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Burns Film Examines World War Two Through American Towns

September 21, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Once again, Ken Burns is telling the story of a war…

RAY PITTMAN, Mobile, Alabama: I always looked around and wondered, “Now, how many men am I going to lose?”

JEFFREY BROWN: … but this time, a war that’s within the living memory of many Americans. In “The War,” a seven-part, 15-hour PBS series, Burns offers a bottom-up version of America at home and abroad during World War II, not from the view of the generals or leaders, but of ordinary people.

KATHARINE PHILLIPS, Mobile, Alabama: We had started losing boys in the neighborhood. The boy up here on the corner was a Navy pilot, and he was killed. The boy down the street was an Air Force pilot, and he was missing in action. They just started disappearing all around us.

QUENTIN ANDERSON, Luverne, Minnesota: And I remember the impact it had on me when I could just see my bullets just tearing into them, and we had so much firepower that the bodies would fly some yards.

And as I was doing this, I was doing it knowing I had to do it, that it was my job, this is what I had been trained to do. And I dealt with it fine. But when I got back home to the base in Normandy and landed, I got sick.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film has stirred significant controversy. In response to some criticism that no Hispanics or Native Americans were featured, Burns added scenes to the end of three of the episodes.

WORLD WAR II VETERAN: Well, they used to tell us that the Japanese couldn’t see very far, but they could see far enough to kill you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also, fearing potential FCC sanctions due to the graphic nature of the language in the film, PBS is offering stations a version that cuts out several uses of expletives. “The War” begins this Sunday night.

And Ken Burns joins me now. Welcome to you.

KEN BURNS, Filmmaker: Thank you so much for having me.

Perspectives from American towns

JEFFREY BROWN: First thing I noticed is no scholars or experts, little focus on the political leaders. Why did you do it this way?

KEN BURNS: We've paid lip service for years and years and years in our film to a so-called bottom-up history, but in point of fact it's been just that. And we really in this one wanted to get at the essence of what combat was like.

And so we felt that there is a scrim that comes down that blocks our attempt to understand the Second World War if we're focused entirely on those celebrity generals and the politicians on the strategy and the tactics, the armaments and the weaponry, and feel that we could have an unmediated view of what it was really like if we could just get to so-called ordinary people.

And so we told the story of the American experience in the Second World War from the bottom-up by following the fortunes of about 50 people, most of whom come from four geographically distributed American towns.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's interesting you said a scrim comes down, because one could think about it a different way, movies, books, the History Channel, and in one sense World War II was quite familiar.

KEN BURNS: It is. And yet I think we don't really know what's at its heart, the worst slaughter ever in the history of humankind. We see it as "the good war." How did we negotiate that thing?

And I think what we wanted to do is realize that a lot of documentaries provide the context, which is all very well and good, and very important, and we do, too, but really lack the intimacy. And those that have an intimacy to them then are at a specific moment and lack the context.

And what we were trying to do, would it be possible to tell the story of the Second World War, arcing from Pearl Harbor to the surrender, from the bottom-up, so it was intimate, but giving you that overarching thing? Could you do what I've never seen done before, the European and the Pacific theaters simultaneously anchored or triangulated with a sense of what's going on at home, and still be free of the hagiography that comes along with the hero worship of the generals and the politicians?

"The good war"

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned "the good war," "the greatest generation," now, these are phrases that we've had with us for a long time. And I have, in the past, wondered whether whatever truth they have to them, whether they oversimplify what must be a very complicated event in history. What did you come to think?

KEN BURNS: I think that, particularly with "the good war" idea, I think we understand why. As the decades have receded, I think we've begun to understand that our reasons for involvement were unambiguous, there was not a big debate about whether we should be doing it or not, the way we are with so many wars that have followed the Second World War.

But I think, by allowing that to sink in, to sort of calcify, that we've forgotten how horrible this war was. It's the worst war ever.

Now, the greatest generation, I think human nature is the same. And this is, of course, the same generation that brought out the worst. I mean, the people who perpetrated most of the atrocities of the Second World War are part of that same generation, too.

We wanted to sort of see if we could break the logjam of these terms and just get at just experiences. All we really wanted to do was to bear witness to what our folks did, and these were people that we hope you get to know like family members, somebody you might have had Thanksgiving with over the course of the production.

JEFFREY BROWN: The criticism over the lack of Hispanic voices -- we did a debate on this show a few months ago about it -- you have called it, you've said it's a painful episode for you. Did you look at it as an attack on your artistic license or what you were trying to do? Will it change your thinking about how you work in the future?

KEN BURNS: It won't change how we do things in the future, and I'm very proud of the film that we made. And I was sorry that so many people made judgments about it without seeing it. I think we honored all the veterans' experience. We knew we couldn't tell everything. And, in fact, we went into these towns for five years and weren't seeking specific ethnic identity but specific combat experience.

But, you know, the purpose of art is to kind of transcend these dialectics of politics that bump into each other, and we felt it was incumbent upon us to listen. I've been telling stories that haven't been told in American history all my professional life.

And so we had the opportunity to rise above the situation, to go and film additional things, to add them at the end of a couple of the episodes, and I think begin to make some -- not all -- whole in this regard, and still not feel that we as artists had in some ways compromised our original vision. And we struggled very hard to find a ground in which we can do that.

And I think the stories that we've done are as good as anything in the film. The veterans that you meet are so powerful that it sort of proves the point of the original film, was that we knew we couldn't tell everybody. We were gathering as many folks that came up to us, shared their stories, and those who had misunderstood our original intention now have an opportunity to be made whole. But I think it still proves the value of our original approach.

Sustained attention for "The War"

JEFFREY BROWN: I have to ask you, speaking of storytelling, I mean, we live in an age of notoriously short attention spans. And our kids, certainly my kids, they're multitaskers, right? They're doing a lot of things at once. You're asking a lot of viewers.

KEN BURNS: Yes, and we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: You continue to.

KEN BURNS: And I want to continue to. I think all real meaning in this world accrues in duration. The work you're proudest of, the work that I am proudest of, the relationships we care most about have benefited from our sustained attention.

And it is true, with all of our technological options, that we do think that our attention span has eroded to that of a gnat, that it's all just a couple of minutes on YouTube and we think we know it. But let's also remember that kids, millions and millions of them, bought a book that's going to take them a lot longer than 14, 15 hours to read -- the most recent Harry Potter -- and have devoted their attention to that in great, great numbers.

So I think there's always a reservoir of possibility or maybe opportunity to devote attention. And all we can say as filmmakers, that if you extend to us the courtesy of your attention for these 15 hours, we promise we will not disappoint you.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ken Burns, his film is "The War," thanks very much for talking to us.

KEN BURNS: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: And Lynn Novick, co-producer and director with Ken Burns, will answer your questions about the making of "The War." To participate in that in our Insider Forum, just go to our Web site at