Photograph by Paul Barnes
Ken Burns loves America. The Brooklyn-born filmmaker’s passion is evident in his many documentary films, encompassing American icons (Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, national parks), characters (Huey Long, Mark Twain), pastimes (baseball, jazz), and historical events (World War II, Prohibition). Burns’s most famous documentary, however, remains The Civil War, his nine-part homage to America’s greatest conflict that began 150 years ago this year. The Civil War, frequently re-aired, is as captivating today as when it debuted in 1990. Throughout his career, Burns has traveled extensively to shoot scenes of America on location, giving him an intimate perspective on his favorite country.
If I were to visit just one Civil War battlefield, which should it be? I would have to pick Gettysburg, site of one of the greatest land battles ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. It’s possible to stand on its hills, walk through its fields, and climb among the boulders and feel like you were there, the ghosts of our wise past still present as teachers. You can also find that at Antietam and at Shiloh, a much less traveled battlefield, and at dozens of other battlefields as well.
How should we approach such hallowed ground? Read about it first. For Gettysburg, it might be the “Gettysburg Address.” I read the novel The Killer Angels and then, arriving at Gettysburg, suddenly realized I was in the middle of Pickett’s Charge. It gave me an appreciation for the lay of the land. I ran out across the field, in a sense re-experiencing the terror of that ill-fated attack.
What don’t we understand about that war? There is so much we don’t know. The Civil War took place over four years, killing 620,000 people, engaging millions of Americans from every corner of the country. It made us a nation and not just a collection of states, in part because soldiers actually traveled to other parts of the country at a time when most people never went more than 50 miles from home. The war was the most important event in our national life, trumping even the Second World War and the American Revolution. You must approach the Civil War with humility, knowing that in a lifetime you’ll understand only some aspect of it.
What places have really moved you? Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Antietam, Appomattox Court House, the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. The variety of experiences you can have in the U.S. is limited only by your willingness to get there and your openness to the experience.
Are there places in other countries that have also moved you? For the last 40 years, I’ve spent most of my time here in the U.S., because my work has concentrated on American history. But I do get to France, mostly Paris; Britain, mostly London; and Italy, mostly Tuscany. I love those places, yet they don’t measure up to home in my eyes.
Are we destroying the places we love when we travel? No. The national parks and historic sites belong to us, and it’s hugely important that they have a constituency. Do some sites have traffic jams? Yes, but the opposite possibility is more terrifying, because when nobody goes to the national parks, then the next person who looks at a river and thinks “dam” gets his way, and the person who looks at a beautiful stand of trees and thinks “lumber” gets his way. That’s the danger. The immediate antidote to crowding is to just get off the main trail.
Why isn’t America adding more national parks to the system? There’s just not enough available land and also because the process is so politicized. So, instead of creating new parks, we could elevate some national monuments—Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah, for example—to the more protected status of national park. Other spectacular places could be elevated even to monument status.
Can films change how we view the world? Yes. Our documentaries have inspired people to visit Gettysburg in the case of our Civil War series and the Brooklyn Bridge in the case of my first film for public broadcasting; we learned recently of a spike in park attendance attributed in large part to our series on national parks. That’s good news.
Who are your heroes? There are many. Abraham Lincoln articulated a vision of America I think we would be wise to return to. Frank Lloyd Wright was an extraordinary creator and genius. Louis Armstrong was to music, not just jazz, what Einstein was to physics. Baseball great Jackie Robinson was heroic; I’m working on a biography on him. I particularly love Mark Twain, still the greatest American writer. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the founder of the women’s suffrage movement in America, was another beautiful writer. Among the heroes I’ve actually met are Buck O’Neil, an old Negro League player whom I got to know during our baseball series; Shelby Foote during the Civil War film; and historian Lewis Mumford, whom I met while making the Brooklyn Bridge film.
What subject do you want to document next? I’ve always wanted to make a film on Martin Luther King, but I know how difficult it is for the family to let go of creative control. So that’s waiting on deck. King was such an extraordinary human being. But even in a thousand years, I wouldn’t run out of interesting topics in American history. I feel fortunate to work with amazingly talented people who help me realize these projects. We try to make as good a film as we can and then move on to the next one. It’s never about completing. Being in the process is what matters most.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.