WALPOLE, N.H. - Two troubling statistics fueled the creation of "The War," the 14-hour documentary about World War II from acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. Burns thought he was done with war movies after his series, "The Civil War."
But he changed his mind after realizing that America was losing its grip on the facts of World War II.
"It was really a couple of statistics that got me," Burns said. "One was that we're losing a thousand (World War II) veterans a day, and the other is that our children just don't know what's going on."
Burns said he was astonished at the number of high school graduates who believe the United States fought with the Germans in World War II.
"That to me was terrifying, just stupefying," said Burns, who will show the first two-hour installment of The War to Dartmouth College on Dec. 1.
The series follows four American towns - Waterbury, Conn., Mobile, Ala., Sacramento, Calif., and Luverne, Minn. - through the war years, focusing both on the soldiers from the towns sent to war and the families and friends left behind. Burns and his team interviewed 40 people who fought in the war or lived through it, and actors ranging from Tom Hanks to a 13-year-old Walpole girl read journals or newspaper articles about another half-dozen others. Home movies are interspersed with official archives of war footage.
"What it allows the film to be is experiential," Burns said. "It's not that our narrator doesn't talk about strategy or tactics, but you're not distracted by celebrities. It's not about Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin and Hitler. It's not about Eisenhower and Rommel. These people are names that pass before us in this film, they're not insignificant. But the point of view is from ordinary people, who do the fighting and who do the dying in all wars."
The film also moves away from Burns' signature style - panning a camera across or focusing on a detail in an old photograph to give the viewer a sense of movement, while an actor reads from a speech or a journal over period music. But viewers still can expect the sort of painstaking attention to detail that has become a hallmark of Burns' work. It took a year to edit the sound to make the battle scenes as lifelike as possible, Burns said.
Work on "The War" started six years ago, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Asked about the contrast between today's home front and World War II, Burns called the latter, "the greatest collective effort in the history of our country."
Common sacrifice is lacking today, he said.
"We now have a military class in this country that suffers apart and alone, whereas there wasn't a family on any street in America that wasn't in some way touched by the war," he said.
"When 9/11 happened what were you asked to do? Nothing. Go shopping. That's what we were told," Burns said. "Go shopping. It's ridiculous. Nobody said, 'This is a war born of oil, turn your thermostats down five degrees.' "
The War will be broadcast next September on PBS.