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Or any other American Town

From Ken Burns' The War

The Battle of Midway

During World War II director John Ford to a break from directing epic westerns starring John Wayne and devoted himself to making propaganda documentaries. The most famous of these was the twenty minutes long colour film The Battle of Midway:

The film is famous for its actual combat footage, particularly the way the camera shakes with the impacts of the blasts and how shots of the soldiers are predominantly close-ups due to the need to stick together during the bombardment. Both the shaky camera and the close-ups were later employed by Steven Spielberg in the Omaha beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, and later in Band of Brothers, particularly in the episodes Day of Days and crossroads.

Spielberg's use of The Battle of Midway as a visual template for combat scenes has been criticized on the grounds that the Pacific theater saw a different form of combat to the European theater, and applying the visuals of one to the other would give the wrong impressions. That might be so, but what Spielberg borrowed was largely the kinetic aspects of combat film and I doubt that was so very different.

Ken Burn's The War

In Ford's The Battle of Midway the images tell the main story, but they are effectively complemented by the rhetoric of various voiceovers. A repeated phrase is how the soldiers are from this town, or that town or "any other American town". At one point the narrators says: "men and women of American. Here comes your neighbor's son", combined with mentions of the name of the various soldiers we see close-ups of. It all helps create a personal, intimate feeling that seems to confirm the film's claim that "this is our front yard". The reason I find this interesting is that Ken Burns in his documentary The War does exactly the same thing.

Each episode (seven were broadcast, the dvd expands the number to fourteen) begins with:

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.

The focus is on the smaller towns, the bottoms up story - without too many generals or grand strategic schemes. Instead it is the neighbour's boy - mentioned by name and the street he grew up with. The focus on personal stories like these always makes for very compelling viewing.

The strength of The War is two fold; the images and the interviews. Though I love the interviews, I am as always most partial to the images, and I liked how The War combined battle photos with more everyday images. It helps give a sense of the time, of the decade, instead of just one specific event.
My favourite parts of the series are the ones where the images are allowed to speak on their own, or when they are combined with the interviews. The latter are also excellently executed and is used to give a voice and a sense of history to all those people we see depicted.

That said there are a few aspects of the series I have troubles with and that I thing verge on the saccharine. All the images from the present day are without fail of landscapes at dusk, with a setting or rising sun painting the sky in flaming colours. It is pretty enough, but after a few episodes it becomes slightly annoying. Secondly a lot of the interviews are accompanied by the slow, melancholy clank of a piano, which heightens the nostalgic, pastel feel. Now nostalgia can be useful and even therapeutic at times, but when it comes to this war - which is sometimes labouring under the moniker The Good War - I fear that the infuse of nostalgia will just cloud what was a very real and gritty conflict.

As mentioned I found a certain similarity in the rhetoric used by Ford's Battle of Midway and The War, but one aspect is notably different: reflection. In a sense this is only natural - The Battle of Midway was made in 1942, The War in 2008. The problematic aspect is that all the people interviewed speak with clarity of hindsight, and at times this can create a nostalgic feel. At other times the level of reflection gives depth to the series, as when a veteran talks about the war and its legacy as "The Good War". "I don't think it was a good war", he says, "but I think it was a necessary war."

Rather than classify and label, such a statement makes you think and reflect as a viewer. Do you agree? Do you disagree? And when The War opens up for reflections such as these it is a very good story indeed.

ETA: Sample of many of the interviews are posted on the series official site.


Films watched in 2009.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 19th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)
Hee. Well, you can certainly be my internet partner in crime. After all it is always good to know I have someone I can geek out with BoB and Gk with. ;)
(Deleted comment)
May. 19th, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC)
*g* Then my work here is done! ;D But seriously, The War is fascinating in that it wants to criticize the idea of the Good War, yet wants to keep the concept of the Greatest Generation. It's all a bit strange.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )