Ken Burns Releases 'The War' The War is the latest project of award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. The seven-part series chronicles American involvement in World War II. Burns talks about his new film and how, despite criticism, it all came together.

Ken Burns Releases 'The War'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: Who's watching the kids, and how much will that cost again? The Mocha Moms and the Money Coach take on child care. That's just ahead.

But first, it has been called the good war, and the men and women who fought it have been named the greatest generation. World War II has inspired countless retellings in books and film. And now, at a time when America is once again struggling with important questions about when and how to fight a war, PBS is preparing to air "The War." It is a seven-part documentary about World War II, and it's the latest project by critically acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns.

But even before its release, the film has been a subject of controversy over who it includes and who critics say it does not. Ken Burns joins us now to talk about "The War."

Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KEN BURNS (Film Director): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: One of our interns called you an American griot, somebody who sounds the alarm about the stories that may get lost in changing times. But it's hard to argue that the story of World War II or "The War" has gotten lost, especially in recent years. So what more did you think needed to be said?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I felt that in some way it had been lost. It was a kind of forest-and-the-tree situation that, yes, we had thousands of books and thousands and thousands of documentaries. But you would see, particularly in the documentaries, there would be this aerial view of the war that would provide you with context that began to resemble homework and no intimacy, and then those documentaries that would dropped down and be intimate would, of course, be about a single event and couldn't provide a necessary context.

And more important, a lot of these works were mediated by an interest only in celebrity generals and politicians and strategy and tactics to the exclusion of the human cost of war, so that life became abstracted to arrows on a map. They seemed obsessed, as Americans often are, with guns and armaments and weaponry. And there was this sort of fascination with the Nazis that then metastasized into an almost admiration for their early military successes and organization and superior weaponry.

I was interested in what it was like to be in this war. This isn't the good war. This is, of course, the worst war ever, responsible for the deaths of 60 million people. So it was our intention to tell a bottom-up story of the whole war that would, unlike any other documentary, simultaneously described the European and the Pacific theaters of war and the home front so you could get a sense of what it was like to be there.

And if you're not distracted by the bold-faced names who actually don't do the fighting but are present to the people who are on the frontlines or who are waiting anxiously back home for their loved ones to come back from the frontlines, you can get a sense, I think, of what it was really like to be in war, that universal paradox that when your life is most threatened, everything about life is vivified.

MARTIN: Doesn't it make sense? You know, it's like your vision is street level. You're describing what it was like…

Mr. BURNS: Yes.

MARTIN: …to live the war both at home and abroad from the level of the street. And to tell this story - you focus on the stories of citizens from four towns…

Mr. BURNS: Yes.

MARTIN: …Mobile, Alabama, Waterbury, Connecticut…

Mr. BURNS: Luverne, Minnesota…

MARTIN: …Luverne, Minnesota, and Sacramento, California. How did you choose those towns?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I'd love to tell you that it was just randomly, that we threw a dart at a map, and that's what in spirit we wanted to do. Actually, we first thought we'd pick one town, and that was going to be Waterbury, Connecticut. We live in the Northeast, and we wanted to pick something free of preconceptions, without any baggage that we could go into, advertise our presence, you know, go to the historical societies and the archives, reach out to the veterans group and seek people just with a certain combat experience and tell the story.

But I began to realize that the regional distinctions of the country wouldn't be represented enough. So we decided to pick four geographically distributed towns and then meet, as it turns out, about 40 people, most of whom come from those towns to tell the stories. We weren't looking for some particular group of people. We were looking for that which makes you distinct, but that which makes you the same. We were looking for universal human experiences of battle.

MARTIN: But one of the points you make in the film is that everybody's war was not the same…

Mr. BURNS: Right.

MARTIN: In fact, I would argue that one of the signatures of your work as a filmmaker - in previous work, "The Civil War" or "Jazz" or "Baseball" - is exposing the ways in which America hasn't always lived up to its promise…

Mr. BURNS: Very much so.

MARTIN: …and this film is very similar in that it tackles segregation very directly. In fact, I think this should be a good time to hear a clip.

This is scholar John Hope Franklin.

(Soundbite of movie, "The War")

Dr. JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (Scholar): The recruiter for the Navy said, what can you do? I said, well, I can run an office. I can type. I can take shorthand, if that's needed. I said, and oh, yes. I have a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. And I wondered what he was going to say. He said, you have everything but color.

MARTIN: Why did you think it was important to tell stories like John Hope Franklin's?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I've been trying for the last 30 years to tell stories in American history that haven't been told. I think, for the most part, history has been subjected to the worse kind of sort of treacly Madison Avenue sanitizing, you know. I know why Carter Woodson put African-American history month in February, but it is our coldest and shortest month, as if it's some politically correct addendum to our national narrative where anyone who knows anything about American history knows that the African-American history is actually at the beating heart of our history.

How could it not, be when our very creed - we hold this truth to be self-evident that all men are created equal - was written by a man who, at that time he wrote that sentence, owned 200 human beings and never saw fit in his lifetime to free them? Never saw the contradiction, never saw the hypocrisy and helped symbolically set in motion an American narrative dominated by a question of race?

MARTIN: And as I said, one of the towns you focus on is Mobile, Alabama, and how the war effort affected relationships between blacks and whites…

Mr. BURNS: Yes.

MARTIN: …in a way that may surprise some, particularly maybe some younger people. Here's our clip from Mobile resident John Gray.

(Soundbite of movie, "The War")

Mr. JOHN GRAY (Resident, Mobile, Alabama): Mobile was pretty fair-minded city. And before this time, whites and blacks got along pretty good, as long as they had the status quo. When blacks began to buy homes and to ride in big cars, it turned some people off.

MARTIN: That's Mobile resident John Gray. He goes on to talk about how some African-Americans became targets for increased police harassment after they started living the American dream.

Mr. BURNS: The Second World War is one the greatest change agents in American history. It sets people in motion changing the demographics of regions of the country. It pushes women into the workforce, of course, altering the course of women's history, and it provides opportunities for African-Americans that simultaneously with the cause that we were fighting for - a kind of question of racial and ethnic distinction - begins to set in motion and accelerate a civil rights movement that will not rest.

MARTIN: You talked about the way African-Americans you spoke with, how their service changed their relationship with their country, but how do you think the service of African-Americans changed the country's relationship with them?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I think in so many ways, you were suddenly confronted with the fact of their Americaness. I can't think of no better scene that illustrates this that in the Battle of the Bulge, where the Germans mounted a surprised attack, parachuting German soldiers dressed in American uniforms down behind, causing incredible tensions and anxieties and passwords we're all familiar with from the lower of World War II movies.

But what the World War II movies never got into was that, if you're rounding a band in a trail and you're not sure whether that soldier's German or American, if an African-American comes around the bend, who is more American on earth at that moment than an African-American soldier? He doesn't need an ID. He doesn't need a password.

You begin to transcend race in really interesting and bizarre ways, just as the Japanese-American soldiers who were, first, their families put in interment camps and they were recruited after first being classified as enemy aliens, were trained in the South, and the white government would come and assure them they'd be treated as white people and were urged not to go to the back of the bus. And so you have in something like a war, the disruption of a normal patterns of race relations and discrimination, and I think ultimately for the good.

MARTIN: And you also point out the craziness of it all, that you're sort of racial identity had so many complex meanings at that time. In fact, let's talk a little bit more about that, what happened to the Japanese-Americans at the time.

Here's a clip from Japanese-American Asaka Tokuno.

(Soundbite of movie, "The War")

Ms. ASAKA TOKUNO: That was about the time we had files (unintelligible). This was my first semester at U.C. Berkeley, and I heard the news first. Of course, I traveled by bus to go to school, and, as I'd stand on that corner, I would get this terrible feeling that were watching, looking at me. And you just get so self-conscious, you know, so much more aware. I've never been aware of my, you know, my ethnicity. And so that was very strange. That was the first time I really felt, you know, this is not good.

MARTIN: You really feel the emotion.

Mr. BURNS: Yeah. It's not good.

MARTIN: (unintelligible)

Mr. BURNS: You know, within a few months, there's going to be a notice, pack up everything you value in one suitcase and we're going to move you to an inland -you're an American citizen. You're going to be moved to an…

MARTIN: And what can be more American than she saying I have finals at school?

Mr. BURNS: Of course.

MARTIN: And, of course, you'll look at the footage of these, you know, girls, coeds, as they were called, getting off the bus and chatting.

Mr. BURNS: When you see them, then, organizing the baseball leagues and the American flags, and then more poignantly when the policy was reversed and the young men were recruited for frontline combat duty to serve as cannon fodder, and they exhibited such bravery, that there's no more decorated regiment than the regiment made up of the Japanese-American citizens.

But when someone is killed, the death notice goes back to a camp. We're sorry to regret that your son has given the ultimate sacrifice for his country, and, oh, of by the way, if you move two feet to the left, I'm going to have to shoot you. The irony of all of these things is so painful for us to consider over the six or seven years that we worked on the film.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns about his latest project, "The War," which, of course, raises the question, Ken, as I think you've discussed - as a lot of other people have discussed - part of you signature is telling the stories that haven't been told. Now, of course, before the film has aired, it's been the target of criticism from groups who criticized what they believed to be the lack of Latino stories.

Basically, the story of the Latino experience in World War Two - they felt -was missing. I'd like to know first, how did you first hear about this criticism? Did someone call you? Write you? Did someone see a screening?

Mr. BURNS: No. We just began to hear that there were complaints from people who actually hadn't seen the film and seen the kind of bottom up way that we'd done the film. We weren't attempting to shun any particular group. In fact, we weren't - with the exception of Japanese-Americans - not looking for any group. We were looking for specific combat experience and the 1940 census records that Hispanic population was 1.4 percent.

With the exception of a regiment in Puerto Rico, Hispanics were not even recorded or made distinct or segregated as African-Americans and Japanese-Americans were. And in the course of our five years in these towns reaching out, advertising our presence, not a single Hispanic came forward, but so did not a single German-American or a single Polish-American or other ethnic groups that were, in fact, larger in that regard.

I think this is where, you know, history comes in. And it's very important to understand history. By the way, we listened and heard these things and we went out and sought some Hispanic veterans and produced some extraordinarily interesting scenes that we've added to the end of the first and the sixth episode. And it also gave me an opportunity to tell a Native American scene that I had originally wanted to tell, but dropped by the wayside as we decided to adhere to this rigorous four towns model.

MARTIN: Well, actually, that was my question. You did wind up adding material as a result of complaints. I wanted to ask if you added the material because you thought there was merit in the complaint, or you just thought the controversy was distracting?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I think it's a combination of that - of many things. Hispanics have not had their story told for 500 years in America. I've been in the business of telling stories that haven't been told. Indeed, our history of the West that came out in the mid-90s didn't tell the familiar gun slinger stories in favor of telling a Hispanic narrative in every single one of the episodes -films on the Statue of Liberty, on baseball, on jazz. The current one we're working on on the national parks, all filled with Hispanic narratives.

Every 30 years in the history of the United States - and this is why it's so important to understand history - every 30 years, an immigrant group is attacked by the status quo. I mean, Pat Buchanan says they're out breeding us. And so there is this sense of demonizing this force. And I think that there was just a sense of being left out. Hispanic veterans are also dying at the alarming rate. And…

MARTIN: And who also had the experience of coming back to places where their service was not respected, of not being respected…

Mr. BURNS: Of course.

MARTIN: …when they were in uniform, of being discriminated against at home.

Mr. BURNS: Exactly. And what I wanted to do was just take the high road. And we didn't actually change the film I finished a year and a half ago, but added on in the spirit of what was going on - these remarkable scenes.

MARTIN: Was there something that someone said to you or that you heard that caused you to decide to add this material? Because as I recall, initially, you said, look. This film is finished. It has this particular construct. It's the four towns. This is what we're doing. This is my vision. And there were protests, there were threats to your funding, etc. There were efforts to organize a boycott, as I recall, or two. So…

Mr. BURNS: Yeah. It was pretty nasty. But no, from the very beginning, we said that we would produce more content, and then it just became a question of where we would put it. And because we didn't have to compromise the artistic vision of what we'd already produced, it just added immeasurably to the film to rise above it in this way and take the high road.

MARTIN: But there are those who supported you in keeping your film as it was. In fact, I've talked to a number of documentarians of different backgrounds who say that you shouldn't have compromised your vision because of political pressure. What do you say to people who argue that if you don't have the stature to stand up for your artistic vision, who does?

Mr. BURNS: That's a really good question, and I did. Nothing interfered with the film I finished a year and a half ago. But I was able to add new content at the end of the episodes that I think was an attempt to speak to the larger vision of an inclusive American history.

MARTIN: What do you want people to draw from your film?

Mr. BURNS: Michel, I think it's just a simple sense of what it's like to be in battle. And I guess conversely, what it's like to be at home waiting anxiously for someone you love to come home from that war, an unmediated view of war. And also appreciate a time in the United States that we tend to have sentimentalized and sort of smother in nostalgia, which we can't do because it offers valuable lessons that we then ignore.

One of the great lessons of the Second World War was that in shared sacrifice, we made ourselves richer. Not just communally and spiritually richer, but materially and financially richer. We could've been asked to do things six years ago, and we were asked to go shopping. And the Second World War reminds us what a determined people can do. It isn't enough to just ring your hands and say, oh that was the greatest generation. What does that mean? We are now on the backside of that. We don't have the possibilities. No. We just need to find the kind of unum as opposed to pluribus that permits us to work together.

I think that that radiates out of an authentic relationship to the Second World War. These so-called ordinary people remind us in every frame of this film the great promise of our country long denied, deferred and delayed as we've discussed, but nevertheless the promise of our country, that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary people. And this is all that I hope that the film speaks to people about.

MARTIN: Ken Burns is the producer of "The War," a new documentary about the Second World War. It begins airing on PBS on Sunday, September 23rd. Ken Burns, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BURNS: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.