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.