Friday, June 6, 2014

A review of Ken Burns' “The War” (World War Two series)



With a great subject and the superb direction of Ken Burns, you'd think PBS's "The War" would be one of my favorite documentaries. I'm a big fan of several Ken Burns films (especially "The Civil War"), and I have loved many documentaries about World War II (especially "The World at War"). And it is true that I like this documentary; but it isn't one of my favorites. The focus it chooses is both a strength and a weakness; and for someone like me, it's mainly a weakness.


What is the focus I talk about? Mainly, it's the fact that World War II is told through the eyes of four American towns. It's a brilliant depiction of life in these four places; and in a broader sense, life in wartime America generally. Yet it is also the weakness of this documentary - limited in its geographic area, they have fewer interviewees to choose from; and not all of them are equally interesting. More importantly, the documentary focuses entirely on America; and shies away from depicting anything outside of it - whether that be from our allies (mainly the British and the Soviets), or from our enemies (mainly the Germans and the Japanese). It would be as if he did "The Civil War" from only the point of view of the North. Yes, that point of view is important (and ultimately the right one); but the war is not understood from an exclusive focus on either side. You have to depict both sides to get a true understanding of the war.


Japanese army enters Nanking, 1938



They do talk briefly about events outside the American experience; but only as seen by the Americans in newsreels, and only very briefly. Stalingrad is mentioned in about thirty seconds, and the whole history of the prewar buildup is as described by American reminiscence; with brief descriptions of Hitler's rise to power, the crimes against Jews, and the lesser-known Japanese crimes in Nanking and greater China. American reminiscences about these things are a valuable subject; but one doesn't understand why the war happened when you don't talk more about the events themselves, interviewing eyewitnesses. Why did Hitler come to power? Why did the Holocaust happen? Why did the Japanese invade China - and later, attack Pearl Harbor? These questions are left unanswered (or at least answered insufficiently), and the documentary thus fails to address some important issues about this period.


Starving prisoners at Mauthausen 1945,
after its liberation by the Americans

One example of this is the way the documentary addresses the Holocaust. They show it through the eyes of American soldiers who liberated concentration camps. It's important to get them on the record about these things, as their testimony about the truth of the Holocaust needs to be heard. But there are no interviews with the inmates of the camps, and we are left only with the testimony of those who arrived on the crime scene long after the fact. Their cameras record the painful truth of what happened, but how and why it happened is left unanswered, or at least answered too briefly; and their account of this episode is thus incomplete. In fairness, it's not meant to be complete, and it's not sold as such. But this incompleteness is nonetheless the series' great weakness.


D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach, Normandy 1944

Another disadvantage of this approach is that they do not interview any of the higher-ups, such as generals, admirals, and government officials. I'm not saying interviews with the regular people are unworthy by any stretch of the imagination - we owe a great debt of gratitude to these guys, and their story needs to be told before it's too late. But to really understand the war, we need to understand the big-picture stuff as well; and for this, interviews with the higher-ups are needed. In fairness to Ken Burns, most of the higher-ups were dead when he made this; so he was unable to interview the range of people "The World at War" was able to cover. This British documentary about World War II remains the definitive film on the subject, as it interviews both regular people and higher-ups, both the winners and losers, and the witnesses to important foreign events like the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism. Even battles about America are sometimes better told, as participants in these battles are not always to be found in the four specific towns. Midway, for example, was vital to the American war in the Pacific; as it was the turning point of the naval war there. But Ken Burns had to depict this battle in painful brevity; because no one he interviewed in Sacramento, Luverne, Waterbury, or Mobile was present there - the American participants were from other cities. Thus, even important events for the U.S. must sometimes be ignored under his approach.


Battle of Midway, 1942

Ken Burns was probably the best person to make "The Civil War"; because even with his focus on America, he could still cover both sides of the war, and discuss military strategy and political events. And in fairness to Ken Burns, there is much value in his story about watching "The War" with some Europeans. He worried that this admittedly America-centric series would offend these Europeans whose experiences were omitted; but when it was over, they said: "We should do something like this with our guys." It's a high complement, and there's much truth in it. But for my money, the America-centrism of "The War" is both a strength and a weakness.


This Ken Burns film has much merit; but if you really want to understand World War II, you'd be better off with "The World at War." This still remains the definitive film on the subject; and while I wouldn't necessarily advise against watching the Ken Burns film (it's certainly not a bad film), it shouldn't be the only film one sees on the subject. Other films should be watched as well, to get a more complete view of what happened.


Timeline of United States military history:

French and Indian War 1754-1763
American Revolutionary War 1775-1783
War of 1812 (technically 1812-1815)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
American Civil War 1861-1865
Reconstruction 1865-1877
Spanish-American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Cold War 1945-1991
Other wars to be covered later

See also:

A review of Ken Burns' "The Civil War"

A review of "The Great War"

A review of "The World at War"


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