Ken Burns takes on WW II





Ken Burns doesn't shy away from big subjects. The Civil War, jazz, baseball, the American West: He's tackled them all. Burns's upcoming documentary on the American experience of World War II is no exception. But beneath the grand, ambitious subject are people, each of whom experienced the war as life, not history.

The statistics - more than 50 million dead, many of them civilians - are staggering and impossible to comprehend. But for families throughout America, the conflict was painfully real.

To make history individual, Burns went small. The documentary brings to life the wartime stories of four American towns, where teenage boys enlisted after breaking up with their girlfriends, where neighbors found themselves overseas, where parents held their breath for weeks on end.

"What it shows, without a doubt, is that there are no ordinary lives," Burns, a Walpole resident, said this week at St. Paul's School, where he spoke with students and showed clips from the 15-hour documentary. PBS will broadcast the film in the fall of 2007.

The War marks Burns's first film about war since The Civil War- now a staple of high school history classes - debuted in 1990. For a decade, Burns shelved the subject, wary of being typecast as a war filmmaker. "It was more out of obstinacy, because people kept saying you should do this," Burns said. "I just didn't think that I was the guy to do war. I'm just a person who's trying to tell stories."

But two statistics spawned the six-year project. Burns heard the first - that 40 percent of graduating high school seniors think the United States fought with the Germans against the Russians in World War II - in the mid-1990s. More recently, he heard that 1,000 World War II veterans are dying every day. The opportunity to humanize the war - to hear the stories of our parents and grandparents who lived those years - was slipping away.

So Burns, his co-producer Lynn Novick and crew set out to find people and towns transformed by the war. Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; Waterbury, Conn., and the small farming town of Luverne, Minn., became their canvases.
What he uncovered were dozens of stories of ordinary Americans -16-year-old farm boys, young men from well-off Alabama families, Japanese-Americans in Sacramento - acting in the most unordinary ways. Like Walter Ehlers pulling 12 Americans off the beach on D-Day, a feat that earned him the medal of honor. Or boys lying about their age to enlist early. "I'm sometimes stunned just by the bravery of ordinary people," Burns said.

"You can just hate war, but there's something seductive about it," Burns said. "Because life is paradoxically most vivifying when you're closest to death. In war, you find some spectacular human behavior."

The War, Burns said, is his most intricate film to date. Unlike The Civil War, where the conflict's veterans were no longer around to be filmed, Burns and his crew found 80 Americans to interview about their wartime experiences. Of those 80, 40 are in the final film.



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