Ken Burns Looks at America


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)

Jazz (2001)

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)
















About rcarmean

Two things... First, why have I decided to establish this blog? I like to put essays together. I research an idea or topic looking for information, statistics, stories, quotes, pictures, etc. I enjoy the process and seeing a finished product. I’m told that as I get older, new activities can help maintain energy and keep my brain alert. In other words, I am not doing this for money or fame. Second, regarding the gentleman in the collage of pictures's not me. Those are photos of Christy Mathewson. Why him? When I was young, my primary activity was being sick. It took up much of my time. Eczema (a case so bad I was written up in a medical journal showing doctors what their patients COULD look like), asthma, and allergies. You know allergies: don’t eat this, don’t wear that, and, for Heaven’s sake, don’t touch any of these things (eg, dogs, cats, horses --I only saw horses in cowboy movies and TV shows, dust, swimming pools, my brother --OK, that’s an exaggeration, Rick was a fine brother). In my spare time between doctors' appointments, pills, and ointments, baseball kept me sane. In the 1940s and 1950s, when I grew up, pro footballI and basketball had not yet become extremely popular. Baseball truly was “the national pastime.” I listened to games on the radio (remember it? TV without the picture). I read magazines, books, and newspaper accounts of games. I collected baseball cards. I learned about the game’s history, as well as present. The same with its stars. One man stood out: Christy Mathewson. He was a great pitcher for the New York Giants in the early 20th century. But there was much more to him. At a time when professional athletes made little money (yes, there was such a time) and ball players were considered on the same level as actors, artists, and prostitutes, Mathewson stood out. One of his nicknames was: “The Christian Gentleman.” Most men is baseball drank, smoked, cursed, and fought —with other players, umpires, and fans. The fights were physical, not just verbal. Mathewson did none of these things. But he earned the respect of other players who did them all. Even Ty Cobb and John McGraw. There’s more. He was a college graduate (Bucknell University) when most men were lucky to have a high school diploma. He played other sports, including pro football which you wouldn’t recognize. He was handsome. He played in New York City, then as now, the largest city in the country. Excellence and popularity there meant fame and money. He dressed well. Today, his commercials would rival LeBron’s. And, finally, a hero’s life must have tragedy. After his playing career ended, WWI arrived. He suffered from influenza and was exposed to mustard gas. Chemical warfare. His lungs were damaged and he required treatment for the rest of his life. (Like my Grandfather who also fought in The Great War.) He died in 1925. He was 45 years old. I have his picture here because you need to know more about him than me. He was what an athlete could be. Players like him and their accomplishments got me through a sickly, painful childhood and can still sustain me in difficult times. *****
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