Filmmakers’ documentary shows graphic, real World War II
Listen to excerpts from a Q&A session with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick at the National Press Club.
WASHINGTON — Filmmaker Ken Burns thinks viewers of his newest documentary will be shocked to discover that war is hell.
“World War II has always been the good war,” he said in an interview with Stripes on Wednesday. “When those men came back, they were heroes. But people didn’t really want to hear about what happened over there. And in a lot of cases, they didn’t want to tell their children and wives about it.
“What they saw, what they lived was so terrible ... It was probably the most important moment in the history of the world, but many of them couldn’t talk about it.”
The documentary, a 14-hour, seven-part series premiering on PBS next week, chronicles the United States’ involvement in the war through the experiences of troops and families of four small American towns.
It includes sometimes-graphic interviews with those veterans and raw footage from battles in Europe and in the Pacific. Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick said pictures of troops floating face-down in the surf and stories of bloody, close-quarters combat have left many of their screening audiences gasping.
That has also earned high praise from the military men and women in the crowds.
“We worried that maybe we had gone too far, maybe we should have pulled back on that,” Novick said. “But those soldiers said ‘Thank you for not sanitizing it, thank you for not romanticizing it.’ They felt like we were showing what war was truly like.”
That idea is even more important today with the disconnect between the general public and the troops currently fighting overseas, Burns said. During World War II, nearly every American family had a relative or neighbor who served some time in the military.
“But today we have a separate military class which suffers apart,” he said.
“Today, outside military families most people probably can’t name two cities in Iraq. Back then, we had maps of troop movements on the front page every day. Kids who were delivering the papers then had more geopolitical consciousness than most adults do today.”
And since so few families are bearing the sacrifice of the fighting, he said, most Americans don’t really appreciate the successes and failures overseas.
“I think the message there was that in shared sacrifice we made ourselves richer,” he said. “In the same way, the lack of a national sacrifice now is in a way dishonoring our men and women fighting overseas.”
The series is scheduled to debut on American Forces Network sometime in October; military officials haven’t worked out the rights and restrictions on the programming yet, but Burns and Novick said they’re working to make sure the series won’t be withheld from the overseas troops.
The filmmakers admitted they were reluctant to take on the project. They said Burns’ award-winning Civil War documentary was a difficult process, both time-consuming and emotionally draining because of the subject matter.
"But then we learned that we're losing around 1,000 veterans a day," he said. "We didn't want the regret of missing that story. Hopefully, that convinces others to talk about those stories too, create a chance for these positive, cathartic moments for all veterans."