Geoffrey C. Ward: The Making of The War (Interview)

Historians in the News

Geoffrey C. Ward is the writer of The War, the 15-hour Ken Burns documentary about World War II that airs on PBS beginning this Sunday evening, September 23. He also wrote the extremely good companion volume, The War: An Intimate History, which was reviewed on this site last week. He has won five Emmys and two Writers Guild of America awards for his work for public television, having collaborated with Ken Burns on his earlier films about the West, Mark Twain, jazz, baseball, the fighter Jack Johnson, and the Civil War. He also is the author of the award-winning A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, and was from 1978 to 1982 the editor of American Heritage magazine. Here he discuses what went into making The War and what he learned from the experience, from his home in Manhattan.


Before I read The War and watched the film, I was wondering what there still was for me to learn about World War II. Now I have the answer: nearly everything. I was amazed at how much went on in my own country from 1941 to 1945 that I hadn’t known about. I think what I liked best is the focus on four American towns—Waterbury, Connecticut; Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; and Sacramento, California. Where did the idea of selecting four representative towns come from, and how were the towns selected?

The subject is so vast we needed some simple organizing principle, and four towns seemed like a good one. But the war was so universally felt that I suspect we would have had the same impact if we’d thrown darts at a map. However, Lynn Novick, Ken’s codirector and coproducer—probably the most unsung member of our team—did the preliminary winnowing. Luverne was picked because the eloquent pilot Quentin Aanenson came from there. Mobile was the home of the late Eugene Sledge and of his boyhood friends Sid and Katherine Phillips. Sacramento was picked in part because we were interested in the Japanese internment story and knew that several veterans of the segregated 442nd combat team lived there. We also wanted a Northeastern town, and when Lynn discovered the surviving members of poor Babe Ciarlo’s family, Waterbury was added to the list. In every case, we found more riches than we could possibly use.

Like all organizing principles, ours proved inadequate, and we felt free to pepper both the series and the book with people who did not live in our towns, ranging from Sen. Daniel Inouye to Arthur Mayer, a guy who happens to swim next to me at a pool on West 63rd Street and lived through the fighting in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Everyone we interviewed lived through the war. No historians needed to apply.

Perhaps the biggest difference between The War and the other documentaries you’ve worked on with Ken Burns is the absence of historians as talking heads. Only men who served overseas and friends and family at home are interviewed on screen. Was the decision not to interview historians made at the outset?

From the first we wanted this series to answer the simple question, What was it like to live through the war? No matter how many books we read and reels of microfilm we spin through, those of us who weren’t around can’t really know. No one respects historians more than I do, but it was a pleasure to be able to do an entire series without anyone telling the viewer what he or she is supposed to think about what’s unfolding on screen....
Read entire article at Interview at American Heritage

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