Sunday, September 23, 2007

The War: Episode I

Okay, I'll be watching all of this, I think. What an amazing show that was.

It's odd--I think that I have carried this feeling in the past that Burns's projects were sometimes too apolitical, scrubbed somewhat so as not to offend anyone and to reach as wide an audience as possible. I wanted more of a stand, one way or the other, and I think in this episode we saw something of that. To my eyes at least there seemed to be a deliberate attempt to confront the mythic status of WWII as the last great "noble" war, in which good and evil was clearly separated and in which we (good) were were all united in pursuing the higher goal.

Tonight, Burns's subjects kept emphasizing the ignoble, like the admissions from a couple different men on Guadalcanal that they "never took a prisoner." MacArthur was portrayed as a bumbler and a coward. The guy from Minnesota emphasized that he and his friends didn't sign up out of patriotism, but to get out of the boring Midwest. Lots of time spent on the internment camps for Japanese Americans, too. And then look at how Burns ends this episode: with the guy recounting his night spent wishing a guy would hurry up and die so that he could get some sleep, only to find out the next day that it was his now dead best friend. It was more than just a "war is Hell" kind of statement.

I think Burns is trying to counter the WWII hagiography of movies like Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor, or at least add some complexity to the popular image. That's what I saw, anyway.

I had no idea how unprepared for war we were in 1941--the idea that we didn't even raise a gun in combat until August of 1942 is staggering to me. But then, most of what I knew about WWII I learned from a stack of old war comic books called The Haunted Tank that I came across once as a kid. Man, those were good. I think the ghost of Gen. Robert E. Lee looked over the tank for some reason. It made sense at the time.

3 comments:

Ryan said...

I was incredibly surprised to read how many people tuned in to watch this. Apparently 15 million plus.

The whole series is already on sale at Barnes and Noble for $125... Interesting.

Mr. Hill said...

Wow, too bad PBS doesn't sell lots of commercial time.

When you watch this thing, you realize that every soldier in could probably have his own fifteen hour documentary. Maybe that's true for all people generally. Perhaps I'll make a pitch to PBS to do the Ken Burns treatment for random strangers on the bus.

Ryan said...

I appreciate how much of a connection is developed between each soldier that seems to be introduced. It's quite saddening to hear these men say that they weren't expecting to come home. The dialogue at the beginning was disheartening too, when he pulled his sister to the side and told her to be prepared for the possibility of him being killed. Talk about "hope!"