Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Written by Fumo Verde

I have been a student of the Second World War for over twenty years. I have a mini-library with well over 200 books on the subject from top authors and military experts from around the world. When it comes to war movies and documentaries, I have seen them all—twice. The War beats them all. It sits above Hollywood’s idea of what war is, reaching beyond the Military Channel’s tactical strategies. This film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick brings the courage, the pain, and the reality of what the Second World War was to those who lived through it on the home front and the battle line.

I won’t get into the complexities of why we fought, or what type of country we were before this great conflict began, and neither does Burns. He gives you the basic background, though his main focus is on the war itself and those who were in the thick of it. The stories come from the heart because the folks that were interviewed lived it. The war ran their lives morning, noon, and night. No matter young or old, the whole country took part, and that’s what this film shows.

This was total war, which meant that even the folks at home had to sacrifice too. Every American citizen participated in many different ways, whether it was buying war bonds or helping on a scrape metal drive or a rubber collection party. The American people rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. Women filled the workplaces making tanks, bullets, grenades, and bombers. Kids collected metal and rubber, which they brought in by the wagonload. Everyone was taking part; everyone felt that they were in the fight.

From the towns of Waterbury Connecticut; Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; and Mobile, Alabama the men and women of the Greatest Generation tell us their stories. At the time these four cities were unique, yet they still had that small-town American feel to them. Burns is quoted on the inside cover of this four-disc box set, “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that War.” To try and cover the whole country would have been impossible, but by narrowing down the locations and people from these cites, Burns pieced together a story that spanned the entire reach of the war.

Keith David is the narrator while Josh Lucas, Samuel L. Jackson, Eli Wallach, and a host of others add voices to the letter writers who didn’t make it back home. Tom Hanks provides the voice for Al McIntosh, owner and editor of Luverne's Rock County Star Herald, whose inspiring editorials and down-to-earth common sense seem to ease the fears of his fellow citizens. All these fine actors did an outstanding job in relaying the feelings that were in these correspondences and newspapers; they brought to life the emotions of these fallen heroes.

Starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the film follows the progression of the war, but it’s not all battles with big guns going off. Between each fighting step of the campaign, Burns intercedes with a scene from home. Images give the viewer a break from the savage fury that is war. You will see many dead bodies and even many more wounded ones, but you cannot understand this story without visualizing the real cost of what war is.

One of the most stunning moments in this whole epic was the Time Magazine photo, the first of its kind mind you, of three dead Marines whose bodies were still stuck in the sand. These pictures showed the American people what was really at stake, what the “true” cost of freedom is. This image did not break the American spirit like some thought it would. Instead, it strengthened it, creating a fortitude to work harder and faster. If you really want to see what a nation looks like when it is united, this film will show you. This war defined our nation and the stories told here help to break down those definitions, by bringing a face to the words that are telling this history.

These faces have expressions such as Olga Ciarlo when speaking of her brother Babe. His letters home to his family, especially his widowed mother never reflected the life he was living on the front lines in places like Anzio. In one letter he tells his family he’s doing fine, and there is not much for him to do except eat and sleep. The savage and fierce fighting up the Italian peninsula conveys what is really happening as it becomes the backdrop for the letter being read aloud. To measure the degree of what Babe Ciarlo kept from his family, narrator David recants the numbers of dead and wounded at Anzio: 7,000 killed, 36,000 wounded or missing, and another 44,000 non-battle casualties from frost bite or shell shock. The dead bodies are disturbing, almost as disturbing as the wounded, and this is just a small glimpse of the big picture. The stories from both the home front and the battlefront weave a tale of fear, angst, anxiety, will, and determination that has been unrivaled since. Before the Second World War, we were still a developing country; after the war, we were a superpower.

From Wake Island, to the liberation of Dachau, to the dropping of the atom bomb, The War puts into prospective an era that changed the history of our people, our nation, and the world. The words from Churchill’s speech after the Battle of Britain holds as much truth now as it did then, and for the generation who fought and died in this war we owe at least a bit of thanks for what we have today for “…Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

If you love history or even want to understand what the big brouhaha is all about, see Ken Burns' The War. It will enlighten your mind about how our country used to be. Thanks to all veterans of foreign wars and those who serve our country now.

Roots: The Next Generations

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

The historical mini-series has gone the way of the dinosaur, at least in name. From the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, we were privileged to experience some of the best long-form storytelling ever to be seen on television. Roots kicked off the trend in 1977 with the finale still reigning as the third highest-rated program ever to air on television. This lead to some remarkable adaptations of works considered too long to make into theatrical films. The best were led by entries like Centennial, Shogun, Masada, The Winds Of War, and North and South. The multi-part series is the perfect format to tell a sweeping historical drama. Told over many nights or weeks, the best of these drops into key moments in the lives of the characters, tell an episodic story, and lay the groundwork for an ongoing theme.

Roots: The Next Generations followed a mere two years after the success of the original series. Roots told the story of Alex Haley's African-American family from its origins in Africa with Kunta Kinte through the end of the Civil War with Chicken George and his son Tom (Alex's great grandfather). The story of Haley's family from Africa, through being forced into slavery, through the days as slaves in America to freedom at the end of the war was as a powerful story. While telling the story of Haley's family, there are the rich stories of family and tradition that apply to all viewers. It's no surprise the rise in interest in genealogy that happened after Roots aired. And there's the story of America and the growth of a young nation that happens around the family. For a family caught up in slavery, the end of the Civil War and Emancipation was a natural emotional stopping point for the first miniseries.

The Next Generations picks up the torch in post-Civil War Tennessee in 1882. Chicken George is now an old man and his son, Tom Harvey is struggling as the first generation of freed blacks. The first miniseries' journey from freedom to slavery is mirrored by Next Generations' journey from slavery to freedom. Harvey struggles to raise his family in this new world. He must struggle with Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and the role of blacks in a free society. His daughter will marry Will Palmer by the second episode in 1896 and their child, Bertha, will be Alex Haley's mother.

The third and fourth episodes deal with Bertha and future husband, Simon Haley. Simon's experience in World War I fighting with the 92nd Infantry Colored marks a nice tent pole mark for the story. The bravery of these soldiers will begin to place them on a path to equality that will make it possible for Alex Haley's (played to perfection by James Earl Jones) opportunities in World War II in the Pacific and his ultimate freedom to pursue a career in writing.

The last episode details the final leg of the journey that will take us neatly back to the start of the very first episode of Roots. Alex collaborates with Malcom X on his autobiography and has a controversial interview with American Nazi, George Lincoln Rockwell (Marlon Brando in full-blown overacting mode - ala Apocalypse Now and Superman). The professional success he gains leads to Alex's 12-year quest to retrace his family history all the way back to Kunta Kinte in Africa. The triumph of his quest is not just that of an African-American, it goes much beyond that: it's the continuity of the family. It's the family overcoming history. There's an oral tradition throughout these episodes that overwhelms whatever historical events are taking place. Alex Haley's confirmation of the family stories is a point of pride and validation that we all can feel.

The seven episodes released on seven discs are still powerful to watch. The mixture of TV and film actors (Henry Fonda, Richard Thomas, Olivia de Havilland, and Marc Singer are just a part of the 53 stars) makes a great mixture that really brings the characters to life. The production value is not what we would expect of an "event" these days. There are fancy set decorations and most of the film is produced on Hollywood back lots. The biggest change in the 30 years is the free and excessive use of the "N-word". In context, it completely fits the plot and in fact, Haley himself in a later episode admits that it doesn't hold any power over him because it's been used so many times. But with today's sensitivities, it's shocking to hear the likes of Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan using the word.

The Next Generations was presented over seven straight nights. While miniseries just don't air this way anymore, the watching experience of TV shows on DVD is very similar. I like the way seven separate 105-minute films tell the story of three generations over an 80-year period. There's a rhythm that's hard to find in today's episodic television. I wish there was a way today to adapt longer pieces of literature in a similar method.

The link of these stories is that of progress. Elizabeth tells her father Tom Harvey, "The scars from slavery aren't on your back, they're in your soul." It would take three generations and maybe even more to heal these scars. These are the stories of triumph. Two steps forward, one step back but always moving. Each generation builds upon the success of the others. Will Palmer would run a lumber company and his son, Simon, would use that success to go to college and become a professor. Alex would use his father's success to become a prolific writer. That's the story of America. The story of American families.

The DVD set is not full of many extras. There's a Behind-The-Scenes Documentary on the last disc that offers little insight. But with a story like this to tell, that is easily forgotten. A good story is more than enough.