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Gilbert Islands, 1943

"As a work of art, The War is Burns at his best." Above: fighting in the Gilbert Islands, 1943. (Photo: Library of Congress.)

Burns’ potent mosaic excels in closeup

Originally published in Current, Sept. 10, 2007
By Louis Barbash

Ken Burns has never told a bigger story than the one he tells in The War, Current Critiquehis 14-hour-plus chronicle of World War II, nor one better suited to the storytelling style he has perfected over the past quarter-century. Unlike The Civil War, this series lets him work with moving pictures and survivors who can be interviewed. Unlike Jazz and Baseball, which chronicled slices of American culture, The War spans the nation and the world. But unlike The West, The War is not so broad as to be amorphous.

Burns, fellow executive producer Lynn Novick and their team of longtime collaborators—including writer Geoffrey Ward and series editor Paul Barnes—tell their story from the bottom up. The leading roles have been assigned to the men and women who fought the war abroad and supported the effort at home.

Most of The War’s characters come from four cities chosen as representative of the country: Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Luverne, Minn.; and Sacramento, Calif. The series follows the lives of people in the four communities before, during and after the war. National leaders make few appearances—usually at a distance in newsreels or in radio addresses, as most Americans encountered them. The War is free of the professors, scholars and other deep thinkers Burns enlisted for earlier series to explain events. Concise narration and informative but understated graphics explain how the conflict unfolded, providing a backdrop for the firsthand recollections.

As a work of art, The War is Burns at his best. One of his great strengths is as a miniaturist. What he paints across his capacious canvas is not a single scene but a mosaic of miniatures, each compelling in its own right, but most powerful when tessellated together.

The collected stories of the pilot from Minnesota, the infantryman-turned-medic from Connecticut and the 11-year-old California girl interned in the Philippines, among others, justify the series’ all-encompassing title. And the broad focus on the people from the four representative communities allows The War to convey not only an aggregation of recollections, but an Our Town--like sense of wartime lives lived.

The producers’ storytelling, moreover, works best when it is most transparent, bringing viewers as close as possible to events and making history feel real. We hear veterans and home-fronters tell their own stories instead of making do with off-camera actors and photos. By excluding scholarly talking heads, the producers remove another standard documentary element that might have stood between the audience and the war.

Sprinkled among the unheralded GIs, some viewers will spot a few veterans whose later careers gave them broader perspectives on their military service. Paul Fussell, for example, speaks as an infantryman, though he later became a professor and author of Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, a book described by Publisher’s Weekly as portraying “American and British soldiers as alcoholically insulated against reality, suffering boredom, absurdity, sexual deprivation and, above all, full of subversive contempt stoked by the official mix of optimism and euphemism that falsified the war experience.”

Only near the end of the series are we told that former soldier Daniel Inouye, a member of the famous all-Japanese-American “Go for Broke” regiment, is an eight-term U.S. senator whose election required him to oversee and vote on the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And public TV insiders will recognize Ward Chamberlin, a volunteer ambulance driver during the war, as the man who, as president of WETA, began the station’s co-producing relationship with Burns that continues to this day.

The producers’ narrative transparency is occasionally clouded, however, by the music that wallpapers too many scenes. The War’s sequence on D-Day, one of the project’s most compelling, doesn’t need a lugubrious score to cue audience reactions. Nor do other battle sequences benefit from ’40s pop standards whose connection to the scene is obscure. And while the vast archive of WWII film, much of it in color, contributes to the sense of transparency, the many hours of combat footage lose impact as they begin to feel generic.

“A good war” only at a distance

A Burns technique that works well in The War is the bottom-up storytelling he has used since his earliest films, an approach so effective that the BBC and WGBH built an entire series, People’s Century, around it. The front-line stories from soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are a welcome counterpoint to the style of hundreds of WWII docs that focus on national leaders and generals and treat enlisted men as nearly faceless spear-carriers.

This filmmaking art also offers historical insight, providing, among other things, an important corrective to the popular 21st-century view of World War II and instructive comparisons to our present wars and wartime nation.

From The War’s first sequence, it takes pains to dispel the sepia-toned national recollection of World War II as the “good war,” the one we can all agree was worth fighting, the one we won. In fact, World War II bore a closer resemblance to Thomas Hobbes’ time of war, in which men, in “continual fear and danger of violent death,” live lives that are “nasty, brutish and short.” Ordinary men, who had been boys before the war and, if they survived, would take up ordinary careers after the war, endured maggot-infested squalor. They killed and were killed. Even those who escaped visible injury were haunted for their remaining decades by what they saw, sometimes in just months of combat. What we call post-traumatic stress disorder was then known as shell shock, and anyone who admitted having it might never have landed a job after the war.

While The War draws no explicit comparison between the home fronts of World War II and today, the contrast will be hard for viewers to ignore. Today’s 1.5 million active-duty military represents less than half of 1 percent of the country’s 302 million citizens. In contrast, World War II put 16 million in the armed services, almost 12 percent of the 140 million population. Three-and-a-half years of combat resulted in just under 300,000 American deaths, roughly 100 times as many as five years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Witness after witness in The War talks about American towns where block after block of houses displayed the gold star symbolic of military deaths in the family.

Home-front survivors recall other sacrifices. The U.S. auto industry, for instance, manufactured no passenger cars from Pearl Harbor through V-J Day. Tires were rationed to fuel the war machine, as were gasoline, typewriters, sugar, beef and coffee.

A first-person history emerges from this accumulation of interviews. Burns wisely lets his subjects talk about mundane details as well as climactic moments, which turns their recollections into stories. And because the film has helped us get to know the interviewees, their families and their hometowns, their stories, like those of a grandfather or uncle recalling what the war was really like, pack an emotional punch that can’t be matched by historians’ accounts about what generals and admirals were deciding.

This firsthand, bottom-up history brings these sacrifices home. But it also narrows the frame through which viewers—few of whom will be old enough to remember the war themselves—learn about World War II. The powerful figures who, because of their decisions and personal qualities, won and lost battles as surely as the fighting men did, are kept at a distance. Franklin Roosevelt is heard almost entirely in voiceover, for example, and appears almost exclusively with narration. The film repeatedly shows images of Generals Eisenhower, MacArthur and Bradley but tells viewers almost nothing about them.

The War’s frame also excludes the war’s precursors and its geopolitical context. It notes in passing that the war started in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, then fast-forwards to Pearl Harbor. Why did our war not start until two years after our allies were attacked?

The Holocaust is introduced only when American servicemen encounter it in 1945 as they overrun Germany, Poland and Austria. Did our leaders know what was going on? Was stopping it one of their military objectives? The War does not say.

National leaders and historical context is not all that Burns leaves out of The War. There is little or nothing about how ordinary citizens experienced war in the countries where it was fought, though Burns does a good job of limning the preparation of Japanese civilians for last-ditch resistance to the expected American invasion. But there is little about the experience of Russian soldiers, who perished by the hundreds of thousands on the Eastern Front. Little about the French living under Nazi occupation. Little about Britons living under the blitz while the U.S. stayed on the sidelines. Little about the women who served as nurses overseas or worked in war industries at home.

Even 14 hours is not enough time to look at World War II from every angle. Like any filmmaker, Burns is entitled to frame his story however he likes. There is no shortage of PBS films that provide historical background to the war and draw portraits of its leaders. American Experience alone has produced biographies of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and MacArthur, and eight other films about various aspects of the war.

But by constricting his focus so drastically and excluding expert interpreters of history as well as high-level leaders and their strategies, Burns risks severing his story from the context that would help viewers make sense of the experiences of the bottom-up history he relates. The D-Day invasion and the western European campaigns that followed, for example, might have been less successful if German forces hadn’t been occupied on the eastern front.

Did he rise to meet expectations?

Of course, the omission that has drawn the most attention is the absence, before Burns’ 11th-hour additions, of material about the Hispanic experience in World War II. He does fully and movingly document how the war affected African-Americans. Burns even includes the recollection of a non-combatant, the eminent historian John Hope Franklin, about his rejection from enlistment in a fighting regiment and his vow that if the Army wouldn’t let him fight, it wouldn’t get him at all.

But before pressure from Latino groups began to build this spring, the film included almost nothing about Hispanic Americans. Under that pressure, Burns agreed to add sequences featuring Latinos. And so he has—but only as end-of-program add-ons, presented out of historical sequence at the conclusion of the programs to which they are appended.

The 14-minute segment about two Mexican-American Marines that Burns appended to the first program, for example, begins more than two hours into the program, after what was clearly intended as a program-closer: the narrator intones that “For Americans in uniform, a hometown Christmas seemed very far away.” Norah Jones sings the series’ signature song, “American Anthem,” and the screen dips to black.

Another add-on sequence, six minutes about the experience of a Hispanic Marine at Iwo Jima, ends the sixth program, 17 minutes after the program completes its treatment of Iwo Jima. It is difficult to understand why the producers did not insert it with the rest of The War’s treatment of Iwo Jima, other than to segregate it from the body of the show.

Burns’ predicament results to some extent from changes in U.S. demographics and sensibilities in the 62 years since the war. At war’s end, there were fewer than 2 million Hispanics in the country, and their role in the war was thus not necessarily greater than those of other ethnic groups whose contributions likewise were not treated at length in the original film. Today, the country has more than 20 times as many Hispanic residents, and their desire to understand their role in the war counts for something.

For Burns, it apparently counted for enough to prompt him to add the segments. “We’ve done more than we were asked and expected to,” he told TV critics during this summer’s Los Angeles press tour, after the additional material had been produced but was not polished enough to be shown. It remains to be seen, after the series airs, whether those who called for it to be revised will agree with Burns that the three end-of-show additions exceed their expectations.

Many important things were left out of The War and many others treated memorably well. Or, to put it another way, The War was not the only film that could have been made about the war. We will never know whether Burns, with his immense skill and creative ingenuity, could have included other perspectives—more historical perspective, more about other countries’ experience in the war, more about the war’s great leaders, more about the contributions of women and Hispanics—without sacrificing the powerful effect of the series he did make.

Ultimately, viewers of The War will remember the series far more for what it includes than for what it has left out. There are many broad strokes and big-picture stories about history and leaders. But 60 years after V-J Day, the stories of the men and women who fought the war are perishable and precious. Thanks to The War, they will stay with us always.

Louis Barbash is a Current contributing editor, a longtime public TV producer and a former CPB program officer. His political blog is at www.connecting-the-dots.net.

Web page posted Sept. 12, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

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LINKS

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Okinawa, May 1945

Okinawa, May 1945. (Photo: U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.)

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