In late 1941, America went to war with the Army it had — not the Army it wished it had — and fought valiantly and, thankfully, successfully to keep the world free. What happened in the subsequent four years is documented in Ken Burns’ The War, a magnificent 15-hour film that he’s called his best work ever.
No argument here. This remembrance of World War II works in every way. As history, it provides a thorough, easy-to-understand chronology of what happened where, when and why. As analysis, the film offers a sober look at the U.S.’ decisions during the long and costly war — and leaves you wondering sadly how a man can be asked to fight for his country then not be allowed to sit at a lunch counter. As reminiscence, it’s a remarkably clear-eyed view of how this “necessary war,” to borrow Burns’ description, affected the people who fought and those who waited back home.
Burns uses four communities — Waterbury, Conn.; Luverne, Minn.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Mobile, Ala. — to serve as stand-ins for every American city and town and interweaves the stories of about 40 veterans to fill in the details. You’ll hear recollections and see pictures you’ll never forget: Japanese jumping to their deaths off Saipan rather than be captured; the frozen bodies in the Ardennes; the general who sacrificed 400 of his own men so he could save 230 others; Glenn Frazier’s call home to his family; the chocolate pudding-covered roast beef. (Yes, amid the horrors, there are some laughs and joyous moments. The Americans’ arrival in Paris is as beautiful to watch as the aftermath of the Nazi death camps is sickening.)
Somehow, Burns matches nearly every story with film footage or archival photos. About the only time he doesn’t is when U.S.S. Indianapolis survivor Maurice Bell tells the harrowing tale of the shark attacks that occurred as he and others waited to be rescued. Instead, Burns shows film of choppy, angry seas. Yet Bell’s recollections are so vivid that you’ll swear you can see blood bubbling up in the water.
So be prepared. Keep tissues handy.