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Extraordinary people are the heart of 'The War'

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

For Ken Burns, the award-winning documentary filmmaker, his approach to the story of America's involvement in the Second World War wasn't to focus on the presidents, prime ministers or generals, but instead to report it through the lives of ordinary people.

And Burns is quick to add the men and women who experienced the war were not "ordinary."

Burns spoke to Reminder Publications last week. He will be appearing at a signing and a discussion about "The War" at 2 p.m. on Dec. 15 at the Borders bookstore at the Holyoke Mall. Aside from the recent release of the documentary on DVD, there is also a companion hardcover book by Geoffrey C. Ward and Burns.

Burns said that in producing the film, the first thing one had to do was shed any idea of a standard documentary format for the production. The goal was to make "an authentic film."

That task was daunting because Burns added World War II was "the biggest event in human history."

Burns wanted to approach the subject through four communities -- Luverne, Minn., Sacramento, Calif., Mobile, Ala., and Waterbury, Conn. -- and their citizens. To do so, once the communities were selected Burns and his colleagues spoke to over 600 people -- individuals who saw combat and those waiting for their loved ones to return from combat.

From that group, about 40 on-camera interview subjects were selected. They ranged from people who fought in the Pacific and European theaters to Americans who were imprisoned behind enemy lines to young women who found themselves working in jobs that supported the war effort.

Burns said it was a privilege to speak with these people as it allowed him to see what it was like to experience the war.

Many other documentaries have discussed the leaders and the events of the war and Burns thought this approach "keeps you away from what really happens in war."

The production took seven years to make and involved going through thousand of hours of archival movie footage some of it was truly horrific, Burns said thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of interview, he said.

Burns wanted to put viewers into the shoes of Americans living during the war by cutting from scenes about the clash in Europe to the home front to the war in the Pacific rather than covering those events in separate parts of the film.

"Americans were overwhelmed by news," he said.

With uncensored war footage and frank interviews with veterans and others, Burns hoped to strip away the romance that has surrounded "the good war."

"The good war was the worst war ever," he added.

Burns noted, though, one can draw some of the most positive examples of human behavior from the war.

"The good stuff is only made better when you lift up the carpet and sweep out some of the dirt," he said.

The ultimate result is a film that has made a deep impression on its viewers. Burns said he has received thousands of calls and letters from veterans who have told him that finally someone has portrayed what being in the war was like. Burns has received gifts such as dirt from Omaha beach and sand from Iwo Jima from viewers.

"It's been an amazing, amazing outpouring," he said.

With America currently involved in a war that was started with an event that has parallels with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Burns noted Americans today haven't been asked to make any sacrifices unlike their countrymen of 60 years ago.

He said that at signings he always asks how many people know someone who is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan and he said only about two percent raise their hands.

He said the lack of involvement of most Americans in today's conflict has resulted in a separate military class.

During World War II, Americans were in the fight together, he said.

"Today we're all individual free agents," he added.

He said we might be today "a richer nation, but we feel a poverty of spirit."

Review: "The War"

For anyone who harbors romantic notions about "The Good War," Burns' lengthy documentary will quickly remove any rose-colored glasses.

"The War" is a story about how a nation of people who largely viewed themselves as unaffected by events happening in both Europe and Asia reacted when thrust into a conflict the likes of which the planet had never seen before.

And while Burns shows how Americans reacted in selfless and noble ways, he balances the coverage by also showing that people were all too human. Whether it is the racial tension that came with the industrial mobilization or the shameful treatment of Japanese-American citizens, this film does what no other documentary on World War II has ever done: it relates the story of the war in truly understandable terms.

Like "The Civil War," the film for which Burns is best know, "The War" uses a variety of firsthand sources and accounts. The difference with this film is that we are able see and hear those witnesses in contemporary interviews. This film is all the more powerful because we can relate to the events through these people.

This film established a human link between those who experienced the war and those who have only seen it as a historical event and I think it should be required viewing for anyone wishing to understand the American experience.