Another War, Another Epic From Ken Burns
WHEN Ken Burns’s “Civil War” hit public television in 1990, it was a revelation: Mr. Burns invested a faded period of American history with new life, color and emotion.
The public does not have the same amnesia about World War II, the subject of Mr. Burns’s forthcoming documentary project, “The War.” In the last decade Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood have both returned to it twice. Battle footage is a regular staple on cable. Tom Brokaw unlocked the long-repressed memories of Americans who fought the bloody conflicts in his books about “The Greatest Generation.”
But Mr. Burns, whose own history is rooted in this town of 300, brings to the subject his appreciation for the meshing of personal and public narrative. Despite the project’s length — 15 hours over seven nights, spanning two weeks beginning next Sunday — PBS is expecting its largest audience yet, surpassing the 38.9 million viewers who watched any part of the first broadcast of “The Civil War.”
Mr. Burns, 54, whose PBS career spans 30 years, refers to the documentary as an “epic poem,” and like most of his work it had a lengthy gestation. In the late 1990s Mr. Burns, frequently asked by fans to tackle World War II, began to reconsider his resistance to immersing himself in another war. Then he heard that some 1,000 veterans of the era were dying each day, and, he said, “It hurt me that we were hemorrhaging these memories.”
Mr. Brokaw, who served as a sounding board at the start of production of “The War,” said he had wondered at the time if the topic had peaked. But, he said, “all that was denied by the continuing reaction I get to my own book.”
“These stories are out there in the fabric of American life,” he added. “We haven’t uncovered them all.”
Eventually some 600 potential interview subjects were winnowed to about 40; many veterans still could not overcome their emotions when they tried to recount their experiences and could not be filmed. Organized chronologically, the film traces the war, including Pacific battles often overlooked by other histories, through the hometown and battle experiences of residents in four corners of America: Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Luverne, Minn.; and Sacramento. There are ringers as well, all veterans, including Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, the historian Paul Fussell and Ward Chamberlin, a retired public television executive.
Some eyewitnesses “emerged who we weren’t looking for,” said Lynn Novick, who served as producer and director with Mr. Burns. Maurice Bell, one of the few who survived the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis, walked in with a friend who was being interviewed and ended up recounting his harrowing tale of four days adrift in the sea, surrounded by sharks.
Other tales were added, after the film was finished and after an outcry from some Latino groups angry that their experiences had not been included. Mr. Burns, who has frequently dealt with the subject of race in his work, called the controversy “the most painful chapter in my professional life, without a doubt.” While he still contends that “art and identity politics don’t mix,” he said that by adding to the film, “I got to tell more stories.”
The barrage of noisy battle scenes, heartbreaking letters and indelible images, including grainy footage of Japanese women jumping to their deaths from a cliff, took their toll in production. “As we began to edit, I got overtaken by a kind of dread which was a recall of some of the stuff we’d felt in ‘Civil War,’ ” Mr. Burns said.
Likewise it is impossible to watch “The War” without thinking of the present. The veterans’ stories may have been repressed for decades, but they are told with the same clarity as those of the maimed Iraq war veterans in the recent HBO documentary “Alive Day Memories.” They are what Mr. Burns calls the universals of war: “I was scared, I was bored, I was cold, I was hot, I did bad things, I saw bad things, I lost good friends, they didn’t give me the right equipment, my officers didn’t know what they were doing. That’s it.”
“The War” was begun before the United States went into Afghanistan and Iraq, and Mr. Burns is adamant that his film is not a political statement, but he acknowledged that parallels will be drawn. History “is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past,” he said. “It is informed by our anxieties, by our failures, by our successes, by our hopes, by our wishes, by all the questions we have.”
Here in Walpole, Mr. Burns’s private and professional lives have become deeply entwined. When his Florentine Films is at full strength for a production, the staff can swell to 40 people, bursting out of the editing studio in a converted 1837 home a block from the village green. Many colleagues, most of whom have worked with him for years, live here full time. They include his best friend, Dayton Duncan, who was national press secretary for Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign and is a producer and writer on many Florentine productions. Locals often stand in for the professional actors who will later read the letters and diaries, voice-overs that are a Burns trademarks. Rebecca Holtz, then 12, read the diaries of Sascha Weinzheimer from the Santo Tomas prison camp in Manila so movingly that she retained the role for the final film.
Mr. Burns will eat dinner one night and lunch the next day in the town’s destination restaurant, in which he is a silent partner. He is also a partner in the gourmet grocery a few doors down.
The old farmhouse where he lives with his second wife, Julie, and their 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, is the same one he moved to when he fled New York City for financial reasons in 1979. Back then he was married to Amy Stechler, also a documentarian; they edited “Brooklyn Bridge” in a rustic cabin out back. That 1982 film, Mr. Burns’s first PBS production, garnered an Academy Award nomination and his career took off, but they opted to stay in Walpole. (He now has a SoHo apartment too.)
He has added 50 acres and a home office, sharing space with a 17-year-old cat and a 13-year-old golden retriever as well as artifacts from past projects, including dozens of baseballs from his nine-part 1994 history of the sport. Outside is an orchard with apple trees grafted with specimens from Monticello, a memento of sorts from his 1997 film on Thomas Jefferson. And the same woman, a half-hour drive away in Northampton, Mass., has been giving him his familiar ’70s haircut for 32 years.
Mr. Burns has stuck with PBS too. As its biggest name, he gets unequaled attention. A half-hour teaser video for “The War” has been running for weeks. Many stations plan to broadcast it cable style: twice each evening and again on weekends. After the marathon broadcast it will be rerun as a Wednesday series.
So even though viewers can choose from many more channels than were available in 1990, and the program is going up against premiere week on the commercial networks, John Boland, chief content officer for PBS, said the series “could be the biggest hit in public television history.” The topic, he added, “touches everyone’s lives.”
PBS is not alone in counting on the program’s success. There are numerous tie-in CDs from Sony, a companion book by Mr. Burns and the film’s writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, and a compilation of vintage columns by a Luverne, Minn., newspaper editor, Al McIntosh, whose words are read by Tom Hanks in the film. Three corporate sponsors — Mr. Burns’s longstanding patron, General Motors, as well as Anheuser-Busch and Bank of America — have tied fall marketing campaigns to the film.
But Mr. Burns works years ahead, and on a hot August day his next project, a 12-hour history of America’s national park system due in 2009, demanded attention: a painstaking line-by-line examination of a rough edit of the Grand Canyon episode.
Sitting amid six colleagues gathered around a wide-screen monitor, Mr. Burns laid out his concerns. The voice-over was “too Snidely Whiplash” here, the color “too Kodachromey there.” And that reference to the deciduous trees? “I don’t mean to nitpick,” he said to laughter, but “those are not leaves; they are needles.”
He is working even further in advance as well. After aborted attempts at a feature film about Jackie Robinson based on Mr. Burns’s work, Hollywood has started flirting with Mr. Burns again. This time there is talk of a biopic based on Mr. Burns’s 2005 profile of the boxer Jack Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness.”
In the meantime Mr. Burns has already mapped out his work well into the future. After the parks film, there are plans for a “10th inning” of “Baseball,” a film on Prohibition and a project with his daughter Sarah, 24, on the 1989 attack on a Central Park jogger. Then, in no particular order: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reconstruction, the Marshall Plan and another war, Vietnam. He expects that will take him through 2022, when his new 15-year PBS contract expires.
Now, though, as someone who describes his work as gathering people in, he’s having a hard time letting go of “The War.” One of his most eloquent interview subjects, a former medic named Ray Leopold, died in August; three others featured in the film died earlier. While working on a project, “you’re required to hold it at arm’s length,” he said, “and suddenly you’re bound to them.”