By lex, on September 24th, 2007
The 13-year old cohort at Chez Lex is of the unswervable opinion that Sunday evenings are, and of a right ought to be, dedicated to viewing of “The Simpsons” on television. This same group was shocked into outrage last night to find that the paterfamilias had dedicated the TiVo towards recording the first 2.5 hours of Ken Burns PBS mini-series “The War.”
I didn’t watch only because Burns had so very much impressed me with his documentary on the Civil War back in 1990. I watched because I thought I ought to, I suppose. Important subject and all that. Greatest generation, etc.
Even though I had learned along the way that part of what Burns was hoping to do was deconstruct the myth of World War II as being a “good war.” There are necessary wars, Burns says. But not good ones. As though doing something necessary to prevent a greater evil is not a kind of good, at least compared to the alternative.
Here’s new twist, I thought to myself – a Hollywood film maker come to share with us his wide-eyed discovery that war is really rather an awful thing.
That hasn’t been done before.
To ensure that history received the proper political context, given the current unpleasantness overseas, Burns even went so far as to pump his documentary in an interview with the noted intellectual and level headed political centrist Keith Olbermann. ** Keith was quite eager to pin Burns down on the point that while World War II might not have been a good war, it was certainly better than the war in Iraq. While being quick to point out that comparisons between the two were inherently invidious. Except when they pointed out the differences. Between a not-good war and a war that’s really not good. Because of Bush.
Nevertheless that was my father’s war, and that of my uncles. And most of the men of their generation. Men whose tales I had heard as a boy, always watching for the things they didn’t say. The part where they stopped talking and exchanged significant glances before finally looking away, almost – but not quite – embarassed. Clearing their throats. Moving on.
Worth watching I thought. Even if I did have to take a little sermonizing with my education.
As I said, I was charmed by Burn’s “The Civil War.” He took still photographs and brought them to life in a way that felt at once vivid and uncontrived. The names of familiar towns and cities in my Virginia were given a deeper, more plangent context even as the words of Mary Chestnut reached out to me across the ages. We heard the voices too of Frederick Douglass and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. These were people you might learn from. People, whom it suddenly seemed, you might have only just missed meeting. People who were forced to endure dark and dangerous times.
And there of course was our genial scholar, Shelby Foote, whose textured understanding of the times and soft southern accent evoked all of the old uncles of Richmond who knew just a bit more about “The War” than our textbooks saw fit to relate. He had that wink in his eye and I wanted to buy him a bit of bourbon and branch and just sit at his side and listen. To see it all unfold through his words.
He said that deep in the heart of every southern boy there would always be a moment in July the 3rd, 1863. The flags would still be furled in their cases, the proud and heretofore undefeated legions of the Army of Northern Virginia assembled in loose order on the field at the foot of that hill in all their power and martial splendor. The horses champing and muttering, but the drums and bugles still silent. That it hadn’t happened yet. Would never happen.
So I watched last night with keen anticipation, Keith Olbermann aside. And came away unimpressed.
Oh, technically there’s nothing wrong with the work Burns has done here. He’s found some lovely voices from the past, and plenty of new footage and photos rescued from musty archives. But so far at least, it doesn’t seem new. Nothing we haven’t seen already on the History Channel, or learned at our own fathers’ knees. We have not been spared the sights of dead soldiers nor burned out villages and cities.
Perhaps it is still to soon for those of us whose parents were of that greatest generation. Or perhaps Burns is just trying too hard to make his point, in that earnest but clever boy way of his.
I’ll keep watching, I suppose. But “The Simpsons” are waiting around the corner, just in case.
** 08-15-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.