It’s been a few months since this debuted on television, but I missed it and finally had a chance to see the whole thing on DVD this past week. This is World War II getting the Ken Burns treatment. Unlike Burns’s The Civil War
, which debuted on PBS in 1990 and quickly became the most watched program in the history of public television, The War
eschews the big picture in favor of the little details. There are no interviews with authors or historians or modern commentators. There is no Shelby Foote or George Will to offer a scholarly perspective. This time, the sit-down interview subjects are the veterans themselves, and their families and friends — those who can speak of the war first-hand. Their recollections are pasted together by Burns and his writer Geoffrey Ward, telling the overall story of the war through a collage of personal experiences.
The film keeps us abreast of the whereabouts and significant actions of historical giants like Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Eisenhower, Patton, Rommel, and MacArthur, but only through occasional narrative asides — the famous names are never center stage. Instead, the film dwells on the extraordinary stories of the soldiers, sailors, pilots and marines who actually fought the war. It’s this focus that separates Burns’s film from the sort of competent but unremarkable documentaries that you can find most days on the History Channel, and elevates it into the realm of art.
The stories Burns has found to tell are remarkable, and some are immensely moving. The film, 14 hours in length, is divided into seven episodes. Early episodes relate events that took place over months or even years, but as the series goes on, and the events portrayed grow more consequential, the time frames shrink. Episode Four, “The Pride of Our Nation,” which focuses primarily on the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, covers only two months, whereas the first two episodes had each dealt with the events of 1942 and 1943, respectively. Providing even tighter focus is the decision to follow veterans and families primarily from four American towns: Waterbury, Connecticut; Laverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; and Sacramento, California.
The four towns constitute a reasonable cross-section of the U.S., representing east and west, north and south, but they also allow Burns to tell stories unique to each town. With Waterbury, we get a town whose brass manufacturing industry was devastated by the Great Depression, only to be revitalized (though not permanently, as the final episode sadly informs us) by the massive demand of the war effort. In Mobile, we learn of the population explosion and racial tensions that resulted when thousands of blacks and Hispanics moved in to work in the reinvigorated ship yards. In Sacramento, there is the telling of the shameful forced relocation of Japanese Americans from their homes to internment camps, where most of them would stay for the duration of the war. And from Laverne, there are the sometimes funny, sometimes sad editorials from the Rock County Star-Herald, written by Al McIntosh, read with perfect understatement by Tom Hanks.
And from veterans hailing from each of the four towns, and a few from elsewhere, a series of grim, gory, occasionally funny, and often incredible recollections of their experiences fighting the war in Europe and the South Pacific. Pilot Quentin Aaronsen from Laverne remembers how he asked his future wife to wait for him, and not to date any men more than three times while he was overseas; Aaronsen also relates a gruesome episode involving a Nazi artillery shell exploding in the house where he was busy directing fighter planes on their attacks, and the brains of a fellow officer being splattered across his clothes and maps. Glenn Frazier, from Mobile, has perhaps the most incredible story of all: he was captured in 1942, survived the Bataan Death March, lived through years of inhuman treatment in a Japanese prison camp where he also miraculously endured double-pneumonia and gangrene, and finally made it home only to learn that his former high school sweetheart, who had been told Frazier was dead, was about to marry someone else. Frazier, like several other of the veterans featured, confesses that it took him quite a few years after V-J Day to finally let go of the hatred and fear that lingered from the war. “My war lasted another thirty years,” Frazier says in the final episode.The War
is moving, and reverent, and unabashedly admiring of the men and women it features. It is patriotic, but avoids becoming propaganda. The racism that blacks and those of Japanese ancestry were forced to endure is highlighted rather than ignored, and there is more than one instance of a vet expressing repentance, or at least regret, at the violence they were obliged to inflict on enemies whom they nevertheless recognized as fellow human beings. The film’s position toward World War II is not that it was a good war, as convention so often labels it, but a necessary one. Also helping keep the film from descending into the morose or the maudlin is the just-right narration of Keith David. His voice is sharp as a razor, and keeps the narrative from being overwhelmed by its most extreme elements.
Ken Burns has made some great films. I’m not sure yet, having watched it only once, how The War measures up with his other epics like The Civil War
. But I can say with confidence that it is his most ambitious, and ultimately his most moving.