The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
Two decades ago this week, Ken Burns served as producer and key creative consultant for a historical series. The documentarian was already boasting an impressive resume, having been twice-nominated for an Academy Award (1981’s “Brooklyn Bridge” and 1985’s “The Statue of Liberty”), and for his acclaimed series on the Civil War in 1990. When he partnered with director and historian Stephen Ives, they chose an enormous canvas for their ambitions: The American West. Ives and his team trekked around the far reaches of the Wyoming foothills and Minnesota ghost towns, filming 250 hours of original footage and tracking down 70+ interview subjects.
The result was “The West,” running 12 ½ hours over 8 episodes. It begins with an overview of the North American continent pre-1806—offering a hint at the multiplicity of pre-colonial Native American civilization. It then delves into chronological chunks of the 19th century—the gold rush of 1849, the building of the transcontinental railroad, and the saga of the brave Nez Perce tribe, forced to surrender after an incredible military campaign in 1877. It was a century of both progress and bloodshed; land theft and untold cruelty; of optimism and empire building. Sweeping, insightful and sometimes heartbreaking, “The West” achieves a rare thing: big-picture storytelling aided by little-people intimacy.
Those little people are key to the tapestry that the show establishes. It’s not just legendary names like General Custer or Sitting Bull that were forged in that grandiose landscape. There were countless gold miners, missionaries, pioneers and Mormons. The vast plains and dusty towns of the West were home to hucksters, criminals and opportunists hoping to keep one step ahead of the law. But they were also home to immigrants and idealists, seeking refuge from religious persecution or the ills of slavery. This finely-tuned balance between what Stephen Ives calls “pride and shame” really distinguishes the series. It displays a nuanced awareness of what was both terrible and hopeful in that open frontier.
Another remarkable feature of “The West” are the firsthand accounts and letters that are pulled from the woodwork—a common element of all Burns productions, but here achieving an unparalleled sense of closeness to the past. Burns and Ives give us characters like the pious Whitman family, whose good intentions as Christian missionaries did not save them from slaughter. Or there's the correspondence of a happily married young man named William Swain, who, out of sheer boredom, risked life and limb to find California gold—and returned broke and homesick. He wrote to his loved ones, “I have got enough of California and am coming home as fast as I can.” And the series never dodges the ugliness of racism, revealing a century of heartache, death and ruination for American Indian tribes. The conflagration of cultures and ethnicities—and the constant warfare that mixed their blood—would come to define the West.
What is apparent while viewing “The West” is that Stephen Ives, a Burns protégé, did not stray far from Burns’ established production techniques. Aside from a few superimpositions, it’s hard to distinguish a marked difference between their directorial approaches. Perhaps because of this structured and highly recognizable style, Burns remains one of the most recognized mainstream voices in documentary. His PBS programs continue to be blockbuster television affairs, winning awards and reaching record numbers of viewers. He’s hardly under-appreciated, and yet—when it comes to critical appraisal and discussion, particularly in the world of documentary, he’s often absent from the conversation.
Talk to film critics, documentary filmmakers, or historians about Ken Burns’ languidly-paced serials and you’re likely to get a mixed reaction. No one can deny their efficacy or popularity, to be sure. But Burns is multidisciplinary, meaning that he struggles to satisfy every party. Some historians have criticized him, claiming his work in the visual medium takes away from more extensive and worthy academic histories. Film critics, on the other hand, often struggle with his perceived lack of visual flair. But what remains undisputed is his ability to deliver history in a digestible and popular format, and I’d argue his success is borne from the same traits his detractors see as flaws.
Burns is sometimes thought of as dull. His placid voiceovers, soporific pace, and slow dissolves almost amount to being willfully unobtrusive. To an audience bred on documentaries structured like feature films, this offers an alternative viewing experience. It’s a circumspect, tranquil approach, delivering large chunks of information in a smoothly pacifying way. It makes Burns’ series unthreatening to casual viewers. You can tune in halfway through an episode and get the gist, or watch sleepily on Sunday morning and absorb the main points. It’s almost intended for passive listening—the audience can choose to binge-watch, but the series is more suited to a less intense viewing schedule.
Ultimately, if Burns has a filmic philosophy, it seems to be this: “Why dazzle with technique when the true story speaks for itself?” This lack of flair is in fact his greatest strength—a confidence in historical research and intellectual rigor, with a steadiness that flies in the face of conventional wisdom about what makes for a "gripping" documentary.
There’s certainly enough evidence to call Burns an auteur. The "Ken Burns effect" is memorable enough to be a named feature in film editing software; so-called for his tendency to pan and zoom in on still photographs to give them a sense of movement. That notable feature in his work contributes to a certain stylistic uniformity—distinctive enough to be an auteurist mark.
Each day we get increasingly further from the 19th century frontier, and even from the mid-century pop culture obsession with this uniquely American space. Over time, stereotypes of the West grow ossified.
In spite of Jesse James, John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, real cowboys may as well be as foreign and unreal to us as cavemen. “The West” not only brings us closer to the lived reality of the past, but allows us to apply its knowledge to the existing cultural forms and myths built up around it.
From the literature of Cormac McCarthy to the genre machinations of movie Westerns—which are once again having a moment with this week’s release of Antoine Fuqua’s update of “The Magnificent Seven”—Burns has offered rich context for these works of art. 20 years on, the series makes for a deeply valuable viewing experience—separating myth from reality, but also interrogating the basis for those myths, whether they be Comanche villains or rough and tumble cattlemen. The so-called "geography of hope" that the frontier offered to a ragtag fledgling nation also proved to be the undoing of an entire indigenous culture, and Burns helps us to piece together the enormity of that. For this reason—and many more—“The West” remains a worthy and fascinating endeavor.