The War - About the Series

PBS Video Clips
Watch "PBS Previews: THE WAR - A Ken Burns Film" (approx. 26 minutes)


This seven-part series directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick explores the history and horror of the Second World War from an American perspective by following the fortunes of so-called ordinary men and women who were caught up in one of the greatest cataclysms in human history. Also airs on KQED HD; visit www.kqed.org/dtv for details.

The Making of The War

Ken Burns has been making documentary films for more than 30 years. His latest film, The War, was co-directed and produced with his longtime collaborator Lynn Novick. The seven- part series tells the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women and demonstrates that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.

Earlier this year, the filmmakers were guests on KQED's Forum. The following is an excerpt from their conversation with host Michael Krasny. To hear the entire interview, go to www.kqed.org/forum. You can also see them on on The Josh Kornbuth Show.

Ken, talk about the genesis of this film.

After the Civil War series, we'd kind of resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren't going to do anything else on war.... but finally we learned a couple of statistics that eroded our conviction not to immerse ourselves back into that world. One is that we're losing 1,000 veterans of the Second World War a day, and the other is that our kids know almost nothing about the [war]. ... An ungodly number of our students, graduating seniors ... going out in the real world think we fought with the Germans against the Russians. We felt the palpable loss of this memory and decided to tackle it.

As you know, there's been a cottage industry (more than a cottage industry) of the Second World War since it ended-- books, TV shows and series--and we really wanted to find another way to do it. We eliminated the strategies and the tactics, the obsessive interest in all things Nazi, the presidents, the celebrities of the war, and did it from the bottom up, with so-called "ordinary" people ... Of course, in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary people--that's what this film is about.

We took a random handful of folks from these four towns--distributed across the United States--and got to know their towns and the people who would be staying behind worrying about them, but mostly we followed these sons, (18,19, 20 years old) into hell. And not the good war of our imagination, and subsequent public relations, but the worst war ... ever. And I think we have unflinchingly told what it was like, through the eyes of these people--and paradoxically, by focusing on the randomness of their experiences, you actually do get a sense of the larger picture of the war and care about some of those strategic things that much more because you're so invested--these are people you might have had Thanksgiving with.

The intent behind the film is to create a national discussion. Bring the sense of history close by. ... We know that it's going to prompt a much larger national conversation. All of the stations in the PBS system are in some way going to be producing their own local version of our film. We hope to spur people to tell their own stories in communities large and small, encourage folks to talk to their parents, to their grandparents ... their memory is one of our greatest inheritances.

Lynn, how do you two work together? It's a mystery, your collaboration.

We work really well together, I think, because we have a lot of mutual respect. It's a very organic collaboration. ...We definitely divide up some responsibilities to some degree. Then when we get into the editing room, that's when we basically sit down together every day and really try and shape the film as it goes along. We're often going in different directions with the research and production and then sit down together in the editing room.

How long did this film take to make? About four years?

Oh, no, we started before September 11. It's so funny because this thing echoes. ... You know, one of things I always say is that history is not just about the past, it's the set of questions we in the present ask of the past, so it's informed about where we are now. So this is a film that speaks to today without a political bone in its body. Small "p," politics.

So many of the comments that people made in our film came before September 11 or, indeed, before the invasion of Iraq, and yet they resonate with what's going on now in an amazing way. And I'm sure if by some miracle you could pull back some soldier from the Peloponnesian War, he'd say the same things too ...

War themes are immemorial.

Particularly so.