Friday, March 26, 2010

Filmmaker Ken Burns: We must not lose our historical compass

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns knew one thing when he completed the 1990 epic “The Civil War.”

He had seen enough of war.

Through photographs, diaries and stories, Burns had poignantly documented the bloody conflict that claimed more than 600,000 American lives. Like Civil War soldiers, he and his crew felt they had “seen the elephant.”

People then asked Burns to do a film on World War II.

He resisted doing “The War,” which was released in 2007, for several years.

But two startling truths changed his mind about again taking up the topic.

Some 1,000 U.S. WWII vets were dying a day. And high school graduating seniors thought Americans fought with the Germans against Russia.

“We were losing our soldiers and our historical compass,” Burns said in a talk Thursday afternoon at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

The prolific filmmaker has a large body of television work that helps tell the story of America. Among them are “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” and, more recently, “The National Parks: America’s Best idea.”

The New Hampshire resident said his films always ask the same question, "Who are we?" Sharing memories helps us heal from turmoil and war, he said.

Thursday’s speech centered on humanity’s fascination with war. Mankind, Burns says, has the lust for war in its DNA.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee may have said it best. “It is well that war is so terrible – lest we should grow too fond of it.”

Burn’s talk was laced with quotations from Abraham Lincoln, his favorite president. As a young lawyer, Lincoln spoke at the Lyceum in Springfield, Ill., delivering a speech that foreshadowed the Civil War.

“As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide,” Lincoln said.

“The Civil War was the closest we ever came to national suicide,” said Burns, 56. “Paradoxically, in order to become one we divided ourselves in two.”

Burns, who is unafraid of controversy, said he was glad that the ghastly human toll documented in “The Civil War” tempered U.S. enthusiasm for bloodshed when the first Gulf War was launched against Iraq in 1990.

For “The War,” Burns told the story of 50 Americans and four communities.

Insisting “there are no ordinary lives,” Burns said the seven-part series stayed away from celebrity generals.

“If you weren’t on the front line in the war, you aren’t in our film.”

Like Lincoln, Burns worries about divisions within America. Citizens today should be aware of how much they are alike, rather than concentrating on their differences, said the documentary maker, who added that education is the key to preventing bloodshed.

Burns said Americans have a history of seeking unity. He quoted remarks Lincoln gave at his first inaugural address in 1861:

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."


  1. Student Center ballroom at Georgia State University.