PBS Series Directed by Ken Burns
Studio: Florentine Films/WETA-TV/PBS 705212 (6 DVD box set)
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 wide screen, color & B&W
Audio: English, DD 5.1, DD 2.0
Extras: “Making The War” featurette, Commentary tracks by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Deleted scenes, Additional interviews, Biographies of each person interviewed, Photo gallery, DVD-ROM education resources
Length: 15 hours total
The Second World War has been the subject of untold films, TV series, books and multimedia presentations, but skilled documentarian Ken Burns has succeeded in presenting the war in a different and very affecting manner that should stay with anyone who stays with it for the entire 15-hour series. Burns and his staff spent six years assembling the materials for the series and shooting the interview with survivors and relatives.
They decided to emphasize the personal aspect of how the war affected every single person in American in some way during its course. This was similar to the approach in some parts of Burn’s award-winning series on the Civil War when he used actual letters from soldiers to families back home about themselves and the war. The structure of the series focuses on surviving soldiers and their associated families located in four representative towns across the U.S.: Waterbury, CT; Mobile, AL; Sacramento, CA; and tiny Luverne, MN. The personalities in these four towns stand in for the millions across the country who were affected in so many ways by the harrowing four years of the war. Many personal items are shown – photos, memorabilia, home movies (some even in color), letters and telegrams. Burns describes this approach as “from the bottom up.”
The survivors and their associated families that were interviewed on camera add an immediacy and intimacy to the story that wasn’t possible with the documentary on the Civil War. Burns and his staff learned that many of the interview subjects had not really talked about their war experiences since they got back. He referred to them as “the reticent generation” and said those still living had finally begun to open up. Other family members often said later “Dad, you never had told us that before.” The honesty of some of their stories is compelling and often emotionally disturbing. For various narrations on the soundtrack Burns used a list of celebrity stars, including Tom Hanks, Alan Arkin and Samuel L. Jackson. Some original music for the series is performed by Wynton Marsalis and his players. Other music comes from 78s popular during the war, including Frank Sinatra, The Andrew Sisters, and various big bands, plus classical excerpts from Dvorak, Copland, Faure, Liszt, Mendelssohn and even Legeti. [A companion ten-selection CD of classical music from the series is titled Songs Without Words and is available on RCA Red Seal/Legacy.]
The seven episodes are about two hours length each, and Disc 2 of the six DVDs contains both programs 2 and 3. The informative featurette on the making of the series is included on the first DVD. I was surprised how much of the information was new to me or corrected some erroneous idea I had. Guess I wasn’t paying attention in history class. For example, I had no idea that early in the war two or three U.S. merchant ships on the East Coast were sunk each day by German U-boats, and for some months most of the big cities on the coast refused to have blackouts in spite of that. I found I often had to hit pause on the maps to study the progress of the war. Things often got a bit confusing due to jumping around from one theater of the war to another, or suddenly leaving an edge-of-seat campaign in the war to concentrate on the relationship between a specific soldier and his girlfriend back home. I was wishing there was a printed timeline chart on the progress of the war; perhaps that’s included in the companion book of the same title which has been published simultaneously: The War: An Intimate History.
I watched the initial three episodes on my local PBS station HD channel over the air and the rest from the DVD set. It’s great to see a Ken Burns production in widescreen 16:9; this is a first. I didn’t see any degradation of the images on the DVDs compared to the HDTV telecasts, but I found it immensely more involving due to the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtracks. As with many low-budget PBS outlets, my local station is not yet able to broadcast in full surround all the shows that come in with DD 5.1 soundtracks. They just carry them in stereo. All the war footage with Burns and his crew obtained from the National Archives, Smithsonian and other sources was silent footage. After the images were locked down, they worked for a full year creating the soundtracks for the series, and the perfectly synchronized and realistic-sounding explosions and gunshots give the footage a huge boost in immediacy. The deep bass of many of the war sounds rumbled my subwoofer seriously. When combined with the footage of the actual action the impact of the shots was amplified greatly. The disastrous landing at Utah Beach in Normandy, for example, struck me as more emotionally draining than the dramatic treatment Spielberg gave the event in Private Ryan.
This brings up the problem of the often disturbing content of the series, which though rated PG has a warning about not being recommended for children. I guess so! I personally felt Burns had too many shots of fallen bodies and held on most of them far too long. Yes, the unbelievable horror of the war should be communicated and appreciated, but due to this shocking content many sensitive people who should be experiencing this important series opted out of it.
– John Sunier