Ken Burns

“Without knowing where we’ve been, we can’t possibly know where we are going. Without a past, we have no future,” Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker, said at the Mount Union Schooler Lecture on Tuesday, April 10.

While Burns said no film can reflect the whole story, his next documentary, The War, is a seven-part, 15 hour series that retells the history and horror of World War II from the perspective of a few individuals. The documentary will be broadcast on PBS in September.

“The stories are simple, personal and bottom up,” Burns said.

Thousands of hours of research were put into the documentary in addition to two and a half years of editing. First-person narration, newspaper clippings and letters were used to capture an intensely personal sense of how the people of four towns viewed, and were changed by, the Second World War.

“It was a privilege to be a part of the lives of men and women who endured the War,” Burns said.

After producing a previous documentary on the Civil War, Burns vowed to never film another war again. However, after years of deflecting requests, he decided to produce another on World War II because he realized thousands of veterans were dying every day without their stories being told.

“If we neglect to hear them we are guilty of historical amnesia and we cannot do that,” Burns said. “Their memory is their most valued aspect and our most prized possession.”

Although World War II was never fought on American soil after the United States joined in the effort after Pearl Harbor, Burns said it sent our republic vibrating in unexpected ways.

“Without the sacrifices of Americans the outcomes would have been very different,” Burns said. “A once isolated country suddenly became the center of world affairs. Nothing would ever be the same again.”

Burns said the Second World War was the greatest single continued effort by the American people.

“It was the last time we were all bound by a ceaseless unity we can only hope to regain someday,” Burns said.

In his film, he said there is the presence of one theme, a truth as old as history, but one we always forget. In The War documentary, however, this truth is revealed in every frame.

“The truth,” Burns said, “is our country’s glorious promise: there are no ordinary lives.”

Burns has been making documentary films for more than 30 years and has produced and directed some of the most celebrated documentaries ever made, including The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz.

The Schooler Lecture Series was established in 1988 through a grant made by the Schooler Family Foundation of Coshocton, OH. Through the gift, the College is able to provide a dramatically enhanced opportunity for young men and women studying at Mount Union and for residents in the greater Alliance area to experience the breadth and depth of American culture.

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