Black and white photographs are about to get another makeover. Ken Burns did it first in 1990 with his 9-episode documentary, "The Civil War," which used sepia-tinged "slo-mo" pans to engross everyone from grade-school kids to armchair generals. PBS claims 40 million people have watched this series, which popularized the story-telling history of the late Shelby Foote, the violin melody of the Ashokan Farewell, and the rich history of personal letters from our more literate ancestors. I can't help myself but watch this documentary when I come across re-runs of it on TV. It's the personal history of modern America.
In September 2007 PBS will broadcast Burns' latest documentary, "The War," a story of the Second World War told from the perspective of young men going from hometowns to battlefields. Using letters, reports, and archival footage, Burns will follow kids from Luverne, MN; Sacramento, CA; Mobile, AL; Waterbury, CT and other towns and cities to where they fought and died in small and obscure places in Europe and the Pacific.
At at time when young men and women from the same hometowns are fighting and dying in equally foreign places in the Middle East, I wonder how this new documentary will be received? Part of the appeal of "The Civil War" film was its originality in presentation, and its focus on a topic most people last studied in 10th grade. The topics seemed so fresh despite the lack of archival video (ie. Abraham Lincoln posing in a stovepipe hat, and all of that). Burns also made characters, both big and small, come alive through readings of their letters and private diaries.
Interest in the Second World War, however, has enjoyed a resurgence ever since Tom Brokaw and Steven Speilberg hit us in the gut with the 1998's 1-2 punch of "The Greatest Generation" and Saving Private Ryan. With "The War," will Ken Burns present a film that inspires the same passion for knowing our history that "The Civil War" accomplished? Will Americans make comparisons between the struggle against fascism and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will they yearn for a war that they could understand and support? We'll all find out in September of this year.