Ken Burns Speaks at the Oxonian Society
Ken Burns, legendary documentary film maker of American history, nominated for two academy awards, and several Emmy awards, and for whom the intriguing “Ken Burns” cinematic effect was named recently appeared at the Oxonian Society, participating in an engaging discussion with Joe Pascal, Oxonian Society President, regarding his earliest roots in documentary film-making, his passion for the civil war and challenges and triumphs in documentary film-making. Burns spoke without notes in a compelling, erudite, passionate, logical manner that conjured up the magical charm of Orpheus and his lute. In short, Burns is not only gifted, he’s brilliant.
Joe Pascal (JP): Where were you raised? Can you describe the effect your childhood played on your documentary career?
Ken Burns (KB): I grew up in Newark, Delaware, I went to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and have been struggling to make historical documentaries ever since. My father was an anthropologist and my first memory was of him building a dark room—he was an amateur photographer—in our basement in Delaware, at age two and half. I think part of the magic of watching the images come up in the developer was a huge, huge effect. My mother had cancer and died when I was 11 years old, and there wasn’t a moment in my life when I wasn’t aware of her impending exit and I think that kind of tension and anxiety forced me inward, and led to an appreciation of history. I’ve wanted to be a film-maker. My father had a very strict curfew, but after my mother died, relaxed it to an extreme. I could see a movie until two am on a school night, or he would take me to the cinema guild to see foreign films—it was the first time I saw my father cry, and I was absolutely sure that I would become a movie maker in the style of John Ford; I ended up going to a college that emphasized social documentary still photographs, and realized there’s much more drama in what is and what was than anything in the human imagination can dream of. I ended up taking this completely untutored, untrained interest in history and applying it to this rabid, bulldog desire to become a filmmaker.
JP: Where did your interest in the Civil War arise from?
KB: It’s interesting…over Thanksgiving my brother, who’s also a documentary film-maker reminded me how we played when we were 7, 8 and 9—around the time of the centennial of the civil war—with this blue and gray plastic soldiers kit. When I started making historical documentary films I noticed they all seemed to be radically different from each other—at least I thought they were—but they all had as their determining factor, their central motivation the civil war. In Brooklyn Bridge, my first film for pubic television, the bridge would not have been built without this new kind of metal called steel which the civil war helped to promote. In fact, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Roebling, the son of the designer who died tragically in the first months of construction got his practical training during the civil war. The Shakers, the subject of my next film, was a celibate religious sect that declined precipitously after the civil war, not just because of the economic changes that had taken place in the United States, but the psychic changes in a country that had murdered 650,000 of its own people.
The next film was on Huey Long, the turbulent southern demagogue. His parish in North Louisiana was dirt poor, and they thought the confederacy, quite rightly, was a rich man’s club—they owned slaves, and so they refused to secede from the Union. The parish that he was from became a hot bed of radicalism, socialism, and populism.
The Statue of Liberty, the next film I made, was a gift from the French, not about immigration, which came later, but was intended to celebrate the survival of the union. It was a given to Mrs. Lincoln to commemorate her husband’s ultimate sacrifice…So everywhere I turn, there was the civil war, and it was begging to be investigated. I’ve never made a film about a subject I’ve known about, but something I’ve wanted to know about, and rather than tell you what I already know, I’d like to share with you what I’ve just discovered.
JP: How did you convince David McCullough to narrate the civil war?
KB: David McCullough was a historian, who worked at American Heritage magazine, not a professional historian in the academic sense, but he’d written a book on the Johnstown flood, and then who wrote a book called The Great Bridge, and I read this book on day, and turned to my partner—we were all starving as we decided not take jobs as apprentices, but to make our own films. In the midst of abject poverty, and not knowing where our next rent check was coming from, I said I want to make a film about the Brooklyn Bridge, so it seemed logical to contact the man who had written the popular book on that and try to get him to submit to an interview. And then I realized that the unspoken rule of documentary in those days was that you had only one Stentorian narrator like Alexander Scourby or Orson Welles, who gave these pronouncements from on high, but often didn’t know the slightest thing about the subject, but here was a man who lived and breathed the intricacies of the story and who could inhabit, literally, the words if he would agree to do it. So I asked him, and he initially said no, but we kept plugging away. Someone had heard and told him that he’s seen some beautiful footage I’d taken of the bridge at every time of day and night, and every vantage point, so he drove up to our house in New Hampshire and said he’d be happy to help. We did an interview and he agreed to do the narration, and it was really a fortuitous thing because as we were working on the narration, the sound studio where we were recording had some huge technical glitch that forced us to take several hours off, and he started looking at the narration he was going to read, and he said, “This is terrible.” He started saying, “Why’d you say it this way? Couldn’t you say it that way?” And I got in that one day, the single greatest education in how to write as a historian, how to speak.
JP: How many original photographs did you use in the civil war series and how did you find so many incredible images from approximately 150 years ago?
KB: There are more than one million images taken during the civil war; not one of them is a battle. About 125,000 photographs survived. Interestingly, after the civil war, appetites for battle photographs were high, but afterwards, it fell off precipitously. In fact, some of those glass plate negatives went as replacements in green house gardens. I’ve probably looked at 70,000-100,000 of those existing photographs. I touched and put into my lenses between sixteen to twenty thousand and 3,600 to 4000 went into the film.
JP: Why do you think so few Americans know about the civil war, such as the vivid statistics that you mention that the war was fought in 10,000 places, 3 million Americans fought, 650,000 lost their lives?
KB: You go below the Mason Dixon line, and for a long time they didn’t forget it. It’s an interesting phenomenon, the civil war, history is usually written by the victors, and this was the first time it was written by the losers, and if you don’t believe that look at Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind to popular histories that have it exactly upside down; organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan that say it wasn’t about slavery, but state’s rights, and how they were just complete fabrications of the imagination. The south carried on, they had the memory of loss, of the North as Shelby Foote said, “fought the war with one arm tied behind its back,” on to conquer US continents and develop into a mighty continental nation, while the South wallowed in the backwater that it would necessarily become, having put all its chips in the corner of chattel slavery.
Somehow the North forgot all the statues in the square, the sacrifices of the soldiers were forgotten. It’s always been there, this curiosity about this moment in our past, where paradoxically in order to become one—before we used to say, “The United States are,” which is grammatically correct, and now we say, “The United States is,” which is grammatically incorrect. I was interested in making a film about that transformation, reminding people of that paradox, needing to divide oneself in two in order to become one.
JP: How did General Grant, a lackluster clerk from Illinois, who was a failure in everything but war go on to lead the union army and become President of the United States?
KB: It’s a great story, a classic American story. If you think about the civil war, if you sort of turn it a different way, forget all the battle stuff, and other things, it’s really the triumph of the middle class. The old aristocracy, represented by Robert E. Lee, is what vanishes at the end of the civil war. What’s replaced by it are these mid-Westerners, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman, who got sent back from the war because he was crazy. Sherman said famously of Grant, “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk.”
These are the two most important soldiers of the civil war. And Shelby Foote said to me when I asked him about Grant, that Grant had “4 o’clock in the morning courage.” That meant that you could wake him up at four in the morning and tell him that the enemy had turned its right flank and he’d be as cool as a cucumber…#
Part II in April 2007