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The war: a conversation with Ken Burns.

When JS telephoned Ken Burns last month, his spirits were high. "I've just made the best film of my life," he said. One of America's foremost documentarians, Burns is celebrated for such films as The Civil War and Baseball. But The War, which chronicles America's involvement in World War II, may well be his masterpiece. Directed and produced by Burns and Lynn Novick, the seven-part PBS series tells the story of ordinary Americans from four small towns who are caught up in extraordinary events. The War will air over two weeks, starting September 23. Here are excerpts from our conversation with Burns. To listen to the entire interview, go to

Q. What drew you to World War II?

A. I didn't want to do this because we really touched the emotional heart of [war] in The Civil War. People kept saying, "Why don't you do this or do that," and usually it's the Second World War, and I just kept on politely saying, "No, no, no, no." But then I saw two statistics, that [World War II veterans] are dying a thousand a day, and that our kids think we fought [on the same side as] the Germans, and I just thought, "We have to do it now."

Q. So the time is ripe?

A. Yes. This is a film I couldn't have made 10 years ago because these folks hadn't opened up in many cases. It is their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who made them consider what to do, and then they stopped telling the funny stories, the bromides, the convenient stuff that deflects [the important] stuff. We couldn't make this film in five years because they'd all be gone, and this would be the province of historians. As good as they are, they'll abstract it.

Q. What sources did you use?

A We looked at tens of thousands of still photographs [and] hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews. So it's just been a huge, monumental task of organization, of labeling, of retrieval, of cataloguing. ... Then, frankly, what we like to do, the detective work of discovering the material.... We traveled around the world, [looking through] hundreds of archives from Moscow and Tokyo and Berlin to, most important, the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Q. What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?

A. We're not trying to advocate anything. We were just trying to bear witness to the people who lived through the war.... [We have told] the story of so-called ordinary people, people you and I and your readers could have had Thanksgiving with. Then you get the experience of what it was like to be in that war, what it was like to be at home worrying about loved ones in the war, what it was like being a country participating in that shared sacrifice that--and this is the great secret of the Second World War--made us richer. Not just communally and spiritually, but materially and financially--paradoxically, by giving things up, by doing without.

Q. Is that the lesson of World War II?

A. I think it can all be summed up in the Latin motto of the United States: e pluribus unum ("out of many, one"). Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the great, great historian who died a few months ago, had a phrase from the late '80s. He said, "There's too much pluribus and not enough unum." I realized when I heard that back then that all of my life I've been dedicated to what unum means. So I think that embedded in the endlessly fascinating stories of the Second World War is the sense of what unum means.

To learn more about the film and the dates it will air, go to
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Publication:Junior Scholastic
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 17, 2007
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