Words of 'war'

Ken Burns' latest documentary lets those who lived World War II tell what it was like - while they're with us.

Posted: August 12, 2007

The presence of Ken Burns' father looms large in his son's latest PBS epic.

But viewers won't know it.

An unidentified photograph of Lt. Robert Kyle Burns Jr. is the first and last image in The War, a 15-hour documentary series about World War II. It launches Sept. 23.

Burns hadn't planned to use the photo, a beloved possession since college. After all, his dad had spoken to him about the war only once before his death in 2001.

But as War began taking shape as personal reminiscences of vets from various American towns, Burns decided the image "would be a quiet way to honor my father," he said during a recent visit here.

There is nothing quiet about War, however.

Its ear-splitting, raw combat footage is as shocking to the senses as the savage opening scene of D-Day in Steven Spielberg's acclaimed Saving Private Ryan.

With one exception: "Those guys [in the film] got up and went to craft services," Burns says. "My guys don't get up. They're dead."

Seven years and $13 million in the making, War is Burns' 22d historical documentary - all for PBS.

The mind boggles. Even with specks of gray in his Leave It to Beaver mop, the 54-year-old Burns occasionally gets carded. He credits his youthful appearance to "excessive worry and travel."

Everything about Burns is excessive, from his evangelical promotion of projects to his inexhaustible work ethic.

PBS's rain-making poster boy never takes time off. Even at his New Hampshire lake house, he gets itchy after two days. "Fridays, Mondays don't mean anything to me. I cannot imagine not working."

It shows. Burns and his producers spoke with more than 600 potential subjects for the seven-episode War, winnowing the list to 40 interviews with men and women from places like Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; and tiny Luverne, Minn.

Like Lt. Robert Burns, all are "generic," in his son's words. For the first time in a Burns production, there are no celebrities (in this case, officers and politicians), no scholars, no experts.

"We wanted to do this film entirely differently," he says. "We're not in FDR's White House or Winston Churchill's 10 Downing Street. This isn't just the history of the Great Men, capital G, capital M."

In Burns' view, many World War II chroniclers "are distracted by an unnecessary and unnatural interest in celebrity generals and politicians, and an unnatural obsession with armaments and weaponry."

The list includes "all things Nazi," Burns continues. "That stupid little mustache on that small man [Hitler] and swastika are big symbols. They distract you from an experience of war, of what it was like to be in that war."

Burns wasn't looking to document another war. Quite the opposite, in fact.

His 1990 masterpiece The Civil War - the top-rated limited series in PBS history - "was so wrenching for us, we felt spent. We vowed not to do another war film. Period. End of statement.

"It was too heavy. Too close. We're emotional archaeologists. We're not just excavating dates from the past. These are not products or ways to make a living. These are grand obsessions."

Still, aging vets and/or their children kept pleading with Burns to turn his unique, quintessentially American lens on World War II. He politely declined.

Until the late '90s, that is, when he read that U.S. vets were dying at the rate of 1,000 per day. Suddenly, Burns felt he couldn't let their memories die with them.

These aren't our ancestors, he thought. These are our fathers, our grandfathers.

Also, it didn't hurt that his friend Tom Brokaw had blazed the trail with his hugely successful "Greatest Generation" franchise.

Brokaw, an adviser to War, "did an amazing service to our country by giving an unusually reticent generation permission to speak," Burns says. "He probably should be given a medal for that."

Burns is not so quick to endorse "greatest" laurels. The war "brought out the best and worst in a generation, and blurred the two so they became, at times, almost indistinguishable.

"We live in a media culture where we're dialectically preoccupied with labels. What you need is art that can see both."

"Seeing both" caused quite a commotion for War during its production. In January, Hispanic groups such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus attacked Burns - and PBS - for the absence of Hispanics in the series.

Numerous independent filmmakers urged Burns to maintain his own artistic vision and not to bow to outside pressure. They worried it might set a dangerous precedent.

After thinking "long and hard," Burns added two Hispanic vets and, for good measure, an American Indian. The former appear at the end of the first and sixth episodes; the latter in the fifth. In total, they add 20 to 30 minutes' length to the film, Burns estimates.

Did Ken cave? No, he simply lives to fight another day.

"I'm Br'er Rabbit. I got to go back in the briar patch and tell more stories," Burns says, recognizing a good sound bite when he hears one. "I didn't change the essential integrity of the film. It was a win-win."

Politics (meaning potential funding) had nothing to do with it, Burns insists.

"In the political world, where I don't exist, people use rhetoric and yell at each other. I wanted to be above that. Politics, for me, has always been a small p. I like to see the larger, more complicated thing."

Burns is "fairly confident" the situation won't repeat itself with other groups in future projects.

Smart money says it won't be Hispanics. Burns says they'll appear in almost all six episodes of his next opus, on the National Park Service. After that, in '09 or '10, he'll take on Prohibition.

And at some point, he plans to update an earlier film - another Burns precedent - his '94 marathon Baseball.

On the personal side, Burns' life is equally full.

He and his second wife, Julie, 41, have a 21/2-year-old daughter, Olivia. His eldest, Sarah, 24, a writer, is married to one of his producers. Lilly, 20, studies history and film at Columbia.

Meanwhile, Burns' love affair with PBS continues unabated. He just signed an exclusive deal through 2022, which will mark 40 years with the public network.

"I'm leaving the dance with them that brung me," Burns says.

Assuming he leaves the dance.


Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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