Waking The Dead

Filmmaker Ken Burns takes his latest documentary personally: It's about the war his late father served in

September 23, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

At first glance, there is nothing particularly striking about the picture -- a static, studio-style portrait in black and white of an unidentified, boyishly young Army lieutenant smiling into the camera.

But it appears under the opening title at the start of Ken Burns' latest PBS documentary, The War, and again as the final image of an elegiac montage on which the 14 1/2 -hour documentary ends.

The bookend placement in the seven-part film suggests special importance, and that is indeed the case: The young officer is Robert Kyle Burns Jr., the filmmaker's father, shortly after he graduated from Baltimore's City College, and just before he headed off to Europe near the end of World War II.

Looking for similarities between father and son, one first notices the elder's eyes and their wide-open sense of youthful promise captured on the eve of heading off to war. At the start of the film, they are just the eyes of the filmmaker's father. But by the end, they serve as a heartrending reminder of all the innocence lost during the four years of America's involvement in World War II.

The memory of his late father, a cultural anthropologist and photography buff who grew up in Mount Washington and earned his undergraduate degree at the Johns Hopkins University, suffuses the

film and, in many ways, Burns' entire career behind the camera, the filmmaker says.

That patriarchal link makes this his most personal film ever. Instead of trying to summon the ghosts of Gettysburg or Antietam back to life on screen in a historical epic, this time, one of the men he's trying to wake from the dead is his father.

"When people asked about my favorite film, I used to say that I was a father, and that I didn't have a favorite -- I loved all my children equally," the 54-year-old filmmaker and father of two says. "But this is something else altogether."

Burns describes The Civil War, his 1990 landmark film about the war between North and South, as "the epitome of the emotional archaeology that we had been attempting in all our films -- excavating not just the dry dates, events and facts of the past, but something more durable, more serviceable, something with a higher emotional import."

But The Civil War, Burns explains, was a film about great-great- and, in some cases, great-great-great-grandfathers: "This is our fathers, and that makes it very, very personal."

Baltimore roots

The picture of his father that appears in the documentary holds permanent residence on a wall in the filmmaker's bedroom at his home in New Hampshire alongside a college graduation photograph of his mother, Lyla, who died of cancer when Burns was 11 years old.

"This picture of my dad, heading off innocently into the service, was one of two that my grandmother kept on her desk all through her life -- long after her boys returned home safely from the war," says Burns, explaining the special place it holds in family memory. "So, I decided to slip it in at the start of the film as a kind of a nod to my dad."

The Mount Washington house in which Burns' grandparents lived from 1940 until their deaths is on Kelly Avenue, near what is now Cross Country Boulevard.

"My father's roots are totally, completely in Baltimore -- to the point where that still feels like the ancestral home, the place we all gathered for all the special events until it was sold in 1991 after my grandmother's death," Burns says.

"A lot of cousins are still there in the Baltimore area."

A pre-war version of a power couple, Burns' grandfather, Robert Kyle Burns, was an eminent biologist at the Johns Hopkins University, while his grandmother, Emily Lucile Burns, led the Maryland branch of the International League for Peace and Freedom.

Both grandparents earned Ph.D.s from Yale University, and indicative of the degree to which Burns' life is steeped in academe, his mother met his father while she was a graduate student -- in the department in which Burns' grandfather taught.

Burns' father, after serving in France during the last year of the war, had returned to Baltimore to earn his bachelor's degree at Hopkins. The newlyweds then moved to Brooklyn -- where Ken was born in 1953 -- when his father started graduate study at Columbia University. (Ken's younger brother, Ric, who is also a critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker today, was born 18 months later in Baltimore.)

A sense of Robert Burns' early promise as a scholar is found in the archives of The Sun where a 1955 Sunday magazine story chronicles his research among residents of the highest village in the French Alps, Saint Veran -- a secluded area not yet transformed for the worse by modernity. In addition to acclaim for the young anthropologist's work is a picture of Lyla Burns trying to bathe her infant son, Ken, in a village fountain.

While Burns' father eventually won tenure at the University of Michigan after joining the faculty in 1963, he never finished his dissertation or earned his Ph.D. from Columbia, Burns says with noticeable sadness in his voice.

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