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Bringing 'The War' home: Ken Burns' new documentary tells story of World War II through people

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  • Bringing-The-War-home-Ken-Burns-new-documentary-tells-story-of-World-War-II-through-people

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Ken Burns' The War is a sprawling yet intimate 15-hour history of World War II. Told chronologically, the PBS documentary explores the war in Europe and the Pacific - as well as its effect on the home front - through the eyes of citizens in four geographically disparate locations: Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn.

But it's the people interviewed who will make The War connect emotionally with viewers. Veterans such as Quentin Aanenson of Luverne speak simply but eloquently about their experiences. And actors, including Adam Arkin, Samuel L. Jackson, and Eli Wallach, give voice to others who lived through the period.

Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), in particular, makes an impression reading from newspaper columns written by Al McIntosh, editor of Luverne's Rock County Star Herald.

The film's strongest moments come at the end of the first, fourth, and seventh episodes, when Burns and co-director Lynn Novick unleash the heartbreaking song "American Anthem" in montage sequences. With vocals by Norah Jones, this haunting ode complements the patriotic sacrifices of that era and defies viewers not to have an emotional response. It's a tearjerker in the best sense. (The song is available on The War CD soundtrack.)

WGTE-TV, Channel 30, will air an unedited version of The War in prime time Sunday night at 8 p.m., including a few nongratuitous uses of profanity and images of the war, according to Darren Lashelle, director of TV broadcast services at the Toledo station.

When the series reruns during daytime hours, the edited version will be broadcast, he said.

A representative of WBGU-TV, Channel 27, in Bowling Green could not be reached for comment.

In recent months, concerns about content extended beyond American viewers hearing the definitions of FUBAR and SNAFU as Hispanic groups chided Burns for not including Latino veterans. Eventually, Burns chose to add stories to the end of the first, fifth, and sixth episodes that include interviews with Hispanic and Native American veterans.

"We made a film in which we were not attempting to find out what made people distinct and different, but what made them the same and human," Burns said at a July press conference. "We weren't trying to get every single group lined up and included in the film."

Ironically, the Latino soldiers interviewed at the end of tonight's premiere don't dwell on their experiences as Hispanic soldiers and instead emphasized that "being Marines was kind of a melting pot."

"Every Hispanic veteran comes up to me and apologizes and says, 'When I fought, I wasn't Hispanic, I was an American,' " Burns said in a phone conversation earlier this month. "When we made the history of the West in the mid-'90s, instead of cowboy gunslinger stories, we had a Hispanic narrative in every episode. I was criticized because, 'No Anglo can tell our story.' Now it seems I'm the only person on Earth who can tell that story."

Politics aside, Burns said his goal with The War was to do a "bottom-up" history of the period and give a sense of what actually happened during World War II.



"We just tend to take the Second World War and make it this mythological thing, 'the good war.' It's wrapped in bloodless, gallant myth," Burns said.

"It's saintly black and white. Everything worked well. And it's the worst war. Out of this war we can learn so much more important things than the two-dimensional treacle that sometimes attends to the appreciation of this war."

Co-director Lynn Novick said The War is not a documentary about military history, but a film about the realities of war.

"We felt that we had the opportunity to, with the help of veterans who were so generous to let us be the vehicle through which they could bear witness to their stories, delve a little deeper into the human experience of the war in a very granular way," Novick said, "but it would hopefully get at some universal truths through this very specific focus on individuals."

By interviewing people from four distinct towns, Burns and Novick attempt to offer a true flavor of the war from multiple points of view, from towns with war manufacturing capabilities (Waterbury and Mobile), a Great Plains town without such a connection (Luverne) and a city where the internment of Japanese-Americans had a direct impact (Sacramento).

"We wanted to choose towns that our audience would have no preconceptions about," Burns said. "It was very important that we didn't come to these places with any kind of baggage and assumptions. We wanted a West Coast town that had an experience of the Japanese-American internment and didn't want to pick familiar cities of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and we found in Sacramento a tabula rasa in which to discover new things."

Burns said there's no political statement about war made in The War, and none pertaining to the current war in Iraq (most of the interviews were conducted before the war began).

"We didn't have an axe to grind or a political agenda to advance in this, knowing full well, though, that history is a set of questions we in the present ask of the past," Burns said. "It can't help in some ways, if not be informed by our concerns and our situation right now and what we're looking at, but that it provides associations."

Aanenson, the WWII veteran, said The War offers a testament to "what happened at a time in history by a generation of people that rose up to be counted at a time that, if they hadn't, I wonder where we would be now."

He said Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation book was an instrumental precursor to The War because it became " a rallying point around which veterans of that war could feel more open and perhaps more willing to discuss it. I thank Tom Brokaw for that."

Burns estimates that up to 30 percent of The War explores the effects of World War II on the home front. War stories are told with footage in black-and-white and in color. With almost seven years of production time, producers were able to dig through archives and find footage "that hasn't seen the light of day in a very, very, very long time," Novick said.

The same is probably true of newspaper editor Al McIntosh's columns. "We started doing research and we came across these columns, 'More or Less Daily Chat,' a wonderful title for the Northern Plains," Burns said. "We fell in love with him. There's just a deep, deep humanism and humanity in him. Asking Tom [Hanks] to read them as an actor, he essentially endows the material with the same deeply humane kind of approach. We realized that the one and one of McIntosh and Hanks made three."

As for the program's use of music, Burns said early in the editing process he begins identifying music cues for his films.

In 2001, while driving with his father's ashes from Michigan to his home in New Hampshire, Burns heard a song on public radio, "this operatic tune. I didn't get into the opera-ness of it, but the melody really stuck with me."

The song is "American Anthem," written by Gene Scheer and previously recorded by mezzo soprano Denyce Graves and performed at presidential inaugurations. Burns said Scheer told him he always intended someone to sing it in a more popular format. Norah Jones re-recorded "Anthem" for "The War," and Burns says it will be to "The War" what "Ashokan Farewell" was to Burns' The Civil War.

"It's one of those zeitgeist things that, if it catches on the way 'Ashokan Farewell' caught on, she'll be singing it at the halftime of the Super Bowl."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is TV editor of the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: or 412-263-2582.

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