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For nearly three decades, documentarian Ken Burns has tackled subjects with an unmistakably American flavor. The Brooklyn-born helmer has used his signature narration-over-photos technique to tell the rich history of baseball, jazz and America’s Civil War. Once again, the Oscar-nominated director has turned his lens toward war — this time World War II. Throughout the 14-hour-plus film, simply titled “The War,” Burns debunks the myth of a heroic conflict and instead brings to life the destruction wrought. Despite its decidedly American point of view, international audiences, particularly the French, are embracing the film, which will unspool here and air on PBS in September. Burns spoke about his relationship with Hollywood, the French and his decision to return to the battlefront.
The Hollywood Reporter: What was the genesis of this film?
Ken Burns: It was 17 years ago, and we had just finished the Civil War project. We had decided not to go to war again because of how emotionally devastating it was. Even as far removed as those old sepia photographs were, we really had been touched to the bone by it. We kept turning away colleagues and folks from around the world who were like, ‘You’ve got to do World War II,’ but we said, ‘Nope, sorry.’ But toward the end of 1992, I heard a statistic that we were losing 1,000 veterans a day from the second World War. I’m in the memory business, and this was a hemorrhage too devastating to deal with. And then I heard a lot of kids think we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the second World War.
THR: You tackle the subject in an interesting way — looking at four towns affected by the war. What made you choose that tactic to tell this mammoth story?
Burns: We weren’t going to dive in to just one single moment, one battle. We weren’t going to do this overarching thing that is distracted by celebrity generals and politicians, strategy and tactics, weapons and armaments and all things Nazi. Instead, we picked four geographically distributed American towns and got to know the towns, got to know the movie palaces where they saw the newsreels, saw who was left behind. Then followed these boys off to hell. Not the good war of our imaginations and subsequent PR but the worst war ever. We wanted to tell it from the bottom up, uninterested in experts.
THR: Why was it the worst war ever?
Burns: Fifty million to 60 million people died. There has been nothing bigger in the history of humankind, and yet we wrap it with this gallant, bloodless myth. We wanted to remind people (of the war’s horrors). You spend 75% of this film in battle, undistracted by generals and tactics. It’s just people you might have spent Thanksgiving with.
THR: What kind of response have you received?
Burns: It’s been so overwhelming across the spectrum internationally. I’ve shown it to a standing ovation to 1,100 cadets at West Point, showing them horrible things their own army did. I’ve shown it to a sold-out crowd at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. We’ve been selected for Cannes. It’s unprecedented to be showing 14 hours in the festival.
THR: This is your first Cannes festival. As someone who makes movies about quintessentially American topics, were you surprised to be so embraced by the French?
Burns: The French have been so amazing. I never in a million years would have thought I would be invited. We showed one episode last year at the Telluride Film Festival, and the groundswell of interest has been unbelievable. Next thing they were calling from Cannes saying, “We want you.” It’s just a thrilling affirmation of nearly seven years of work.
THR: You decided to do this film before the current war in Iraq. And yet the timing seems eerily appropriate.
Burns: This film, which doesn’t have a political bone in its body, nevertheless resonates with all wars and the horrible truth of war. So when you watch it, an interviewee might be saying, “There’s no such thing as a good war, only a necessary war.” And you’re thinking, “My God, he must be talking about Iraq,” when in fact we interviewed him years before Iraq. I don’t want to say it’s a political film. It’s not. I bet if you could resurrect some Greek soldier from the Peloponnesian War, he’d say the same thing: “War is hell,” just as Sherman said during our Civil War documentary.
THR: The film and its narrative structure seem, in some ways, simple. You tackle the war chronologically and focus on just a few people to bring to life the scope of the war. Was it easy?
Burns: It was the most complicated film I’ve ever done. But each day of editing, you realized the reward was … for the first time, the larger picture of the second World War was coming clear. There is an increased intimacy. Of the 40 people on camera, more than 30 of them are what I would call secondary characters. It’s really a handful of living people carrying the film. Another five to 10 people didn’t survive to provide their voices, but we were able to use Tom Hanks, Josh Lucas, Samuel L. Jackson, Bobby Cannavale, Eli Wallach and Adam Arkin to make these people come alive.
THR: You obviously know how to tell a story cinematically. Have you ever considered crossing over to make narrative features?
Burns: I’ve flirted with Hollywood. I have some things in development, but I keep coming back to documentaries because I am in the history business and I’ve always found that truth is much more interesting than fiction.
Nationality: American (born in Brooklyn); born: July 29, 1953
Selected filmography: “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), “The West” (1996), “Thomas Jefferson” (1997), “Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery” (1997), “Frank Lloyd Wright” (1998), “Not for Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton & 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” (2004)
Notable awards: Oscar nominations for “Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Statue of Liberty”; Emmy wins for “Unforgivable Blackness” (outstanding nonfiction special), “Baseball” (outstanding informational series), “The Civil War”
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