Creator of 'The Civil War' plans to avoid ideology

January 12, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MARINA DEL REY, Calif. -- Don't get award-winning documentarian Ken Burns started on "political correctness."

Mr. Burns, whose 11-hour "The Civil War" proved to be the most popular documentary in the history of PBS, is launching a $5 million, five-year look into the American frontier era scheduled to air in 1996.

And he's already being bombarded by well-meaning but what he considers misguided concerns from those who would speak for minorities and women.

"I think it's a really good indication of what happens when one attempts to fold the new issues, the 'new histories,' into our traditional mainstream, which has essentially been great white men on steeds conquering the West," Mr. Burns said last week when his project was announced.

"When it's done in a forced manner, when it's done merely for ideological ends, you end up with what we now agree to call 'politically correct.' It clunks. There's nothing organic about it," Mr. Burns said with quiet but intense determination.

And Mr. Burns, whom many critics consider to be the compleat documentarian, seems to resent implications that he won't do his job.

"We find in this specific instance, the story of the West, to be the story of all of us. Now 'all of us' means in this country all of us. If you tell that good story, it necessarily involves Chinese immigrants, black buffalo scouts, myriad Indian tribes who are not one-dimensional peoples -- nor solely good; they're complicated.

"It involves all the familiar cast of characters that we've come to see in Westerns and in our own mythology over the years but now deepened by complications, by negative aspects, and from greatness that has been withheld from us because we have so simplified and sanitized our past."

Mr. Burns said that his newest project will be "correct" rather than "merely politically correct."

"It will be multicultural. It is one hell of a story that needs to be told. It will be organic and every group will find a way in which they can participate in the mainstream history that we share," Mr. Burns insisted.

"But, quoting Arthur Schlesinger's criticism of New York state's curriculum that it was more 'pluribus than unum,' we are going to be just as much 'unum' as we are 'pluribus.' "

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