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"The War" review: Ken Burns' intimate look at U.S. experience of WWII

A Ken Burns Film: The War


“The War” (2007 Documentary)

Burns chronicles America's WWII experience in 2007's The War
Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images

Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Written by Geoffrey C. Ward

Narrated by Keith David

Featuring: Adam Arkin, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Conway, Tom Hanks, Rebecca Holtz, Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Lucas, Carolyn McCormick, Robert Wahlberg, Eli Wallach

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.

World War II was, as series narrator Keith David states in A Necessary War, “the greatest cataclysm in history.” 80 million people all over the globe served in uniform between 1939 and 1945 An estimated 50 million men, women, and children were killed, most of them civilians. Countless millions of others were wounded, displaced from their homes, or suffered many kinds of privations.

The Second World War brought out the best and the worst in a generation, and blurred the two so that they became, at times, almost indistinguishable.

A Bottom-Up Perspective

The war has been the topic of an untold number of television documentaries which cover a wide range of topics and include different viewpoints. In the early 1950s, for instance, NBC aired “Victory at Sea,” a 26-part series about naval combat during the war. In the mid-1970s, millions of viewers all over the world watched Britain’s “The World at War,” which explored major campaigns and themes of the war. Since the 1980s, cable channels such as A&E, History, and American Heroes have devoted countless hours to programming about World War II.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The War” is a seven-part series that examines the American experience of the conflict from the perspective of civilians and veterans alike. Unlike “The World at War,” the series is not a comprehensive “big picture” study of strategy, weapons, or the famous and infamous political and military figures.

Instead, “The War” is a bottom-up narrative based on the experiences of over 40 men and women who, according to the directors, “ opened their hearts to us about the war they knew – and which we, their inheritors, could only imagine.”

Although the war affected every city and town in the U.S., Burns and Novick focused on four geographically distributed locations: Waterbury, Connecticut; Luverne, Minnesosta; Mobile, Alabama; and Sacramento, California. “The War” examines how those communities and their citizens experienced World War II.

Some, like Corporal Glenn Frazier and P-47 pilot Quentin Aanenson, witnessed the horrors of war in such places as Bataan in the Philippines and the skies over Nazi-occupied Western Europe.

Back in America, including Katharine Phillips of Mobile, did everything they could to support the war effort. They bought war bonds, observed strict rationing, and waited anxiously for news from husbands, brothers, sons, and sweethearts fighting in various battlefields scattered across the globe.

The Ken Burns Approach

In many ways, “The War” follows the narrative template of 1990's “The Civil War.” Each of the seven episodes begins with a vignette involving one of the "regular characters" featured in the series, which segues to a general overview of what the episode will cover. Then, it's on to the main narrative.

Burns and Novick also rely on "the Ken Burns Effect," in which cinematographer Buddy Squires pans in and out over still photographs. This visual technique, coupled with the narration, music of the period and battlefield sound effects, counteracts the static nature of the photographs. It also adds drama and emotional context.

Of course, there is a great deal of newsreel and combat footage of the traditional "World War II documentary" variety.

Some scenes in A Necessary War - December 1941-December 1942, are familiar; the Pearl Harbor attack sequence even includes bits of John Ford's 1942 "recreation" of the "day of infamy."

But quite a bit of the footage had never been seen before “The War” aired in 2007. The new material is emotionally searing when coupled with the readings of columns by Luverne newspaper publisher Al McIntosh or letters from soldier "Babe" Ciarlo of Waterbury, who is fighting in Italy and telling his widowed mother that "I'm fine and the Army is keeping me busy."

What makes “The War” different from “The Civil War” is its omission of interviews with political analysts or professional historians.

As Burns and Novick state in their "Note from the Producers" that is included in the box set:

Above all, we wanted to honor the experiences of those who lived through the greatest cataclysm in human history by providing the opportunity for them to bear witness to their own history. Our film is therefore an attempt to describe, through their eyewitness testimony, what the war was actually like for those who served on the front lines, in the places where the killing and the dying took place, and equally what it was like for their loved ones back home. We have done our best not to sentimentalize, glorify or aestheticize the war, but instead have tried simply to tell the stories of those who did the fighting – and of their families. In so doing, we have tried to illuminate the intimate, human dimensions of a global catastrophe that took the lives of between 50 and 60 million people – of whom more than 400,000 were Americans.


Before “The War” premiered on Sept. 23, 2007, PBS and Burns came under fire from various Hispanic advocacy groups and other minorities. The protesters believed that the wartime experiences of Latinos and Native Americans had been deliberately excluded.

The protesters also asked PBS to either postpone or cancel the series' broadcast. They also asked for the inclusion of material about the contribution made to the war effort by non-whites (other than, of course, the African-American and Japanese-American communities).

At first, Burns and Novick stated that “The War” was already completed. They'd worked on it for six years, so no changes were necessary,. However, they relented and added a few vignettes about Latino and Native American fighting men. .

This satisfied some of the critics, but others still felt a sense of exclusion even after the series began airing.

My Take

World War II ended almost 70 years ago. All of the major political and military figures of the day – Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Gens. Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley, and Patton – died decades ago. In the early decades of the 21st Century, only the junior officers and the youngest of the enlisted personnel who served in uniform are still around. As Ken Burns points out in the featurette “The Making of THE WAR,” American World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day.

That last sobering statistic is the reason that Burns and Novick spent six years making “The War.” The filmmakers realized that if they didn’t make the documentary in the early 2000s, they might not get another chance to interview veterans like pilot Sam Hynes, Marine Cpl. Sidney Phillips, or civilian Japanese-American internees like Asaka Tokuno.

Because “The War” is mostly told from their perspective, the documentary doesn’t cover America’s World War II experience from a purely historical vantage point. Many important battles and campaigns are omitted, and every once in a while, factual errors creep in. (In A Necessary War, for instance, writer Geoffrey C. Ward attributes the Pearl Harbor attack to Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. As head of the War Cabinet, Tojo may have approved the attack , but it was conceived by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet.)

“The War,” like Burns’ 1990 masterpiece “The Civil War,” is not simply a documentary about facts, figures, and grand strategy. It’s also not a comprehensive history of World War II. Instead, it is a deeply moving story about men and women who lived through the 20th Century’s darkest era.

Some recollections, such as Sid Phillips’ anecdote about being told by a Marine recruiter that the Navy wouldn’t accept him because “my parents were married” are wryly humorous.

Other memories, though, are heartbreaking, such as Waterbury resident’s Olga Ciarlo’s reading of her last letter to her brother Corado, who was killed in Italy in May of 1944. Her sadness is reflected in her voice as she tells her brother about all the plans the family has for his homecoming when the war ends.

As Ken Burns and Lynn Novick write in their Note from the Directors:

Throughout the series, one theme has stayed constant, one idea has continually emerged as we have gotten to know the brave men and women whose stories it has been our privilege to tell: in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.

The DVD Set

The 2007 DVD box set contains the entire 900-minute long documentary series, which is divided into seven parts within six discs.

Disc 1: Episode One - A Necessary War: December 1941 -December 1942. Special Features: Making THE WAR Featurette, Commentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Photo Gallery, Biographies, Educational Resources

Disc Two: Episode Two - When Things Get Tough: January 1943-December 1943

Episode Three - A Deadly Calling: November 1943 - June 1944

Disc Three: Episode Four - Pride of Our Nation: June 1944 - August 1944. Special Features: Commentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Disc Four: Episode Five - FUBAR: September 1944 - December 1944

Disc Five: Episode Six - The Ghost Front: December 1944 - March 1945

Disc Six: Episode Seven: A World Without War: March 1945 - December 1945. Special Features: Exclusive Deleted Scenes, Additional Interviews, Educational Resources

DVD Specs:

  • Format: Multiple Formats, Anamorphic, Widescreen, Subtitled, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Dubbed: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Number of discs: 6
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS
  • DVD Release Date: October 2, 2007
  • Run Time: 900 minutes

Blu-ray Specs:

  • Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Box set, Closed-captioned, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region A/1
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
  • Number of discs: 6
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS
  • DVD Release Date: January 2, 2013
  • Run Time: 900 minutes
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