Filmmaker Ken Burns turns eye to Vietnam War
Poignant documentary set to the music of Bob Dylan, a decade in the making, covers the conflict from all sides
Hal Kushner, an Army doctor, had been a starving prisoner of war in Vietnam for weeks when he and his desperate comrades decided to catch and eat the prison commandant’s cat.
They tried to conceal their deed but were caught before the meal. Kushner was beaten and tied up, and the cat’s carcass was draped from his neck. Tragically, he recalled, he and his buddies never got to eat the cat.
The scene, as related by Kushner, is one of the most poignant in a 10part documentary by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, “The Vietnam War,” that is set to air on PBS in September.
The film is the most ambitious for Burns, who is renowned for his documentaries on the Civil War, jazz, baseball and the Second World War, among others. It covers the war from its genesis, starting after the First World War, and examines the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was completed in 1982, and the years beyond.
Burns and Novick, who are scheduled to speak at the memorial on Monday and will be the grand marshals in the Memorial Day parade, paused on the Mall on Sunday to talk about the war, the Wall and the film.
The documentary covers the war from all sides, folds in the antiwar protests it sparked, and includes the assassinations, racial unrest and social divisions that tortured the country in those days. It covers the American massacre of civilians at My Lai, and the enemy’s massacre of civilians at Hue; the killing of American students at Kent State and Jackson State; and the veterans who threw away their war medals at a demonstration against the war outside the U.S. Capitol.
The film discusses the controversial Agent Orange defoliant, the visit to Hanoi by the actress and antiwar activist Jane Fonda, and the release of the Pentagon Papers. It features, among others, soldiers, Marines, nurses, pilots, POWs, protesters, “deserters,” anarchists, veterans of the South Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army.
An American pilot, later the Air Force chief of staff, says the United States was fighting on the wrong side. A war protester tearfully apologizes for the things she said about those who were fighting in Vietnam. And an American soldier says he lost a part of himself when he beat and strangled an enemy soldier while battling hand-to-hand in a tunnel.
As Burns and Novick sat on a bench Sunday not far from where people in T-shirts, ball caps and biker vests walked toward the black granite wall of the memorial, Burns remarked, “Human beings seem incapable of avoiding wars.”
They and their team worked on the documentary for a decade. They made trips to Vietnam. Filmed interviews with 100 people and examined 100,000 still pictures and 5,000 hours of archival footage. They got to know the stories of some of the 58,000 veterans whose lives were claimed by the war and whose names are etched in the wall.
“The Vietnam War” is set to the music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Yo Yo Ma, among others, as well as the sound of explosions, screams, machine-gun fire and throbbing helicopter blades.
Director Lynn Novick, left, and director/producer Ken Burns.