WAR, THE - DVD review

Some consider Civil War to be Burns' masterpiece, but I found The War to be his finest work yet.


Ken Burns has built a reputation as being one of the greatest documentary filmmakers. He may even be the best. Finding early recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with nominations for his documentaries "Brooklyn Bridge" and "Statue of Liberty," Burns found universal acclaim for the 1990 "Civil War." He has since followed up on his success with the popular "Baseball" and "Jazz." The 2007 World War II documentary "The War" is perhaps his most ambition project. Burns found further success with "The War," but this success was not without controversy. Covering topics about African American and Japanese American involvement in the war, Burns came under fire by the Hispanic community for not dedicating a portion of his fifteen hour film to the involvement of Latino Americans. Regardless of the controversy, Burns' "The War" was another success for Ken Burns and provides one of the most comprehensive and emotional looks at the last of the World Wars.

With World War II being documented by so many previous filmmakers and portrayed by countless films, television shows and video games, Ken Burns took a different approach to the great conflict. Burns decided to tell his tale through the eyes of the citizens of four towns. Mobile, Alabama gave an insightful look at a town that gave its sons to the War effort and transformed itself into an industry center to build the tools and machines necessary for the United States military to effectively fight in the Pacific and European theatres. Luverne, Minnesota represented the Midwestern American town that supplied the military with pilots and infantrymen and found a number of its own never return from the beaches of Normandy or skies over Europe. Sacramento, California had a large Japanese American population and found its Asian descended citizens placed into Internment camps when fear was spread that the Japanese may invade the west coast and had spies planted among the Japanese American population. Waterbury, Connecticut was the last of four towns and was representative of a typical American town and how mothers lost multiple children and friends and families would be separated forever because of the war.

The focus on how World War II affected towns and citizens is delivered through the words of veterans from World War II and recollections and letters from the war. Burns has brought together many veterans that held numerous roles during the War. A woman who lived her younger years in a Japanese concentration camp in the Philippines talks about growing up and being able to touch her backbone from her stomach due to malnutrition at the hands of the Japanese captors. Race is a common topic in a Ken Burns documentary and the filmmaker looks at the 442nd Japanese Infantry unit and the trials and tribulations faced by the Negro soldiers of World War II. The Japanese Americans were able to volunteer or live in Internment camps. They served segregated from other Americans, but their bravery and hard fighting earned them respect among other units they fought alongside. They were always dogged by racism and were not treated in the same respect as others, but at one point four hundred Japanese American soldiers died to save two hundred White American soldiers. African Americans were also segregated and treated poorly when compared to the treatment of Caucasian soldiers. A young Japanese man was refused a haircut by a white barber until a commanding officer ordered him to give the young colored man a haircut.

"The War" is broken into seven episodes. The first episode, "A Necessary War" described events between the Pearl Harbor attack of December 1941 and wrapped up its war coverage with events through December 1942. "A Necessary War" talks about the Death March of Bataan and the thousands of civilians imprisoned in Manila, Philippines. The Internment of the Japanese Americans along the West Coast of the United States is detailed and accounts of German U-Boats being witnessed outside of Mobile Bay. The historical sea battle at Midway where aircraft carriers began to show their superiority on the seas is discussed. The bloody battle at Guadalcanal where American solders where outgunned and lacking in ammunition and supplies is looked into by Burns. The first episode wraps up detailing the large loss of life by Americans in the first year and how Japan's expansion was thwarted after Guadalcanal.

"When Things Get Tough" is the second episode and the focus moves away from the Pacific battles against the Japanese empire and begins to look at the tremendous ground battles and bombing raids against German controlled territories. The American's first faced General Rommel in the deserts of North Africa and the unprepared and experience lacking Americans were handed and easy defeat by the Desert Fox. After an initial rout, General George Patton took command and began to change the tide of battle and push the Germans back into Europe from Africa. The second episode looks at how American towns such as Mobile, Alabama started to create industries to support the war effort and how tens of thousands of jobs were created literally overnight and turned these small towns into bustling industrial centers. The deadly air raids of the B-17 bombers are looked at through the eyes of surviving pilots and a belly turret gunner. The episode introduces the viewer to the letters of Babe Ciarlo and how he wrote home about lazy days in the chow line and never wrote about the horrors and travesties of war.

"A Deadly Calling" looks at how American reporters begin to publish photographs about the true horror of war and the massive amount of death and carnage is show in magazines such as Life. Theater houses start to show the grim and grisly war footage and the American public begins to become aware of the tremendous casualties when large numbers of telegraphs arrive at widow's doorsteps. Whereas the first episodes touched on racism, the full impact of Japanese American and African American soldiers is also covered in the third episode. Neither the Japanese or Negroes are treated fairly in armed service, but they continue to fight for their country, the United States. The bloody and hard fought battles of Anzio and Cassino are also detailed and how difficult it was for the Americans to finally defeat the Italian and German soldiers that had used these cities as strongholds.

D-Day and the Invasion of Normandy is the highlight of episode four, "Pride of Our Nation." The stages of the Normandy invasion are mapped out and detailed for the viewer and the survivors featured in "The War" recount their experiences when Americans finally landed on French soil and the expected final push to Berlin began. The troubles surrounding the large hedgerows of France are looked at and how difficult it was to move across the French countryside and fight against the embedded German soldiers. The Americans had initially expected to move quickly through France, but it would take a couple months before France was finally liberated from the German army. The frightening battle of Saipan and the large number of Americans killed in this Pacific battle is another topic of the fourth episode. The episode looks at the mentality of Japanese civilians and soldiers and their willingness to give their own lives to defend their country and how American soldiers were told that there are no Japanese civilians when American bombers began to pound Tokyo.

"FUBAR" is a term meaning "F'd up beyond all Recognition." The definition for "SNAFU" is also given during the fifth episode. "FUBAR" looks at some of the situations and battles that were concocted by American Generals and other military planners and how these expected victories turned into bloody defeats and caused countless American casualties that could have been avoided. A number of American soldiers died taking control of a Japanese island that had no tactical value whatsoever. This island, Peleliu, takes months to finally capture. The American generals had anticipated that the island would take only four days to achieve victory. The Japanese Americans of the 442nd are given orders to save the "Lost Battalion" from Texas and more members of the 442nd died than the number of soldiers they saved. When the 442nd is asked to gather for salute, a sad number remain. The episode ends with a look at the American citizens and others being held captive in Manila.

The sixth episode is titled "The Ghost Front" and spends a lot of time looking at the Ardennes Forest fighting during "The Battle of the Bulge." The fight is laid out from the early German planning to the eventual victory by the Americans. With their forces stretched too thin along an eighty mile front, the Ardennes was a dense forest that was cold and covered in snow. Troops died from heavy gunfire and splintering trees that had exploded from artillery. With the war dragging on for the Americans on both fronts, the heavy usage of bombers is discussed. The massive bombing raids in Europe and the hundreds of B-17 crews lost is discussed, as well as the advancing raids by American bombers from aircraft carriers and controlled territories in the Pacific. The bloody battle on the islands of Iwo Jima and Tinian are looked into and how Japanese soldiers would rather commit suicide or swim out to sea to avoid capture. The American public has grown weary of the war and the frustrations with the long war are also covered.

"A World Without War" looks at the horrific atomic bombs that brought about a Japanese surrender and the difficulties for American soldiers returning home from the war effort. The infamous final mission of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and its delivering of the first atomic bomb to the Enola Gay and subsequent sinking are shown. Survivors interviewed by Ken Burns include those that survived the shark infested waters of the Indianapolis sinking give their recollections. Both atomic bombs dropped on the Japan cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are looked into and images of their after effects are shown. Nazi death camps and the mass murdering of the Jews during the Holocaust is briefly touched upon. The final battles in Germany and on the Pacific front are also looked at. The episode looks at the death of President Roosevelt. The continual racism for returning Japanese Americans and African Americans is talked about by the survivors.

"The War" is another tremendous documentary by Ken Burns. The emotional accounts of the survivors of the four featured towns are heartfelt and genuine and I find it far more powerful when World War II is discussed by those that had firsthand involvement with the worldwide conflict. The idea of using veterans and survivors from four American towns is a fresh and interesting approach to the war. It gives "The War" a unique and personal feel. Ken Burns is a director that lets his subject matter drive his documentary and Burns unveiled racism, romance and suffering through the making of this film. There was some controversy because the Latino Americans did not feel represented, but it was not Burns intention to make "The War" something all encompassing and the tacked on moments featuring a sold native American and Hispanic veterans feel tacked on and do not fit into the four town structure.

This is a documentary that looks at so many topics that were previously considered taboo or simply ignored. "The War" shows the honor of the Japanese soldiers and briefly discusses their belief system. Political and military failures are also touched upon and "The War" does not focus solely on victorious battles. Images are show featuring the bloodshed and massive number of lost lives of young American men. The death and murder of American soldiers is talked about is sad detail and final letters from dead soldiers are read by familiar voices. Racism at home and in combat is looked upon and everybody is given their due in this film, including the Hispanics in the previously mentioned tacked-on footage. Views of soldiers on killing of their enemy and civilians is talked about and this is something that is rarely ever discussed elsewhere, but truly allows the viewer to understand the horrors and mentality of a soldier during wartime.

Keith David handles most of the narrative work for "The War" and he does a marvelous job of moving the viewer through the stock footage and filmed photographs used during the documentary. David does not rise above the material and brings humanity to his narration. Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Eli Wallach, Josh Lucas and others lend their voices to read letters and provide voice to the deceased. Hanks and Jackson are easily the better known figures to have lent their talent to the production, but their involvement is few and far between and none can compete with the work done by Keith David. I had initially been disappointed in hearing that David was the narrator and not Hanks, but after watching "The War," I would not have wanted it any other way.

"The War" is a long time investment, but for anybody who wants to learn more about World War II or would like to find a better understanding of the deadliest war in our history should find the time to watch "The War." World War II is a subject that will never go away and a subject that historians and filmmakers will always detail and discuss. Fifteen hours is a fraction of the time needed to create a comprehensive look at the war, but Ken Burns has created a captivating and engrossing documentary that takes an entirely new approach to bringing the sad, victorious, warm and frightening stories of World War II to life. It is a shame that a project like this was not done years earlier before our World War II veterans began to heavily thin in number. We won't have many more years to remember and pay honor to our living veterans of this war, but Burns had given the survivors a chance to tell their story and to always be remembered. With every passing month, the number of survivors are greatly reduced, but thanks to Ken Burns, we can always have a platform to share a moment with them.


Nearly all of the footage contained in Ken Burns' "The War" is built from stock footage or photographs filmed by the director. Ken Burns has a certain style of filmmaking and his method of filming and bringing life to still photographs is now known as the "Ken Burns Effect." Burns will film photos in vivid detail and pan and zoom the camera across the photograph to make them as powerful as a moving image. Burns will focus the camera on important segments of a photograph and although many other filmmakers have adopted his techniques, he remains the master of this style of documentary filmmaking. His earlier work on "Civil War" was almost entirely built from these shots, but "The War" features a large number of actual video footage from the film. Most is in black and white, but some limited color film does exist. Some footage is horribly grainy and poor resolution gun camera footage. Other footage is by news crews and other primitive cameras. Home grown footage was limited at this time in our history, but some does exist showing families as their sons left to fight.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic video of "The War" does the absolute best it can with the varied quality of stock footage and photographs. The best looking moments of the film are the photographs, which approach high definition in quality as the "Ken Burns Effect" works its magic. The color footage featuring the interviewed veterans and survivors is clean and clear and second only to the better looking photographs during the film. Burns and cinematographer Buddy Squires has filmed these senior citizens in soft lighting and shows each of their aged faces to life in close-ups that shows the emotion and feeling of each veteran as they share their remembrances of the war. It is difficult to judge a film such as "The War," because the stock footage is so varied in quality. Some looks great, while other footage is horrible riddled with scratches, dirt and other indicators of poor preservation. The photos can look amazing and the interviewees all look very good, so it is hard to not give "The War" high marks for what it has done with the material it contains.


An interesting note is that "The War" received all of its stock footage from the Library of Congress without sound. From the Pearl Harbor footage to the sounds of the Ardennes Forest, Ken Burns had to create sound effects to match the video footage. His sound editors and sound designers deserve to be commended, because the recreated sound for the footage is nothing less than amazing. The sound of waves against an overturned battleship at Pearl Harbor matches the scene perfectly. Explosions and gunfire sound as if they were capture and perfectly preserved during each filmed battle. The various sounds of aircraft engines and bombing runs are once again done masterfully. Burns and his team of filmmakers did have access to some historic radio addresses and these too sound very good, although you can easily tell they are historical recordings and they do not quite match up with the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of the recreated moments.

"The War" is presented with both a Dolby Digital 5.1 multi-channel surround mix for those with fully capable home theater systems and an adjoining Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack for Pro-Logic systems and stereo televisions. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is easily the superior mix and fully brings to life the recreated sound effects for the film, while the two channel mix is not nearly as lively. The 5.1 mix works well with the old historical sound bits. The .1 LFE channel thumps quite heavily during the most bombastic battle sequences. More than a few battle scenes rattled the subwoofer. The rear surrounds are also used during other moments when gunfire rattles the air or carnage is causing battle damage to be thrown through different channels. Sound movement across the channels is also solid and sound flows nicely from speaker to speaker. The music by Wynston Marsalis sounds great on the 5.1 mix, as does the original song "American Anthem" by Gene Scheer and sung by Norah Jones. The veterans interviewed all sound great and their vocal inflections are easy to discern. The most familiar sound of "The War" is that of Keith David's voice and the soundtrack masterfully handles its narrator.


"The War" lasts for roughly fifteen hours. With something so long in length, one would not expect a large number of supplements, but the six disc box set does provide a few nice offerings to help give the set a little more value. Some of the supplements are copied on a couple of the six discs and some of the value added content is only accessible from a DVD-ROM drive. The bonus materials add another seven hours to the set if you consider the running length of the two commentary tracks. Some of this footage is just as valuable as the film itself, as there is more material to be found within the additional footage and commentary tracks. Only three platters of this six platter set contain supplemental materials. Each disc contains one singular episode, with the exception of the second disc, which contains episode two and three.

The first disc is the first disc that contains supplemental materials and the second most interesting of the discs containing bonus footage. A Commentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is included and is the first of two commentary tracks by the co-producers and co-directors. Burns and Novick give a lot of background information on the film itself and what is seen on-screen. It is often a running commentary track, but the first track spends a lot of time discussing the making of the film, their reasoning for doing certain things and the manner in which some things were done. Both are personable and provide and easy and engaging listen. I certainly enjoyed and benefited from watching this episode a second time with the commentary on. Another feature unique to the first disc is the Making The War (36:22) feature. This felt partly promotional, but did provide a lot of background information on the documentary. Burns and Novick point out the footage filmed just for the documentary and also describe other aspects of making this lengthy documentary. A Biography and Photo Gallery are also included on the first disc. The Biography lists pictures, names and information for everybody interviewed for the first film and lists them by either their city or under ‘Other.' Photo Credits are included on this and the third disc.

Also included on the first disc is a feature called Educational Resources. This is actually a subsection of bonus materials and it is provided in its entirety on each of the three discs that contain supplemental materials. The first item is a Message from Ken Burns (1:12). This introduction by the film's director simply states that there is other material out there to learn more about World War II and Burns urges viewers to do their own research to learn more. The Episode Descriptions states that a PDF is available from browsing the disc on a DVD-ROM drive. The page long summaries are helpful in remembering what was seen in each of the seven episodes. The More about the Veterans History Project is a two page screen that talks about the Library of Congress project that helps preserve the experiences of our World War II veterans. The menu selection pbs.org provides help on where to find further information from Burns and Novick, a searchable database detailing every clip, story or photo contained in the documentary and other information contained on the web page that deals with "The War."

The third disc is the second platter that contains supplemental materials. Photo Credits are again included on this disc, as is the exact same Educational Resources section. I found it odd that three DVDs would contain the same information, but perhaps Burns and PBS decided that it should be very easy for anybody to find this information in the box set and have a fifty-fifty shot of having a disc that contains the information. I'm not sure why they didn't included it on every disc, but it is repeated here. The second Commentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick also populates this third disc and this commentary felt a step behind the first documentary in terms of quality and information, but it was still a rather nice listen that provided a wealth of background information on a scene-by-scene basis. It is a shame that the two filmmakers did not provide a commentary for each episode.

The third and final disc containing supplemental materials is also the most valuable disc of bonus material, the sixth and final disc. In addition to the two hour episode "A World Without War," this disc contains nearly two hours of additional footage and the always popular Educational Resources. Two pages of Deleted Scenes are contained. The first page of Deleted Scenes (24:00) has eight different scenes. They are all worth watching and I found the first scene about War Correspondents to be the most interesting emission. The second page of nine Deleted Scenes (20:09) is just as interesting to watch as the first disc and takes a look at the battles and events through the war. A third set of additional footage is the Additional Interviews(55:23) that provides additional footage with fourteen interviewed veterans and survivors. This extra hour with the veterans involved with "The War" was a must watch bonus feature and no amount of extra time spent with these people could ever be enough.

You might also check out the public Q&A with Ken Burns that DVD Town published.

Closing Comments:

Ken Burns epic "The War" is an engaging and informative look at World War II that takes a different approach to telling the story of the most devastating war in our history. Burns spends time with a number of veterans and others of four towns who had their lives shaped by the conflict of World War II. Burns does creep beyond the scope of his four towns to look at the Japanese American involvement of some Hawaiian citizens and also a native American veteran and some Hispanic gentlemen who were included to fend off controversy. Everybody interviewed has something memorable to say and it feels special to share in their emotional memories of how World War II affected them. Some survived harrowing situations and cheated death. Others waited at home for loved ones to return. Some returned. Others did not. The six-disc box set of "The War" featuring stunning filmed photographs and plenty of stock footage. The interviewee segments are very good and even some of the stock footage is quite impressive. The film quality is so varied because of the conditions of the footage. The set shines in its soundtrack because of the time spend creating special effects to match the silent film footage used for "The War." The supplements are engaging and relatively lengthy. I honestly could have sat through another fifteen hours of time with the people involved with this documentary. Some consider "Civil War" to be Burns' masterpiece, but I found "The War" to be his finest work yet.


Film Value