Tribune Print Share Text

Ken Burns on The National Parks

Created date

December 22nd, 2009

As a child, Ken Burns had dreams of making big-screen spectacles worthy of Howard Hawks and John Ford. He saw himself devoting his life to producing classic tales of romance set against struggle, much like director Carol Reed s Odd Man Out (1947). [caption id="attachment_7283" align="alignright" width="224" caption="Documentary film legend Ken Burns at work behind the camera. (Photo by Jason Savage)"]The American story The final product is a collection of archival images and original cinematography masterfully woven into a tale that ultimately tells the American story. From his office in New Hampshire, Burns talks about the film with the same passion that fueled his masterpiece documentaries on the Civil War, the game of baseball, and jazz. Our national parks symbolize the first time in human history that a group of people set aside land, not for kings and noblemen, but for everyone, he says. We invented it, and it only could have come from a people struggling to figure out how to govern themselves. What we found was that the history of the national parks precisely mirrors the larger arc of the American narrative. [caption id="attachment_7281" align="alignright" width="224" caption="Filmmaker Ken Burns adds another epic documentary to his dossier with his latest work, The National Parks: America s Best Idea, a six-part, 12-hour series which originally aired in the fall of 2009 on PBS. (Photo by Jason Savage)"][/caption] Burns brings this narrative to life, in part, through the voices of actors like Peter Coyote, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, and Tom Hanks, whose talents match their fame. The actors that we pick to do the voices, we choose not because they re famous, but because they re good, says Burns. In the first nanosecond, you re thinking to yourself, Wow, that s Tom Hanks, but in the next, you re listening to what he s saying as he brings to life characters important to the story. Among the figures that Hanks plays is Congressman John F. Lacey, a key proponent of an 1894 bill protecting the last wild buffalo herd at Yellowstone National Park. Burns highlights Lacey as an example because of the critical role he believes conservation plays in telling the story of the nation s park system.

Preservation warts and all

A big part of the story that we re telling in this film hinges on the idea of preservation, and when I talk about preservation, I m referring both to the good and the bad he says. We re saving natural scenery like waterfalls, geysers, and the grandest canyon on Earth, and we re also saving the ugly parts of our past, such as slave cabins and the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, all with the notion that this great country can be greater still. Harnessing the many elements of filmmaking, which include his trademark dramatic pans and lowlight cinematography, Burns sought to capture the majesty of these sacred places both visually and narratively. In fact, the 56-year-old director confesses that his work on this film amounted in many ways to an emotional transformation, wherein the sheer beauty of places like Yosemite further solidified the importance of these parks to the nation s past and present. After shooting thousands of feet of film and hundreds of hours of editing, Burns manages to take viewers on a guided tour of the parks from 1851 through 1980. When asked what he hopes viewers will take away from this, he says that he doesn t want to prescribe how people should react. He does, however, express his hope that people will go and visit these places, and offers a parting anecdote as an illustration of his past success. A few years after the Civil War series was broadcast, I was in Gettysburg walking across the lawn with the superintendent, Burns recalls. At one point along our walk, he came across a popsickle wrapper, and looked up at me and said, It s all your fault. Then he smiled a big grin and told me that his attendance had gone up 200%. Such is the power of the past and present as shown through documentary film.