On the frontline
Ken Burns returns to the battlefield with The War
It’s been 25 years since his first major documentary, the Academy Award-nominated The Brooklyn Bridge, first aired to great public and critical acclaim, and in that time the body of work amassed by filmmaker and historian Ken Burns has been both honored and imitated.
Now Burns and his team, which includes co-director Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward, are returning with The War, a seven-part documentary series airing on public television, and a massive companion book published by Alfred A. Knopf, both examining the events of the Second World War through first-hand accounts.
After producing the stunning, 9 1/2-hour documentary The Civil War in 1990, Burns and his associates concluded—"vowed,” in fact—that they would never make another film on the subject of war. They were worried that they’d be typecast as “war documentarians” and, after the success of The Civil War, they might be seen as exploiting their subjects.
More personally, while they hadn’t been completely turned away by harrowing details of mass slaughter, it was a dark, life-changing place they had no desire to rush back to. Most of all, however, they had found that the task of trying to flesh out the story of armed conflict was permeated with a sense of futility.
In his introduction to The War‘s companion book, Burns reaches back again to the War Between the States and quotes Walt Whitman, who served the Union as a nurse and witnessed the horrifying impact of the Civil War first-hand. “The real war,” he said, “will never get in the books.”
Two tragic facts encouraged Burns to revoke his self-imposed moratorium. He was stunned at the realization that approximately 1,000 World War II veterans die every day in the United States. To allow the loss of that living history, of their “direct connection” to the events of the past, would amount, in Burns’ mind, to a willful submission to “historical amnesia.”
On the generational flipside, another statistic made Burns’ “knees buckle.” A report issued in the mid-'90s by the National Council for History Education found that around 40 percent of graduating high-schoolers believed that during the Second World War, the U.S. was allied with Germany against the Soviet Union.
So, if there was to be another examination of World War II, how was it to be distinguished from the thousands of books and films already in existence? How had those previous works failed to convey the story of the so-called “good war"? And how were the filmmakers to best convey what Burns describes as the “abyss” of armed conflict? What was needed, he concluded, was a bottom-up examination. His simple rule: “If you weren’t fighting the battles or waiting behind anxiously for those that were, then you wouldn’t be in this film.”
In particular, this series and its accompanying book are an examination of the Second World War through the experiences of the average Americans who were called upon to fight it, on the battlefield and on the home front. And while it progresses chronologically and touches on the war’s major events, this is not a battle-by-battle encyclopedia, nor is it the combined memoir of generals and statesmen. Here, Burns and his myriad colleagues have focused their attention on four towns, each locale representing a cross-section of America. Nearby Sacramento is one of those locations, along with Mobile, Ala., Luverne, Minn., and Waterbury, Conn.
Burns’ introductory statement in the print edition acknowledges the restrictive formula of this documentary and concludes with a clever combination of caveat and invitation:
“The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced the war.”
Still, some critics, it seems, have completely missed the point.
“WWII as a whole is short-shrifted in The War,” wrote Variety’s Robert Koehler, “with such enormous conflicts as the Japanese conquest of East Asia and the … Soviet defense against Hitler’s invading army either ignored altogether or reduced to a footnote, merely because the U.S. wasn’t involved.”
This documentary is, unabashedly, the story of World War II through American eyes, but to call it “nationalistic” would be facile and disingenuous. The film itself never resorts to jingoism, even when some of its first-person sources speak openly about the common prejudices of the times, particularly against the Japanese enemy, who, up until Pearl Harbor, was generally viewed as physically, mentally and technologically incapable of waging war against Americans.
Of the four towns profiled, Sacramento in particular had to come to grips with a unique system of wholesale, institutionalized prejudice. Thousands of the area’s Japanese and Japanese-American residents were interred in relocation camps for the duration of the war, locked behind barbed wire and under constant supervision by armed guards. As Burns and a number of veterans note in the film, the patriotism of the Japanese-Americans, or Nisei, who served in uniform while their families were confined was matched only by their extraordinary valor. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese-Americans who saw action in the African and European theaters, became the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army for its size.
Despite the proven loyalty of America’s Japanese residents, the racism they faced was slow to disappear, especially on the home front. When word reached Sacramento that three Nisei soldiers had been killed in one week of fighting, someone forwarded the news clipping to Sacramento’s state assemblyman, Chester Gannon, also chairman of the Committee on Japanese Problems, with a note that read, “Here are three Japanese who won’t be coming back to California.” Gannon’s office, in an unsigned note, responded, “Glory! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
The War confronts the tensions, against the Nisei and most certainly against African-Americans, that boiled to the surface of American life as the country was called upon to make unforeseen sacrifices. That there was racial tension in Mobile, or in Sacramento, or even on the frontline, is hardly surprising, but the stark reality of it is made more evident against the backdrop of war, where unity is so essential.
Burns has expressed the hope that by limiting the scope of this project to four towns, he could, paradoxically, make the message more universal. Indeed, the sense of community is heightened by the approach, and the bonding that took place in each of these towns during the war, people drawn together through their shared experience, is at the heart of the film.
There are some today who consider Burns’ style too staid—the subdued narratives and quiet pontificating of armchair historians in Burns’ series on baseball and jazz coming across as overly earnest for the hipster demographic. Though, coincidentally, in today’s popular currency of misplaced irony, the “Ken Burns effect"—panning across or zooming in and out on static photographs—has recently entered popular usage through the iVocabulary.
While many of Burns’ staple low-key techniques are clearly present, the pacing of The War benefits from the availability of contemporary, live-action film. Home movies give depth to the central figures in Burns’ film, while tense battle footage allows us to follow the action in a way that still photos never can.
The War‘s greatest strength, however, is the story—the collective memory of those who survived the world’s most destructive and murderous war, and the remembrance of those who did not.