Blu-ray: Ken Burns’ ‘The War’

The War (Paramount) – “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.”

17 years after making history with his epic documentary series chronicling the American Civil War, Ken Burns goes to war once again. Teaming up with Lynn Novick, he takes on the good war and the greatest generation with his trademark approach: history from the perspective of the everyday humans who fought, died, and endured.

The broad contours of history are shown through newsreels and photos, home movies and newspaper headlines, and heard through radio broadcasts and period music. But it’s the words and stories of soldier, sailors, airmen, Marines, POWs (both military and civilian), and citizens toiling and waiting on the homefront, that give human dimension to the history. There are no experts offering their perspective this time around, only living witnesses and the words of the dead through letters and newspaper editorials (sparingly used and read by the likes of Tom Hanks and others), and their simple eloquence brings a poignant, unforced poetry to the experience.

Burns doesn’t shy away from the contradictions of the history – the segregation and racism and unforgivable internment of Japanese-Americans in a nation ostensibly fighting for freedom – as he celebrates the sacrifices and achievements of everyone involved in the war effort. “A thousand veterans of the War die everyday. This film is dedicated to all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf.”

Seven episodes (running over 15 hours) on six discs, with commentary by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on Episode One and Episode Four (the D-Day accounting “Pride of Our Nations”) and the 38-minute documentary “Making The War,” which outlines the project’s aims and approach. Other supplements include 24 minutes of deleted scenes (including Andy Rooney in a segment on war correspondents) and 55 minutes of Bonus Interviews with 14 of the film’s witnesses (including decorated 442nd veteran and Hawaii State Senator Daniel Inouye).

More Blu-ray releases at Videodrone

Watching with Ken Burns, director of ‘Prohibition’

Ken Burns has spent all of his thirty year (and running) career as a documentary filmmaker turning his camera back on the history of the United States: the defining people, events and accomplishments that defined, divided and united the country. From “Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Statue of Liberty” to “The Civil War” and “Jazz” and “The National Parks” (to name but a few), he has tackled subjects small and expansive with the same focus: finding the human stories that illuminate the history. His latest production, “Prohibition” (PBS/Paramount), presents a complex story of unlikely allies, disastrous political misjudgments and destructive consequences, and a political climate that is eerily familiar today.

Ken Burns

The three-part documentary debuted over three nights on PBS and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 4. Videodrone spoke with Burns about “Prohibition,” his fascination with American history and what he’s been watching.

What have you been watching?

Ken Burns: Not much. I’ve been working 24/7 promoting the “Prohibition” series. Basically I’ve been watching “Boardwalk Empire,” which is a kind of cousin of what we’ve done, a dramatic, fictionalized version of the themes that we tackled with our documentary on “Prohibition.”

What does Ken Burns pull out of his DVD library to watch to relax after working on a documentary all day?

I’m a child of R&B and rock and roll, I was born in the early fifties and grew up in the late fifties and early sixties and that was my music, but in 2001 we released a 17 ½-hour history of jazz and everything is filled with jazz, I listen to it all the time. I like the old stuff, I like the new stuff, I listen to Louis Armstrong, I think he’s God. I think he is to music in the 20th century — and I didn’t say jazz — I think he is to music in the 20th century what Einstein was to physics, what Freud was to medicine and what the Wright Brothers are to travel, that is to say, a quantum leap in our musical understanding.

My father told me stories of my grandfather, who as a child in the Dakotas would accompany my uncle as he made deliveries of moonshine that his family made from a still in the hills.

Burns: You know what? We traveled all around the country on this promotional tour, every walk of life, and I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have some related prohibition story. It’s really wonderful. I love the way our films — “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The National Parks” — but this one in particular draws out stories in people quite apart from our own stories that we’re trying to tell.

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