Seventeen years after The Civil War copped dozens of awards, including two Emmys and a Peabody, Ken Burns has gone back to war—World War II—with The War. Born in Brooklyn, the son of a cultural anthropologist, Burns dreamed of becoming a Hollywood director in the mold of John Ford or Howard Hawks, but the major influences on his own work include photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who captured indelible images of ordinary men and women in the Depression, and documentary filmmakers like D. A. Pennebaker, who pioneered an intimate and direct style. Over his thirty year career since Brooklyn Bridge, Burns has rarely revisited a topic, roving over the likes of baseball, jazz, Lewis and Clark, and Frank Lloyd Wright. After The Civil War, Burns vowed never to tackle the subject of war again, yet his Florentine Films spent nearly six years assembling The War. The fourteen-hour survey follows events through the eyes of a few dozen people.
Why does World War II still matter?
I can’t imagine a time it won’t. It is the greatest cataclysm in human history, killing more human beings, engaging more human effort, than any other event. Right now is a particularly fruitful period for the war in popular culture because the young men who fought are now old men, and many of them have finally begun to tell their stories. It’s a bittersweet intersection we find ourselves at: the rich memories of these men and the realization that they’re at the end of their lives. We’re losing a thousand veterans a day. The film I made would not be possible five years from now.
There are so many movies and documentaries already about World War II.
Well, there are excellent films that put me in the moment but didn’t show me the context. There are documentaries that gave me the context but were sort of soul less, didn’t tell me what it was like to be in that war.
None of them seemed able to understand the simultaneity of the two theaters. And so we try to tell an entirely bottom up, intimate story of the war that gives you a sense of what it meant to be in battle but at the same time communicate the largeness of it. The overarching story is chronologically anchored in these four regular American towns, so that we would have a sense of home, a place to return to, while showing both theaters.
Putting it all together must have been quite a logistical challenge.
It was the most complicated production we’ve ever had. We were trying to do two things that seemed mutually exclusive: tell an intimate story and at the same time a history of the war. The film is very much like War and Peace, where you get to know fifty or so individuals intimately. They’re the foreground. The background is this epic struggle. The incredibly complex artistic effort came in merging these two seemingly disparate aspects.
A lot of original picture research forms the basis of the film.
We went through tens of thousands of stills and thousands of hours of footage. That was the monster task. We visited archives all around the world: Tokyo, Moscow, Berlin, London, hundreds in the United States. The National Archives was our single most important repository. But with this film we’ve merged all those materials with the home movies and graduation pictures of the towns and people we met there.
So it’s at once intimate and general. Famous shots like the men falling at Omaha Beach are alongside things no one has ever seen before, not just from private archives but the National Archives. Because we had the privilege and luxury to spend years on this project, we did not only get familiar stories that play again and again in World War II documentaries.
There’s loads of film, even color film, of the war.
And it’s very potent stuff. After we got over the excitement and shock of how much color footage there was, we figured out how to use it effectively to make the battles come alive. That was one of the most exciting parts of the production. That footage combined with the presence of these men, who are our fathers and grandfathers, is what makes this so special. It has an emotional immediacy for us that increases the challenge of using the photos and footage to bring it alive, to make it as real as we feel it to be—to make you feel like you’re in the battle.
Did you see yourself working in the tradition of famous war correspondents Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin?
In the sense that there’s a kind of impossibility to communicating what happens in war. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was wounded six times in the Civil War, said, “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life at its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.” So we used intermediaries, like Pyle and Mauldin, to try to describe the indescribable, explain the unexplainable, and fathom the unfathomable.
Which means adopting the soldier’s viewpoint.
Our understanding of the war is distracted and mediated by an unnecessary interest in celebrity generals and politicians, by the continual focus on strategy and tactics, on armaments and weaponry, and by the demonization of evil, all things Nazi, for instance.
We try to remove that. Those generals are players on our stage, but the central characters are the young men who did the fighting and the dying, whose stories are told not just in a specific moment, which has been done, but across the arc of the war, which has not been done.
Your arc’s midpoint is June 6, 1944.
The parallels between the Civil War and the Second World War were affecting us. After Gettysburg, some said the war would be over, but the worst killing was yet to come. The same was true of D-Day. Patton, I think, said, “All plans change the minute the fighting starts.”
So you have the improvisation that takes place continually in war, and how much of it goes wrong. Like Peleliu—an island of no strategic significance that’s one of the most important battles of our film, in large part because, with all the down-and-dirty killing there, it didn’t need to be fought. The men who ordered the battle never visited it. You have, as you do in all wars, these horrific campaigns where the price paid by the people we focus on is the most extreme.
Your section on D-Day recalls the film The Longest Day.
In that episode, we do the landings, then we go back home for the reactions, then we go to Saipan, which is just getting started. We spend about 70–75 percent of our film in battle and the rest of the time at home. Home really anchors you. We were constantly moving around, shifting the perspective to give a sense of how complicated the war was. It wasn’t happening from that bird’s-eye view that tends to make human beings arrows on a map. I’ve always described myself as an emotional archaeologist. This isn’t sup posed to be a textbook. It’s a poem where a handful of people have to stand in for everybody else.
You indict some leaders for incompetence.
Well, that’s true of some, like MacArthur. But don’t mistake our perspective for Willie and Joe’s, the universal perspective of ordinary soldiers from time immemorial saying, “My officers didn’t know what they were doing.” We’ve had soldiers from Iraq watch the film and nod. If we could bring soldiers back from the Peloponnesian War, I’m sure it’d be the same thing: officers didn’t know what they were doing, they never gave us the right equipment, our spears were shorter than theirs, our shields were smaller. That’s part of war’s universality too.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.