Ken Burns has worked magic. His epic documentary about World War II, simply called The War, airs on PBS starting Sunday, September 23. It continues with new installments over the next two weeks, and even at fifteen hours of coverage, it’s almost not enough. Burns performs the trick of wedging this overwhelming jumble of battles, dates, strategies, casualties, charges, and countercharges into a story that effectively wins the sympathies of the viewer. He does this by linking the grand events to individuals–individuals whose eyes still go hard with determination, or sparkle with tears in their now-wrinkled faces as they recount their stories of sixty years ago.
Burns chose to view the war through the eyes of four American towns: Waterbury, Connecticut, nicknamed Brass City, was a working class town of mostly immigrant families; Laverne, Minnesota which was a farming community where children played in the winter’s snow; Mobile, Alabama, which sent its sons, both white and black, from its hot, divided streets; and Sacramento, California, in which white, black, and Japanese worked the fertile soil and congregated at the Warner Theater to watch movies. These four towns, taken together, stand in for the totality of America in 1941; its scrappy hard workers, privileged college kids, sorority girls, sons of immigrants, isolated farm boys, and more experienced city boys, all going about their business as the war raged overseas.
This documentary is very much the story of the Great War remembered and experienced through American eyes. For Americans, increasing unease over the situation in Europe and Asia turned into resolute angst at Pearl Harbor; it is there that Burns begins. The history of Germany and Japan’s destructive march through the world before the United States entry into the conflict is briefly recapped, with images coming from newsreels.
While we have, of course, seen documentaries and histories of World War II many times before, the power of Burns’s narrative comes from the eyewitness accounts of men and women whose personal experience lends a tone that suggests the simple telling of stories from one’s youth. Burns uses photographs and footage to set the stage, but the magic comes when the witnesses talk. Glenn Fraiser of Mobile, angered by the rejection of a girl, drove his motorcycle down the street and enlisted. This reckless and dramatic gesture, well before Pearl Harbor, started him down the path that led to the Philippines and the Bataan Death March. Willie Rushton, a black man from Mobile, fought for his country because “I always figured that someday my country would be better for everybody.” Ray Leopold, son of a Jewish Latvian immigrant in Waterbury, tended towards pacifism and diplomatic solutions. However, he said, “I couldn’t fathom that there was ever a solution to Hitler. I felt I belonged in the service because the threat was particularly pointed at the origins I came from.”
Through these interview clips, the viewer begins to see complexity of the sacrifices the Greatest Generation made. The sacrifices started long before the battles were fought. When describing first hearing about Pearl Harbor, Katharine Phillips of Mobile tears up. She was a college student at the time and you can still see in her eyes the loss she suffered that day; the loss of her carefree school years, and her hopes perhaps of marrying a nice boy and settling down on a Magnolia lined street. Asako Tokuno, a college student of Japanese descent, tells how that day was the first day she felt that her ethnicity mattered. Sam Hynes from Minneapolis recounts how his father drove him to the station when he shipped out, passing the streets and hang-outs of his childhood. At the station, he says, “My father shook my hand. It seemed very strange to me that my father and I were on hand-shaking terms.” It all came down to one common point: There was a day that they realized their youth was over, and it came too soon.
Using the same honest approach, Burns tells the story of the combat of the war. He does not shy away from the horrific experiences of war; he includes images of dead soldiers, dead civilians, and dead children. Men tell their stories of Hell breaking out in places with names like Bataan, Guadalcanal, and Omaha Beach. He lets the men tell their stories of success, but also their stories of deep personal sorrow. They speak of the fear, the dirtiness, and the desperation for water and food. They tell of the terror of wondering if the next shell would hit them, or of hearing moaning during the night and waking up to realize it was a best buddy dying. It could be overwhelming, and at times it begins to be, but then you look at the single man talking and it becomes easier. You are no longer trying to wrap your mind around understanding the six to eleven thousand soldiers who died on the long, murderous march through the Bataan Peninsula. You are trying to understand the experience of one man, one survivor, Glenn Fraiser, a boy who loved a girl too much in Mobile, Alabama.
The genius of Ken Burns permeates this series. He attempts to capture all American experiences, on the home front, on the front lines, white, black, Japanese, and Hispanic, by focusing on real individuals. By highlighting the few who remain to tell their stories, he manages to make their tales everyone’s tale. After all these years, after a long life post-war, these survivors of the Great War remember it as if it were yesterday. It seems to live right under their skin. While telling their stories, they have that narrowing of the eyes, that sudden huskiness of voice, that hunching of the shoulders, or hanging of the head that tells you more than any textbook can. It’s a conversation, thankfully available to all of us, with the ordinary men and women who saved the world.
– Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.