He has done it to me again. At some point, I'm going to have to come right out and say it; Ken Burns is a national treasure. I guess I just did.
My first exposure to Ken's work was in 1990, The Civil War , a mind boggling look at how our country almost destroyed itself, with impartial analysis by some of the greatest historians alive (and in the cases of Shelby Foote and Steve Ambrose, sadly gone now.)
Then, in 1994, came Baseball, a marvelous 9 part historical romp through the national sport starting in the mid-1800s and progressing to the modern era.
In 1997, Ken produced and directed Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, and I officially became a Ken Burns disciple. I have watched this thing at least 10 times, and each time I find something new. That, I think, is the greatest quality of Ken's work. The visual effects are so stunning at times, that you almost forget to listen to the narration. But the effort that Ken puts into his research, the little background stories that he somehow digs up, are a delight in and of themselves.
Ken and his longtime bud Dayton Duncan, another Lewis & Clark scholar and all around cool dude, somehow manage to find the perfect readers for their scripts. From David McCullough, to Ken Olin, to Matthew Broderick, ...Burns always picks the right people to play the right characters, and you find yourself forgetting that's Ferris Beuller reading the part of John Ordway.
It's obvious now, that high profile Hollywood types have no problem checking their egos at the door when Ken Burns asks them to take part in one of his productions.
Hal Holbrook, doing the narrative for Lewis & Clark, was obviously inspired. You could hear it in his voice. He was the perfect choice.
Other works by Burns include: Jazz, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, World War II, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
What I would give to spend a few hours over a few bottles of wine with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. And oh to be able to step back in time and invite Ambrose and Foote.
Well, they've done it again. This time, Ken and Dayton given us a real gift, an absolutely wonderful look into the National Parks of the United States. It's only been 2 installments so far, but it's spellbinding.
You simply must set aside time to watch The National Parks: America's Best Idea.
In the usual Burns style, he blends astounding cinematography with his trademark slow-pans across old black & white photographs, and weaves them together so seamlessly that the 150 year age difference between HD video and monochrome doesn't even occur to the viewer.
I am delighted that Ken and Dayton have chosen our National Parks as their newest subject, and have not been disappointed in their angle of delivery. Again, Burns and Duncan have found a way to transport viewers back to the late 19th Century, and allow us to almost talk to John Muir.
By touching on the enormous opposing political pressure being exerted on Teddy Roosevelt while he was unblinkingly setting aside enormous tracts of land to be protected forever, we come to better understand the true greatness of TR. TR understood the meaning of the word forever.
But besides the obvious players like Muir and TR, Burns and Duncan have, again, found the lesser characters to be a large part of the story. Bit players become major heroes, and villains.
In the case of Yellowstone buffalo (Titonka), they tell of a guy who was out in the dead of winter poaching the shit out of these symbols of the American west. He had piles of dead buffalo laying all over a snow covered plain and was busy removing their heads, which he planned on sending to a taxidermist in Omaha.
Phil Sheridan and some of the US Cavalry were patrolling the park, because Congress could not be convinced to allocate funds for a permanent park service. They came upon this fucking scumbag, who was so busy chopping heads that he didn't even hear them approach. Looking up, he was somewhat surprised to be looking into the muzzle of a gun pointed at his head.
As the poacher laughed it off, he told them that the worst thing that could happen was he'd be fined a couple of thousand bucks and he'd lose some hides. No biggie, as he was making a bundle.
He knew that the great herds that once covered the plains had been all but eradicated. He knew that the herd in Yellowstone were all we had left. And, in a warp of American logic that is all too common, this jagoff decided he wanted to be sure to kill them off before someone else got them, ...before they were all gone.
Unbeknownst to the shithead, a writer was accompanying the Cavalry patrol that day, doing an article on Yellowstone during the winter. Shocked and appalled, he wrote a scathing article that appeared in papers across the country, discussing the plight of the almost extinct American buffalo. Public outcry! People wrote their congressmen. People demanded action. And the buffalo was saved from extinction.
The commercialization of Niagra Falls made the US a laughingstock across Europe in the 1800s, and people like Muir and TR wanted desperately to prevent profiteers from taking over Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, and Mount Rainier among other national treasures. They considered the billboards circling Niagra to be a national embarrassment, and they didn't want it repeated as Americans spread westward.
For instance, in a legislative loophole that allows the president to sidestep congress, Teddy Roosevelt thwarted Arizona politicians efforts to keep the Grand Canyon for themselves. He couldn't call it a National Park without congressional approval, so he exercised his presidential power of decree, and declared the Grand Canyon a National Monument.
There are some sad moments, where we learn of politics of reality trumping the politics of idealism. The arguments about whether we should allow our parks to be completely wild and free, or to be simply protected places whose resources could be utilized if need be.
Shows like The National Parks: America's Best Idea are the types of productions that cause the viewer to stop and think. It causes us to give thanks for the people who came before us, and who left us the wonderful gift of our National Parks. A gift we all own together. Programs like this remind us of how important it is to understand our own history.
And nobody does history like Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan.