have a deep rooted fascination in the Second World War because my father fought in that war, and an interest in the Holocaust, because my parents spoke openly and freely about it. These were stories that were painful, yet compelling to me," he says. While his movies 1941 and the Indiana Jones trilogy take a spirited approach to World War II, the period is also the subject of Spielberg's more sobering films-Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan.

Born in 1946 in Ohio, Spielberg was raised in the suburbs of Haddonfield, New Jersey, and Scottsdale, Arizona. He started making amateur films while in his teens and later studied film at California State University, Long Beach. In 1969, his twenty-two-minute short Amblin was shown at the Atlanta Film Festival, which led to his becoming the youngest director ever to sign a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. Spielberg's subsequent directing credits read as a bibliography to American popular culture: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, and Amistad.

In addition to founding Amblin Entertainment in 1984, Spielberg joined Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen to form the multi-media venture Dreamworks SKG in 1994. Spielberg is also the chairman of the Starbright Foundation, which brings together pediatric health care, technology, and the entertainment industry to improve the lives of seriously ill children.

A hint of Spielberg's historical sensitivity appeared in 1987, with Empire of the Sun, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of Japan's occupation of China. With Schindler's List (1993), Spielberg told the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of Oskar Schindler, a wealthy German industrialist. Filmed in stark black-and-white, Schindler's List earned Spielberg his first best director and best picture Oscars. "At the time, I felt that I wasn't making a movie, I was making a document based on the tragic facts of history. It was the first time that I put my imagination on vacation."

With the profits from Schindler's List, Spielberg established the Righteous Persons Foundation, a grant-making organization committed to strengthening Jewish life. One outgrowth became the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which records firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors, eyewitnesses, liberators, and rescuers. The impetus for the Shoah Foundation came from Spielberg's experiences with Holocaust survivors during the making of Schindler's List. Many of the survivors who shared their stories with him had never told their own families. "It's a lot easier to talk to a stranger about something painful than it is to your own grandchildren or daughter," he says. "That's what gave me the idea to create a body of living history."

Spielberg was also concerned about people denying the Holocaust. "I thought the best way to put that controversy to rest forever was to let the victims speak to us in their own words." More than fifty thousand people from fifty-seven countries have recorded their stories. The testimonies are currently being indexed to allow keyword searches and will eventually be disseminated by fiberoptic cable to Holocaust museums and archives around the world.

Five years after Schindler's List, Spielberg returned to World War II with his battlefield epic, Saving Private Ryan (1998). Spielberg describes the film as "a morality story about the ultimate question: to what end do you sacrifice young boys to save a single life of a similar young boy." Instead of a bloodless Hollywood adventure, the film opens with a gut-wrenching portrayal of the D-Day invasion. The movie's gritty portrayal of the GI experience resonated with World War II veterans, who finally felt comfortable talking about the darker side of the "good war," and sparked public interest in the conflict. Spielberg took home a best director Oscar for the film, but awards came from other places too, including the U.S. military's highest civilian honor, the Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

Spielberg emphasizes that personal interest, rather than promoting a cause, dictates his decision to direct films such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Amistad, which chronicles an 1839 slave mutiny. But he is pleased that his films have stirred up public interest in history. "What so often happens, when filmmakers tell stories that are based on the past, is that people look for the popcorn picture and there is no public interest. There's only apathy. So the fact that the public was discussing history again was one of the most fulfilling things about those projects for me personally."

Getting the public and his own children interested in the past is a challenge that Spielberg continues to embrace. "History is the one thing that my children tend to think that they can live without, but I don't think they can. We have to get our children to understand why who they are is who everybody else was first. That's a tough lesson to give a kid, because a kid is interested in what they are going to get now and what is going to happen tomorrow. When you start talking about what happened a long time ago they look at you like you're really a boring dad."

By Meredith Hindley

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.