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Posted October 2, 2007


"The War" On DVD


Bill Kallay

Ken Burns is no doubt a passionate filmmaker and historian. His ambitious production, "The War," is often maddening, sad, draining, hopeful, slow, exciting, repetitious, spectacular, honest, cliche, and frustrating. In other words, this is a series of films that will test your patience, yet often reward you with some of the most honest appraisals of World War II put on film.

WWII has been forever ingrained in our collective conscience as "The Good War." Newsreels and Hollywood sanitized this fierce and tragic time in history. Many of our parents and grandparents who fought the war didn't talk about it. At least many of the veterans I've meet or who have known rarely, if ever, said a word about their experiences. It was the good fight. We defeated the Nazis and Japanese. There were causalities on our side, but we didn't often see the aftermath.

In this ambitious six part series, aired on PBS and now on DVD, Ken Burns and co-director Lynn Novick guide viewers on a long journey into the war. For the first time that I can recall, a documentary goes into the frightening and terrible toll that war takes on soldiers and their families. Besides modern films like "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) and the HBO series "Band of Brothers" (2001), WWII has been a war seen through the eyes of grainy film footage of planes being shot down, and people cheering in the streets of Paris after the American forces take over. Not that the real footage of the brutality of this war has never been seen. But Burns' production uses it, almost to a fault, to underscore the losses our country suffered. This is not a sanitized vision of WWII. We also see, through the eyes of veterans and civilians, the war through their eyes.

Covering approximately 15 hours running time, "The War" is difficult and relentless, at times, to sit through part-by-part. What I can convey is that this isn't a John Wayne movie with idealized battles and little blood loss. It's not sentimental where as you cry on each song cue. This is a series that sticks with you, despite its weaknesses. You come away drained, and that's after watching the first few hours of it. Even though the series as a whole runs at a brisk pace, the underlying tone that Burns and Novick set is undeniably somber. Despite the last few minutes of the program highlighting our win over the Nazis and Japan, one leaves this series sad and beaten.

The series is made up of modern interview footage, archival footage, historic stills and audio, and maps to show how the war progressed. Burns and Novick focus the war and its effects on four American cities and a select group of people. They're from all walks of life, many religious and economic classes, and some from Japanese-American, African-American, Italian-American and Latin-American backgrounds. Indeed, the filmmakers take the safe route and try and represent as many aspects of the war as possible. It might be easy to criticize this approach, but I've rarely seen this done before. It was refreshing to see that Japanese-Americans, as an example, are given screen time for their own trials during the war. Taken to American internment camps, Japanese-Americans were wrongly treated. The filmmakers make an effort to point out that not only they made significant contributions to the war, but other Americans of foreign ancestry did, too.

"The War" is completely gripping at times. The footage of battle almost forces you to stare at the screen in horror. Burns and company poured through hundreds of hours of WWII footage and stills to present this story. They and their extensive crew deserve credit for vividly telling this story. I've seen archival footage of the war numerous times, but I haven't seen it put together like this.

Combining modern day interview footage with carefully selected film clips and photographs, the filmmakers do an admirable job of telling the survivor's stories. There is so much of the footage and so much of the modern day interviews, that it's hard to pinpoint someone who stands out. There is the story of the young man who enlisted because he felt unwanted by the girl he loved. The story of Japanese-American soldiers who earned the respect of their fellow troops, only after being saved by the "Japs," both brings a smile and a grimace. There is the story of mothers who lost their sons, and the story of a Marine fighter pilot whose photograph by a British journalist inspired confidence that we would win the war.

Starting with the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor, the film's archival footage seems to nearly cover every major battle of the war. The battles themselves must have been as relentless as "The War" sometimes feels. Like a drummer hitting you over the head, Burns and Novick continue to strike you with footage of guns a blazing and the sight of carnage. You become numb at seeing yet another major gun blasting away with modern day sound effects. I felt as though the filmmakers were really trying to make the point that this war wasn't a glorified "Life" magazine cover. The images of the dead are disturbing and graphic.

Both survivors and people who stayed and kept the home front running are interviewed. The stories are told with candor by people who could be our grandparents or parents. What struck me was the fact of how young these people were when the war started. Many of them were just out of high school. Who could imagine the horrors they and their comrades-in-arms would encounter in battle after battle? Watching these interviews, I could not help but to have even more respect for them.

Much of my own impression of the "Good War" came from vivid tales of bravery and the ideals of being a soldier. A few years ago, my grandparents were visiting from Ohio. They had two very good friends who lived out here on the West Coast. One evening, my grandparents and their friends met at my parent's house for coffee and dessert. I sat near my grandfather's friend, Bob. I noticed him looking at a vintage Life magazine cover from 1944, the year my dad was born. I glanced at it. "Incredible war," I must've mentioned. I had always admired the sacrifices our soldiers made. "Did you fight?" I asked. He nodded. He fought in Europe, as I recall. I smiled, thinking I'd hear some great old time war stories. Instead, Bob's eyes grew misty. "I fought over there. I lost a good many friends. Too many friends." He sat there silently with tears falling down his face. I didn't know what to say. Being silent myself was the best thing I could do. I realized that WWII wasn't a "Good War," nor was it a part of the idealized world of a Norman Rockwell painting. The War was brutal, necessary and ugly.

The stories that have been handed down over the years by my teachers, professors and family members tend to embellish the war. They speak of my great-grandfather blowing up "Jap" bridges with hulking guns and rocket launchers. They speak of how many people were killed on each side of the battle line. They rarely, if ever, spoke of the human loss. Numbers of the dead are one thing, but the emotional toll of a soldier is different. That's where "The War" succeeds. The stories from combat vets are moving and horrifying, tender and sincere. I was glad to see that Burns and company focused on the human toll. Some of the vets speak of their reaction to killing a man their age. This is something that will stick with you as a viewer.

The series covers much, but sacrifices a lot of what could've been told. The stories are told from an American perspective, and rightly so. That's what the series is about. I thought that some of the series could've been re-edited so we got a sense of who our enemies were. Hitler has been covered over and over again in film, books and television. But in "The War," he's barely seen, nor are the other ruthless dictators from Japan and Italy. We're given more of a sense of the opposing ground forces as the enemy; faceless and nameless bodies who fire at will. This may have been Burns' agenda. I think he could have, and quite effectively, furnished history and footage of why our enemies did what they did. To offer insight on what made those callous and evil powers work might've made "The War" even more effective.

Burns' version of "The War" is long winded. With the horrors and constant barrage of footage of the dead and wounded, you feel as though Burns is re-working history to make his points. You feel Burns, despite the use of graphic footage, tones down the war so that it is palatable. His use of big band era music and slowly moving camera work on vintage stills somewhat feels cliche and predictable. We've seen this way of filmmaking so many times before, especially about WWII. You get that "Ken Burns Effect" ad nauseam. Outside of the interviews, "The War" doesn't offer much that's new. It was such a long and detailed war, it would take endless volumes to cover. As Burns states in the beginning of "The War," "The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting."

After watching "The War," I thought of my days in high school when I tried digging through a 500+ page James Michener novel. Long and difficult to read, the individual stories made opening the book worth reading. I felt the same for Burns' latest film.

One comes away from "The War" with respect to Burns and Novick for directing such a major endeavor. The series is outstanding, flawed, long, and maddening at times. However, it is a brave attempt to chronicle history and the stories of a generation. At the very least, it gives you a clearer picture of what our vets went through.

"To the non-combatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement. But to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a netherworld of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely. As casualties mounted, then the fightin' dragged on and on. Time had no meanin.' Life had no meanin.' The fierce struggle eroded the veneer of civilization, and made savages of us all." Eugene B. Sledge, U.S. Marine

The War

PBS Home Entertainment

Catalog Number 705212

Region 1

1.78:1 & 1.33:1

Dolby Digital 5.1 

DVD Release Date: October 2, 2007




15 hours

Color and Black & White

Directors: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Cast: Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson and war veterans


Special thanks to Click Communications


IMAGES: The American Lives II Film Project.  All rights reserved.




Copyright 2004-2007 From Script To DVD.  All rights reserved.


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