Burns Makes Epic Masterpiece On World War II

‘The War’

by Tom Roush

For Ken Burns, the marquee filmmaker of the PBS constellation, the decision to go back to war was made when he discovered that masses of American high school students think that the United States fought with the Germans against the Russians in World War II. (Historical note: This is not correct.)

It has been nearly two decades since Burns has taken on war as a subject of one of his massive documentary projects. After producing the definitive TV project about the American Civil War, Burns swore off war as a subject, choosing to focus on lighter historical topics, like a history of jazz and baseball. Whatever the topic, a Burns project is typified by being definitive and comprehensive.

Now, Burns is back on the warpath. Beginning on Sept. 23, every PBS affiliate in the nation, including Pensacola’s PBS affiliate WSRE, is airing “The War,” Burns’ seven-part documentary series about the United States’ involvement in World War II.

“This is a pivotal moment for PBS,” says Jill Hubbs, WSRE’s Director of Educational Services and Community Outreach. “We’re preserving the stories of the World War II generation for years to come.”

The new Burns film has given Hubbs and her fellow WSRE staffers the opportunity to create companion documentaries about how the war affected the Gulf Coast. WSRE has interviewed and archived the stories of scores of Panhandle veterans, who were directly involved in the seminal battles of the day.

“We’ve documented some incredibly moving stories,” Hubbs says of the tales she’s heard from area veterans. Her approach of recording the tales of bit players in the larger drama plays nicely with the approach Burns has taken. His film is not the documentary version of the movie “Patton.” It is the war as seen through the eyes of the ordinary citizen, which enhances its educational value, according to Hubbs.

“From books, you learn dates and facts. But when you hear about what happened from a real veteran, from someone who was there, it’s much more powerful,” she says. “It makes it real.”

To make the story even more real, Burns decided to focus not on the big battles but on how the war affected four typical U.S. cities of the day from four geographic regions. Each town, one of which is Mobile, is connected to the larger action through the effect of the war on individual citizens in each city.

If that isn’t real enough, Hubbs notes that the film makes no attempt to hide the carnage. The dead are there, in all their hideous glory, including 35,000 American soldiers in the first year of the war alone.  By the war’s end, at least 350,000 American soldiers had been killed in action. That’s one dead U.S. soldier for every man, woman and child in the WSRE viewing area.

For educators like Hubbs, Burns is a blessing. His films bring to life large subjects and turns complex issues into a set of simple, interesting people and stories.

During a six-year span, Burns coaxed 600 veterans to tell their stories. “The War” is a masterpiece that highlights the personal sacrifices, big battles, misguided plans, successful strategies, disappointments and triumphs that changed America and the world from Pearl Harbor in 1941 to V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945.

“We have spent all of our lives watching World War II documentaries that are bedeviled in some way,” Burns says. “There are aerial views that provide context and no intimacy. Or there is an intimate moment with no context. Or they are distracted by an interest in celebrity generals and they are populated by avuncular historians spouting sort of abstract nonsense. Or they are distracted by strategy and tactics or weapons or all things Nazi.

“Here we just said, OK, if you weren’t in this war, on the front lines or waiting anxiously for someone to come back from that war, you are not in our film.’ We want to tell you what it was like to be in war, to bear witness to the testimony of these people.”

In addition to the appalling historical ignorance of many in the United States, Burns also credits the passing of approximately 1,000 World War II vets per day as the reason for making the film now.

Four people Burns interviewed for the documentary have since died.
Preserving their eye-witness accounts is but a side benefit to creating a film that will burn the account of World War II into the mind of every viewer.
And, that has real value in understanding today’s world. As World War I veteran William Faulkner put it: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”
WSRE WWII Documentaries

Tune in to WSRE-PBS to see two locally produced documentaries. “Khaki Coast” explores how the Panhandle helped win World War II. “Khaki Coast” premieres at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20.

“Gulf Coast War Memories” shares the stories of local veterans and citizens, told in their own words, about their experiences on the front lines and the home front. “Gulf Coast War Memories” premieres at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21.

Visit the WSRE website at wsre.org/thewar to see additional program information, viewer’s guides, discussion blogs, educator resources, local museums, regional veteran’s groups, information on the local veterans and citizens interviewed for the project, and more. In addition, veterans and citizens can share their WWII stories and photos online.

When To Watch

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns presents a 15-hour, seven-part series, “The War,” which explores the history and the horror of World War II from an American perspective by following the lives of ordinary men and women who became caught up in one of the greatest cataclysms in human history.

“The War” airs at 7 p.m. each evening over two weeks, beginning Sunday, Sept. 23 (four nights the first week and three nights the second week).
“The War” Schedule on WSRE-PBS
Episode 1 Sunday, Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Episode 2 Monday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Episode 3 Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Episode 4 Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Episode 5 Sunday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Episode 6 Monday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Episode 7 Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Episodes 1-4 repeat in a marathon from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30
Episodes 5-7 repeat in a marathon from 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7
The entire series repeats at 8 p.m. every Wednesday, Oct. 3-Nov. 14


Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns 15-hour epic poem as he calls it about World War II begins airing on PBS on Sunday, Sept. 23. The War, a seven-part series, is expected by PBS to attract its largest audience yet, surpassing the 38.9 million viewers who watched any part of the first broadcast of Burns The Civil War.

Burns, 54, whose PBS career spans 30 years, will have his latest documentary air on more than 300 PBS stations nationwide.

Here, the Independent News caught up to WSRE General Manager Sandra Cesaretti Ray to talk about the WWII masterpiece.

IN: What is the relationship between PBS and Ken Burns? Can we expect more work from him in the future?

CESARETTI RAY: Ken Burns is committed to public television. Ken is a remarkable storyteller and he is appreciative and supports the mission of PBSto inform, educate, and entertain. Yes, your readers and our viewers can expect more work on PBS in the future. However, its important to remember that The War was 6 1/2 years in the making.

IN: How important are high-profile films like The War to PBS and its affiliates like WSRE? 
CESARETTI RAY: Very. At a time when there are so many media choices, as well as content choices, having an important documentary such as Ken Burns The War gives PBS and WSRE an opportunity to do what we do bestlong format, in-depth programming. World War II changed America, and changed our community. Telling the story from the accounts of those who lived through it, reminds all of us and educates us on a time that was critical.

IN: How do you think viewers will respond to The War? Do you anticipate a hit for WSRE?
CESARETTI RAY: Yes, The War is an important program and it is being coupled with WSREs two companion documentaries: Kakhi Coast about  how the Panhandle helped win WWII and War Memories, which shares stories of our own local veterans. They programs demonstrate WSREs commitment to important national and local programming.

IN: If YOU could pick the subject for the next Ken Burns epic, what would it
CESARETTI RAY: Americans love for the automobile, and how it transformed this country.

Published in the IN Weekly here: http://inweekly.net/article.asp?artID=5612
(Again, note the dates are wrong)