Fall has arrived. Another school year has begun. The leaves are changing color. And PBS has shown another Ken Burns documentary to entertain and enlighten their audience.
Ken Burns’ Mother died when he was 11. Later, a psychologist told him: “All of your work has been an attempt to make people long gone come back alive.” Burns is a film maker who has gone from Oscar nominee to PBS fixture to an American institution. One person called him “America’s first historian with a camera.” His topics have had a wide range, but “his aim is not to make us rethink America, but to re-experience it.”
His latest effort is “The Vietnam War.” It took 10 years to make and cost $30,000,000. Filming was done in both North and South Vietnam. 80-100 interviews were conducted for the film. It is a 10-part, 18 hour documentary. With so much film available of the conflict, he used less of what has become known as “The Ken Burns Effect.” (It involves a camera slowly panning across or zooming into a still photo. It focuses the viewer’s attention on a specific element and, for some, conveys a feeling of movement. It was first brought to a large audience in “The Civil War.”) He does a wonderful job of providing us with the many perspectives of the war, including the military forces on all sides of the conflict, governments, anti-war protesters, and families of solders. Combat film and still photographs compliment each other to give the audience an accurate picture of the action.
Vietnam was a war that began and continued because of unspoken truths and “necessary” lies. It lasted 30 years (1945-1975). The country of Vietnam was torn apart. The United States was divided into two camps, in favor of, or in opposition to, the war. Both groups suffered for their beliefs. Other countries (eg, American allies, plus China, and Russia) were drawn into the effort and suffered as well. 30,000,000 Vietnamese, both North and South, died. When America’s decision to leave was implemented, the final CIA message sent from Vietnam to Washington said: “Let us hope we have learned our lesson.”
I knew men who fought in the war and men who opposed it. I admired the courage on both sides. I thought their beliefs were well explained in this documentary. Plus, the war was shown from both combatants, North and South Vietnam, points of view. It was another magnificent production by Burns and his team. Their continued excellence never ceases to amaze me. As to “lessons learned,” I want to say they occurred, because as history demonstrates, those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it. In this war, the United States repeated many of the French mistakes in post WWII Vietnam –with the same disastrous results.
Burns often works with the same people, and “The Vietnam War” was no exception. Buddy Squires, the principle cinematographer, has worked with Burns on a variety of projects since 1977. The narrator, Peter Coyote, has worked with Burns many times (as has Keith David, absent from this documentary). Geoffrey Ward has written The Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball, as well as The Vietnam War. Lynn Novick was co-director for “The Vietnam War” and has worked with Burns on 4 other films.
Is there anyone who has not seen a Ken Burns’ documentary? It seems unlikely. Is there anyone who has seen them all? That seems unlikely, too. Why? Burns has directed, co-directed or produced at least 30 films.*** (see list below this text) And for those who ask: “What’s next?” 2019 is the planned date for films focusing on “County Music” and “Ernest Hemingway.” Burns has said he has projects that will be seen on PBS through the 2020s (possibly including the subjects of Muhammad Ali and Stand-Up Comedy).
What are my Burns’ favorites? I’ve seen 17 of the 30 listed below. Number One on my list has to be The Civil War (1990). For me, and many other people, this was our first taste of The Ken Burns Effect. It was a documentary with no film of its subject, yet it was mesmerizing. It consisted of photos, music, voice overs, and interviews. It was 11 hours long and was shown over a number of evenings. I did not miss a minute. I listened to anecdotes told by Shelby Foote whose words took you to the battlefields. And I cannot imagine anyone who was unmoved by the story of Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife written a week before his death. Ashokan Farewell played in the background. There was not a dry eye in the viewing audience. Burns had us hook, line, and sinker. (The Civil War received 40+ awards, including 2 Emmys and a Peabody award.)
My second place winner is Baseball (1994). (I include the films The Tenth Inning –2010, and Jackie Robinson –2016 as part of this choice.) I grew up when baseball truly was The National Pastime. I saw Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby integrate the NL and AL. I saw Don Newcombe win the first Cy Young Award. I saw Willie Mays –fill in the highlight you want. And I saw Buck O’Neil interviewed and listened to his stories in Burns’ “Baseball.” Buck MADE the film. Here are two samples of his reminiscing. “Did you ever hear the sound of a bat hitting a ball, perfectly? I’ve heard that sound 3 times. When Babe Ruth hit the ball. When Josh Gibson hit the ball. And when Bo Jackson hit the ball.” Here is a story from the Negro Leagues, where Buck played and managed, before he was a coach and scout for the Cubs. (He “found” Ernie Banks.) “How fast was Cool Papa Bell? He could hit a ball through the middle of the infield, and it would hit him in the ass as he slid into second base.”
My Bronze medal winner is The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009). The film included the best of 6 years of footage in our National Parks. I remember the words of John Muir. “The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” And “The sun shines not on us, but in us.”
You must have seen some of Ken Burns’ work. What are your favorites?
*** Ken Burns’ Documentaries:
Brooklyn Bridge (1981)
The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)
The Statue of Liberty (1985)
Huey Long (1985)
The Congress (1988)
Thomas Hart Benton (1988)
The Civil War (1990)
Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991)
Baseball (1994); updated with The Tenth Inning (2010)
The West (1996)
Thomas Jefferson (1997)
Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
Frank Lloyd Wright, with Lynn Novick (1998)
Not For Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)
Mark Twain (2001)
Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip (2003)
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005)
The War (2007)
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009)
Prohibition, with Lynn Novick (2111)
The Dust Bowl (2012)
The Central Park Five (2012)
Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit (2013)
The Address (2014)
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014)
Jackie Robinson (2016)
Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War (2016)
The Vietnam War (2017)