Ken Burns WWII Documentary


I have been a fan of Ken Burns since I first encountered his documentary on the Civil War. That documentary stands, to me, as the most compelling telling of the story of that period of life in our country’s history. Nearly every facet of it hits on all cylinders. There are very few misses among the entire series. I bought it on VHS tape and then couldn’t wait for it to show up on DVD. In fact, I just finished watching the entire series again while introducing it to my son. I believe it’s at least the fourth time I’ve seen it from start to finish.

When I heard about Ken Burns new project, “The War“, I couldn’t wait to see it. However, this effort doesn’t impress me anywhere near as much as the his work on the above project. The narration is decent but not noteworthy. The stories seem like they’re tossed at you almost randomly. There are no historians like Shelby Foote, from the first project, to bring a sense of perspective and depth.

The entire story is handicapped from the outset with a flawed concept. The idea is to tell the story from the perspective of four towns in America. The problem is that World War II was a global war that impacted most of the world. Trying to shoehorn everything into the perspective of just four towns makes no sense. “The Civil War” told the story of much of the country making sure to include the best known battles and many of the smaller skirmishes.

Instead of a historical timeline of events we get a timeline that is bent to fit the concept and the results are fairly dull. I’ve seen several interviews where the interviewers were overflowing with praise for elements of the effort that I’m just not seeing. Much was made of the use of so much color and “never-before-seen” footage. I’m just not seeing it. Much of what I’ve seen so far (I’m trying hard to finish episode four of seven and have seen it in 5 pieces and counting) is footage that I’ve seen before or that is so reminiscent of existing footage as to be indiscernible from the footage used. I’ve seen other documentaries that used more color and brought home the realism better.

The individual stories also lack any real depth. For example, the Battle of the Philippine Sea was so one-sided that it’s now generally referred to as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” I’ve watched entire hour long shows on this affair that drove home all the elements of this battle and managed to give it the emotion it deserved. Here the term is tossed out like they were naming a candy bar and then forgotten. You get no real sense of any of the people involved except for a select handful of people from four towns in America. That’s a nice touch but it leaves too much unsaid.

There are many other efforts that do a far better job of telling the story of the second World War. Ken Burns has let me down on this one. Maybe he needed more episodes as the war is pretty hard to distill down into a mere seven pieces. The bottom line is that I suspect this effort will be quickly forgotten and I can’t recommend that anyone else spend their time with it.

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