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The Accidental Historian: Ken Burns Mines America's Past

By Tom White

The past isn't dead; it's not even past.
-William Faulkner

A slow, searching pan over the weathered visage of an American president...the plaintive vibrato of a fiddle and the contemplative phrasing of a piano...a cannon poised majestically at low-angle against a burnt-orange sunset...the subtle resonance of cheers, hoofbeats and gunfire...the burnished locution of the narrator...the eloquent passages from presidents, soldiers, musicians and ballplayers, ably channeled through a chorus of readers...the wise observations of on-camera commentators...These are the elements that, when woven together by filmmaker Ken Burns, transform the tableau of American history into a vast, roiling Shakespearian drama peopled with heroes, villains and fools.

Over a 20-year career, Burns has changed the way we engage our past—enlivening it, making it present, bringing cinematic texture to sepia-hued daguerreotypes, and energizing the halls and houses and fields with the spirits of the great men and women who toiled and created and lived and died there. Along the way, Burns has helped to broaden the audience for the documentary form, attracting not only millions of viewers but, through ancillary sales of books and soundtracks, millions of readers and listeners.

In fall 1990, American viewers were transfixed by The Civil War, Burns' epic series on one of the bloodiest, most self-destructive and ultimately most transformative periods in America's history. Nine years into his career and with five films to his credit, Burns was an overnight sensation. By the time The Civil War had aired, Burns had already made Academy Award-nominated films about such iconic structures as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, and award-winning films about American figures as disparate as painter Thomas Hart Benton and rogue politician Huey Long. Although American history is Burns' métier, he has never claimed to be an historian—rather, what he does is, as he puts it, "emotional archaeology."

"We're all aware of history, which is excavation of brittle facts and dates," Burns explains. "That's what's turned the discipline of history for most of us into castor oil—something that is good for us, but hardly good-tasting. But the things that we're drawn to confirm that we are made better by a different kind of history, which is emotionally configured. What I'm trying to do—not being an historian but a documentary filmmaker—is look at the higher emotional truth, which, because I deal in history, means that the excavation that I do is of an emotional archaeology."

The crucible for Burns' exploration of the American past was Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where such mentors as Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes, both primarily documentary still photographers, "reminded us of the power of the individual image to convey complex information without undue manipulation." Burns had arrived at Hampshire intent on a career in Hollywood, but it was through exposure to such legends as John Grierson, Robert Flaherty, Maya Deren, Bruce Connor and many others that he found himself  "drawn inexorably to forms of documentary. I experimented with many different forms—avant garde, cinéma vérité, traditional journalistic expository, self-referential films."

With documentary as the medium of choice, history eventually followed. He chose an historical subject as his senior thesis, and although he had only taken one course in college—in Russian history, not American—"suddenly all the bells and whistles went off... There was something absolutely organic and truthful; it was like finding your soulmate, and working in history became something I did as a documentary filmmaker. It  just became the way I practiced my craft."

Upon graduation, he and two other classmates—including Buddy Squires, his longtime cinematographer—started their own company, Florentine Films, rather than apprentice through an established production company. "Hampshire inculcated in all of us a self-initiated approach to our own search, our own investigation, our own curriculum," Burns recalls. "Basically I've been my own boss ever since."

This fall, American viewers have had the opportunity to revisit Burns' work in a weekly series on PBS entitled Ken Burns American Stories, in which he introduces each film, talking about the subject and the making of the project. Ken Burns American Stories has been released as a package on video and DVD, and The Civil War series has been completely remastered and remixed for separate DVD release. Such a retrospective endeavor has enabled Burns to rediscover and retrace his artistic evolution—and appreciate his long-term relationship with PBS.

"I've been very fortunate working with PBS and the underwriters who have funded these films that I have had complete artistic control," Burns maintains. "I can say that while an early film might look cruder in its construction in comparison to a later film, it is no less an accurate barometer of where I was at the moment. So I think Brooklyn Bridge [his first film with Florentine] is as powerful as any film that I've made. It's just that I can notice that I've evolved as a filmmaker stylistically and learned to solve the millions of problems and questions of any particular production with a certain degree of experience and a different kind of experimentation.

"At the same time," he continues, "I can look at the current work and find in it polish and an absence of the kind of crudeness that sometimes produces different kinds of raw emotions. So I think that being able to go back and look at the previous work is helpful as I go forward. We all struggle to be free of dogma and formula, and there are lots of ways in which you approach that, and the way in which you respond to your early work is really important."

Burns doesn't go back and try to change things. "I'm not looking to present a director's cut," he explains. "I was fortunate enough to have my director's cut when I started. But I do want to be open to the kind of energies that were present as we made the films. Sometimes it just had to do with the sheer terror of making an early film. Things aren't quite as terrifying now. But sometimes that terror had a terrific creative aspect to it."

Burns has had the great fortune of having fruitful relationships not only with PBS, its Washington, DC-based flagship station WETA, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but also with General Motors Corporation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Park Foundation, among others. Such a nexus of partnerships has enabled him to work on several projects simultaneously—seemingly disparate projects, each with its own peculiar rhythm, scope and context. For example, in the years between the 18-hour Baseball series that aired in fall 1994 and the 19-hour Jazz series that aired in January 2001, he produced Thomas Jefferson (1997), Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Frank Lloyd Wright (1998), and Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), most of which are multi-part programs. He also served as executive producer and creative consultant on the eight-part series The West (1996).

"I think that they help each other," he says. "I feel like a parent with a lot of children. If you're a good parent, you never mistake the call of one child over another. Each film since the very beginning has presented unique stylistic challenges. I know there gets to be a conventional wisdom that there's a ‘Ken Burns style.' And it's true that there are many similarities. But I see each film as unbelievably unique and applying a wide set of tools and techniques and stylistic solutions to the individual challenges."

And the full plate of projects continues unabated. Burns is currently working on, at various stages in the process, a film about Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion boxer; Horatio's Drive, an account about the first transcontinental automobile trip; a major project about World War II; a film about the national parks; and a biography of Martin Luther King.

The World War II film, planned for the end of the decade, is projected to be about the length of The Civil War. But rather than echo the spate of World War II projects, both documentary and dramatic, that has appeared over the years, Burns plans a different approach: "We've chosen five or six American towns geographically distributed across the US. We are following the fortunes of the sons and fathers and brothers in those towns, in the European and Pacific theaters of war, finding out about the women who went into the work force and the African-Americans who went into the segregated army. But more important, those men who went to war, those who came back and those who didn't. Caught up in the wake of the intense personal stories, you can say that history from the bottom up will be history from the top down."

Mining the American past—uncovering the characters and the conflicts, the fissures and the follies, while humanizing the familiar icons and immortalizing the less familiar figures-has enabled Burns to reflect on the American present. "Below the surface of the particular set of problems, questions and challenges that each project represents is essentially the same theme, which is a curiosity about how this country works," he maintains. "What are the mechanics, good and bad, that our history reveals to us? What does it mean to be an American? Who are we? And that's what I'm drawn to."


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.



  • Brooklyn Bridge (1981)
  • The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)
  • The Statue of Liberty (1985)
  • Huey Long (1986)
  • The Congress: The History and Promise of Representative Government (1987)
  • Thomas Hart Benton (1988)
  • The Civil War (1990)
  • Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991)
  • William Segal (1992)
  • The West (1996; executive producer/creative consultant)
  • Vézelay (1996)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1997)
  • Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
  • Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
  • Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)
  • In the Marketplace (2000)
  • Jazz (2001)
  • Mark Twain (2002)