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Burns brings ‘The War’ home for viewers

“The War” is a towering tribute. But the war Burns marshals us through is necessary — not, as some might prefer to think, “good.” This film, however big-hearted, is no sentimental journey.
/ Source: The Associated Press

During 15 hours over seven nights, Ken Burns’ much-awaited documentary immerses us in World War II.

The enormity of that war — which placed the world’s future in doubt while claiming at least 50 million lives — is something most of us take for granted, even with it shrinking in the rearview mirror of our collective consciousness.

But Burns’ “The War” means to restore it to the here-and-now for us to see with new eyes. And he does it in a way that, by now, many viewers expect, even count on: By giving it the Ken Burns treatment.

Story-driven and deliberate, yet lyric. Sweeping in scope but highly personal. Very, very long. These are words applied to his past miniseries, huge-topic films like “Jazz,” “The West,” “Baseball” and “The Civil War.”

The same adjectives fit “The War,” which interweaves the European and Pacific conflicts, braided with the war experience here at home. (Co-produced and co-directed by Burns and Lynn Novick, it airs on PBS Sunday through Wednesday, then Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. ET; check local listings.)

“The War” has been in the works since 2000. Burns began it before 9/11 and, thus, before the Iraq War, which has given his film bleak, unanticipated currency.

How did he begin such a mission?

“Intimately, always,” he says.

As he explains in a recent interview, the first step was choosing four American towns to draw from: Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; and the tiny farming community of Luverne, Minn.

“We picked them, more or less randomly, then went to those towns and learned everything we could about them and the people who lived there,” Burns says. “With the home front, we could anchor not only the emotional experience, but also the chronological experience, of the war.”

This is no sentimental journeyEarly in Sunday’s episode, “A Necessary War,” the narrator intones: “The Second World War brought out the best and the worst in a generation, and blurred the two so that they became, at times, almost indistinguishable.”

With that proviso, the terms are set for what follows. “The War” is a towering tribute. But the war Burns marshals us through is necessary — not, as some might prefer to think, “good.” This film, however big-hearted, is no sentimental journey.

True to his plan, Burns begins his massive saga almost microscopically — with Glenn Frazier, who was a 16-year-old Alabama lad in 1941.

With obvious wonder, Burns, 54, fast-forwards through Frazier’s war years for a reporter: “His girlfriend since the first grade says, ‘Well, I like you as a friend, but....’ Then, upset, he busts up a bar. Then, the next day, he volunteers for the Army, and he’s sent to the Philippines, where he’s in the Bataan Death March, and then digging his grave for his imminent death, and then a POW in Japan for years. And then, the next moment, he’s home.

“The whole war,” says Burns, “is contained within the arc of his experience.”

Six decades later, Glenn Frazier (along with some 40 more witnesses) is on the screen to tell us about it.

We will encounter many other things, of course. The historical footage and photos; the war sounds and the lush musical score; the evocative narration. But the people Burns has interviewed give “The War” its immediacy — and reaching them in time only heightened the urgency for him to make his film.

A thousand veterans are dying each day, says Burns. “In a few more years, they will be gone. Then the Second World War will be the province of historians, who, however well, will nonetheless be abstracting it.”

‘We didn’t tell LOTS of stories’The four towns (and the stories their citizens tell) provide the driving force of “The War.” That’s what defines it, regardless of who these witnesses are.

Even so, Burns was criticized some months ago for overlooking the role of Hispanics who fought in the war. He calls the uproar “a very difficult and challenging circumstance,” and it resulted in his adding 30 minutes of material as codas to chapters 1, 5 and 6 that tell of two Hispanic veterans, as well as an American Indian who, in battle, drew on his own tribe’s warrior tradition.

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Burns is pleased to add these stories, he insists, while noting, “We don’t have a German-American family. We don’t have French-Americans, or an Irishman,” among many groups he mentions that aren’t singled out. “We didn’t tell LOTS of stories!”

But the film tells a collective story that unfolds grandly, horribly, painfully, proudly. It exposes the gaping divide between that era and the current day, while mounting a mighty effort to bridge it.

By the end, those who watch “The War” may find they share a bit of what the man who made it feels.

“This,” says Burns, “is the first film that I haven’t wanted to let go of.”