America's Historian

Written on Monday September 24, 2012

On the Record Blog


By the age of eleven, Ken Burns already knew what he wanted to do for a living. His goal was to become a filmmaker. Now, almost 50 years later, Burns has achieved his boyhood dream, and then some.

Burns produced his first major film, The Brooklyn Bridge, in 1981. He earned the first of two Academy Award nominations for the story about the city where he was born. The Shakers followed in 1984, and in 1985, The Statue of Liberty. It also brought him national acclaim and an Oscar nomination.

Over the course of 30 years, Burns has established himself as one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of all time. In 2009, David Zurawik of "The Baltimore Sun" said:

IMG_8612REDUCEDBurns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period. That includes feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I say that because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves.

Burns has made 21 documentaries, including the epics Baseball, The War, and The Civil War. His latest documentary, The Dust Bowl, will debut on PBS and OETA on November 18, 2012. In April, Burns came to Oklahoma to do advance screenings of The Dust Bowl, and while he was here, I had the opportunity to visit with him about his career and craft for the OETA series with outstanding journalism and media figures, On the Record.

Burns decided to do The Dust Bowl after reading the book, "The Worst Hard Time," by Timothy Egan. The book describes the devastation of the Dust Bowl by following half a dozen families trying to eke out a living on the hostile southern plains as dust storms choked their throats and drought parched their crops. The desperation of people in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado was only made worse by the era's other disaster, The Great Depression.

Burns was attracted to the Dust Bowl through Egan's book, and found that the period was the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, and it did not have to happen. Burns and his Florentine Films production team gathered photographs and films from the Farm Security Administration and interviewed numerous survivors. While many people left the southern plains during the "Dirty Thirties," Burns found compelling survivor stories that helped him craft what is considered his most intimate oral history.

IMG_8629REDUCEDIn Ken Burns On the Record, Ken told me about what he looks for in a topic and how he developed his story-telling style. We talked about his craft – how he weaves words, pictures and evocative music together to create a unique, emotional viewing experience. He not only creates a historical record, but encourages his viewers to see history in a different way, by making a human connection with the people who lived through the time.

It's that heroism, honesty and humanity that distinguish Ken Burns documentaries and have earned Ken dozens of awards and the status as one of the nation's leading historians. The late historian Stephen Ambrose said of Burns' films, "More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source."

During Ken Burns On the Record, Ken relates one of his favorite stories – that of a letter from a soldier in The Civil War. It's a great moment, and underscores why Washington Post critic Tom Shales called The Civil War "heroic television."

Ken also discusses why his documentaries are so important in today's fast-paced media worlds. And, he tells what he has learned about the American "character" and what defines Americans.

Ken Burns given his loving touch to diverse topics in programs including The National Parks: America's Best Idea, Prohibition, Jazz, and The West. He has featured American originals like Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jack Johnson, Lewis and Clark, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.

Ken has several more productions in the Florentine Films pipeline. Upcoming projects include documentaries on the Central Park Jogger, The Roosevelts, Jackie Robinson, The Vietnam War, and Country Music.

Ken Burns On the Record debuts on September 23, 2012 at 9:30 p.m. on OETA.

Until next time,

Dick Pryor