Burning History onto Celluloid: Steven Spielberg

By Hindley, Meredith | Humanities, November/December 1999 | Go to article overview

Burning History onto Celluloid: Steven Spielberg


Hindley, Meredith, Humanities


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 11, the period is also the subject of Spielberg's more sobering filmsEmpire 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 longterm 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 multimedia 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. …

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