I meant to mention this last week, but I didn’t. Two of my favorite things are history and the movies, and few bring them together like filmmaker Ken Burns. This past Sunday, PBS began running his latest masterpiece, The War, about WWII. If you’ve never seen any of Burns’ work before and you have any interest in history whatsoever, and even if you don’t, you owe it to yourself to check him out. I’ve seen most, if not all, of his three previous multi-episode films, The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz. Each are epics of sweeping proportion, mixing archival footage, photographs, and interviews to create moving, inspiring, and enjoyable films, that entertain as well as educate.
So far, its only up to episode three of seven, The War is no exception. Burns’ stated aim is to show the Second World War from the perspective not of what he calls “celebrity generals and politicians” but from the “ground up” view of the average soldier, sailor, or marine. In interviews that I have watched or read, Burns talks as if this is a somewhat novel approach to WWII storytelling, but I can’t entirely agree. Many historians have in recent years written on the subject from this perspective, such as Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers or Citizen Soldiers, as well as many of the recent, and better, WWII films like Saving Private Ryan and Flags of Our Fathers have been told from a similar viewpoint. So that’s my one criticism. His approach is not quite as novel as he seems to think. But that in no way has affected the power or significance of this project.
Burns looks at the war through the eyes of folks from four average American towns, Luverne, Minnesota, Sacramento, California, Waterbury, Connecticut, and Mobile, Alabama. The film follows those not only doing the fighting, but also those on the home front; working in the factories for the war effort and waiting and hoping not to see the Western Union man appear on their doorstep bearing the bad news of a lost loved one. The combat footage is astounding and most of it I’ve never seen before, which for a WWII nut like me is saying a lot. Burns and company must of poured through thousands of hours of footage to find this stuff.
What I like about Burns’ films is that he never pulls punches and is not afraid to show the darker sides of things. I believe that to really understand history, its important to know as much as possible about as many of the perspectives as you can. Things are never as simple as we read them off the page of the history textbook. That’s not really the fault of the history textbook and its writers, though sometimes it is, because there is only so much you can cover in a textbook. Its up to the individual to do a little independent study. What Burns does is not not only talk about the military successes and failures, but also the struggles on the home front, particularly in regard to race. The armed services were segregated during the war and for much of it blacks were not given combat duty, but were used only in support roles. This may seem like a blessing at first, but it isn’t the supply truck driver who gets the accolades for a victory won, its the soldier. For much of the fight they were denied the opportunity for glory. At home they were often denied the skilled war time industry jobs. Also, a significant amount of the film is devoted to the internment of the Japanese-descendant Americans, most of them citizens and how Japanese men were not allowed to serve in the military. Until a need for more men arose. The subsequent all-Japanese 442 regiment that was raised became one of the most decorated units of the war. When these men died the informing telegrams were delivered to their families who were under armed guard by the same country their sons died to preserve. The incongruity of it is staggering when you think about it. But the film is far from a bash on America. Whenever I watch a Ken Burns film, I always come away loving America more than I did before, in spite of acknowledging the warts we’d all like to ignore. By getting that stuff out of the shadows, we prove what a great country we have that we can openly talk about our problems and not bury them in some old, dusty archive. The War in particular bears this out as it shows the great strengths of this country and how that by everyone coming together for a common cause, all races and creeds, despite the difficulties, a great feat can be achieved. And that’s really the focus. It makes you wonder what a united America could really accomplish in our current state of war.
Like the other Burns films, The War has a tremendous soundtrack that combined with the editing and footage makes for a truly compelling viewing experience.
If you’ve missed the first few episodes I’m sure PBS will be rerunning it multiple times and it will no doubt be available on DVD very soon. Here are a few clips. The last one here is the closing of the first episode, and includes a song called American Anthem sung by Nora Jones. I’ll freely admit that I get weepy every time I see and hear it. Just a warning, the first two clips contain actual combat footage. There’s nothing really gory, but some images may be disturbing.