September 21, 2007 / 9:06 PM / 12 years ago

Filmmaker Ken Burns chronicles WWII from bottom up

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ken Burns, one of America’s greatest visual historians, unveils his most ambitious television project yet on Sunday, a seven-part, 15-hour documentary that tells the story of World War II “from the bottom up.”

A still photograph from the series "The War", the new documentary film from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, shows American soldiers in Geich, Germany, pausing for a cigarette behind a tank on December 11, 1944.REUTERS/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/PBS/Handout

Six years in the making, “The War” explores one of the most devastating episodes in human history from a purely American perspective, as told by dozens of otherwise ordinary men and women who lived through the conflict.

Absent from the $13 million PBS series are the scholars, generals and other historical figures whose testimonials typically provide a foundation for such documentaries, as they did in Burns’ 1990 epic examination of the U.S. Civil War.

“It was our conscious decision to do this entirely from the bottom up,” Burns said in an interview. “And that meant if you weren’t in this war, or you weren’t waiting anxiously for somebody to come back from this war, you’re not in our film.”

With members of America’s “Greatest Generation” dying at a rate of more than 1,000 veterans a day, Burns raced the clock to assemble his first-person account of the war.

The veterans and other citizens featured in the series were drawn mostly from four small or mid-sized American towns — Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota.

Those places were chosen almost randomly to provide a geographic “blank slate” on which the filmmakers could construct their narrative, Burns said.

“We wanted to pick towns that no one would have associations with,” he said. “These towns have to be any four towns ... not burdened with preconception or the baggage that an L.A. or New Orleans or a Brooklyn would have.”


The film avoids detailed examination of military strategy and weapons. But it presents a wealth of obscure facts and figures that illuminate the desperation, determination and chaos of Americans caught up in a global war.

The surrender of 78,000 U.S. and Filipino troops to Japanese forces on the Bataan Peninsula was the largest ever in American military history, and as many as 11,000 men perished during the Bataan Death March that followed.

America lost two or three merchant ships a day to German U-boat attacks along the Atlantic seaboard early in the war, in large part because local leaders of major coastal cities were reluctant to impose municipal blackouts.

The United States went from a nation with a tin-helmeted peace-time Army smaller than Romania’s, with just 174,000 men in uniform, to a mechanized defense giant with assembly plants that churned out bomber aircraft at the rate of one per hour.

By 1943, 6 million women had entered the work force, half of them in the defense industry.

Burns also captures the tenor of the times with evocative music — from that era and newly composed — as well as radio broadcasts and hundreds of photographs and newsreel clips, a surprising amount of it in color.

The use of color images is aimed at giving events a more contemporary feel, bringing them closer to viewers, he said.

Burns said he worked hard to avoid presenting the war in a way “that removes you from experiencing it as real events, as though the Second World War, which is so wrapped in bloodless, gallant myth, is the good war. It’s not the good war. It’s the worst war ever.”

The film does not shy away from less heroic aspects of Americans’ wartime experiences — from the internment of Japanese Americans and discrimination against black shipyard workers and servicemen to the costly blunders and hubris of some U.S. commanders.

Marine recruit Sidney Phillips recalled retrieving the mutilated bodies of ambushed comrades on Guadalcanal, adding cryptically, “Our battalion never took a prisoner after that.”

One of the most staggering individual tales was that of infantry veteran Glenn Frazier, who ran away from home at 16 and lied about his age to join the Army on the eve of war.

Volunteering for the Pacific because he thought it safer than Europe, Frazier was plunged into America’s earliest combat when Japanese forces invaded the Philippines right after Pearl Harbor. He ended up a prisoner of war, enduring the Bataan Death March and three years of brutality in slave labor camps.

The film’s quieter moments carry an emotional weight of their own, as when former bomber pilot Sam Hynes recounts the oddly aloof handshake he received from his father as they bid each other farewell on a darkened railroad platform.

Such personal recollections are woven together with the larger history of the war narrated by actor Keith David.

As he did for “The Civil War,” Burns also excerpts vintage written accounts of different soldiers and civilians, most notably the home-front newspaper columns by Al McIntosh, editor of the Rock County Star-Herald in Luverne, voiced by actor Tom Hanks. Other off-camera narration is supplied by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Eli Wallach and Adam Arkin.

Slideshow (3 Images)

The most famous person interviewed on camera is U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, an Army veteran who lost an arm serving in Europe as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a highly decorated unit of Japanese Americans. But like the other veterans, Inouye sticks to his own recollections.

For all the talk about World War II being a war of necessity, Burns said he was not out to make a political statement. But, he acknowledged, “I think everyone will be conscious of the Iraq war as they’re watching this, of the similarities and the differences.”


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