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Focused on commonalities of war, Burns agrees to show differences

Originally published in Current, July 23, 2007
By Steve Behrens

Since May, the producers of The War have added the stories of three more World War II combatants to the series — two Hispanic marines and a Native American — extending the series by a little more than 28 minutes, Ken Burns said this month.

Leaders of several Latino groups demanded this spring that Burns add stories of Hispanic combatants to the World War II documentary.

“It was important in a network and for filmmakers who wish to be inclusive, to have heard this,” Burns told TV critics during the summer press tour July 11 [2007].

“I think we’ve found the right balance, had the right compromise,” Burns said, “that permitted us not to alter our original vision and version of the film and at the same time honor what was legitimate about the concerns of a group of people who, for 500 years, have had their story untold in American history.”

Series editors hadn’t finished polishing the new material in time to show the final cut to the critics, who quizzed Burns and coproducer Lynn Novick, but he assured them: “These are stories that are as powerful as anything in the film and as good as anything we produced in the film.”

The stories of the two Latino marines were added to episodes 1 and 6, Burns said.

Hector Galán, a longtime public TV documentarian hired to assist with the additions, told Current that the marines were members of Carlson’s Raiders, a battalion of daring volunteers who fought Japanese forces in the battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. Galán said he found the two men in California and worked with Novick and the series crew to interview them.

The other addition, in episode 5, “is a Plains Indian story that has great resonance,” Burns said. He had heard the story years ago and originally wanted to include it in the series.
The segments were added within the series—at the ends of three episodes but before the credits—and produced in the same style as the rest of the series, he said.

“We’ve done more than we were asked and expected to,” Burns said at the press tour, “which was our way of kind of honoring our own interest in doing this right.”

But Burns does not seem to have enjoyed the controversy, especially in the weeks before the premiere of what may be his most thematically ambitious film.

Did he feel demeaned by the complaints? a TV critic asked.

“It was, of course, painful to us, on one level, that people would misinterpret what the film was about,” Burns said.

He had always wanted to do “a bottom-up film” that evokes the experiences of ordinary people, he said in an interview. The War wouldn’t be the usual sequence of battles and treaties, with cameos of generals and politicians.

“We made a film in which we were not attempting to find out what made people distinct and different, but what made them the same and human,” Burns said at the press tour. “We weren’t trying to get every single group lined up and included in the film.”

People have assumed all of his films would be definitive and encyclopedic, he said. “The main complaint we’ve had, thank God, is not how long [a film] is but what we left out,” he said. There were complaints about overlooked jazz musicians and missing baseball stars, as well as the lack of Latino soldiers in The War. (One reason, he observed at the press tour, was that the title The War “gives the impression that this is definitive.”)

Would the additions to The War satisfy the Hispanic groups? a critic asked Burns.

It would be too late to go further, he replied, adding, “When you say ‘these Hispanic groups,’ there are a lot of different people with a lot of different agendas and a lot of different concerns.”

One group that had expressed very personal objections to a series lacking Hispanic troops, the Latino vets of the American GI Forum, appeared to have cooled its rhetoric since announcing an agreement with Burns in May. Antonio Morales, national commander of the American GI Forum, issued a statement: “The two Latino Marines who are part of the documentary The War represent the honor and patriotism of all Hispanic-Americans.”

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a founder of Defend the Honor, which originally questioned the series’ ethnic representation, was still concerned last week that the doc, even after additions, would not bring out what was uniquely meaningful about Latinos’ experience in World War II.

Galán, a friend of Rivas-Rodriguez who also lives in Austin, Texas, said the meaning of the war for Mexican-American soldiers does come through in the added interviews.

They had left behind segregated lives in the Southwest. In war, they experience full membership in military units, Galán said. “That’s what’s so important for Mexican-Americans — the fact that they were now fighting side by side” with other Americans.

“It was the story of my father,” Galán adds. When his father returned from war, he was primed to participate in the Chicano civil rights movement and to take advantage of GI Bill schooling. Years later, Galán produced Chicano!, the four-part PBS history of the movement.

Galán says he expects some viewers will be dissatisfied with the additions, but as the September airdates approached there was no time to do more.

“This time, everybody came together and worked together and did the right thing,” Galán said. “I don’t think that PBS buckled. They just did the right thing.”

Web page posted Aug. 13, 2007, revised Aug. 20, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

Burns’ critics skeptical of his additions to The War

Update published in Current, Aug. 13, 2007

The Defend the Honor Campaign continues to express doubts that Ken Burns is fairly representing Latino veterans in the WWII doc series The War, though the filmmaker added the stories of two Latino Marines.

“We will continue our efforts until we are satisfied that the new material is in fact a meaningful part of The War,” the group wrote Aug. 2 [2007] in a letter to media outlets.

[Defend the Honor, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and other groups restated the doubts about Burns' film in a news release Aug. 20. They called on PBS and WETA (Burns' production partner) to explain "the measures that will be taken to assure that such a gross exclusion of the Latino community does not occur again in their current and future productions."]

In an earlier missive to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the group’s Northern California branch said the agency misused public funds by aiding Burns’ project. The July 27 letter, also sent to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, urged the legislators to “call for hearings immediately to determine if the series is discriminatory against Latinos” and work to defer the doc’s broadcast until “legal and ethical concerns” are resolved.

NEH replied in a statement that it makes “every effort to ensure a broad range of views are represented in projects we support.” However, the agency said, “we do not censor or manipulate content.” The congressional caucus had not responded to the letter at Current’s deadline.


When the dispute went public in April 2007, words became sore points in negotiations, rousing suspicions rather than healing the rift with Hispanic groups.

In May, Burns and two Latino groups announced an agreement to incorporate Latino stories in The War without changing the producer's already completed material.


Local pubTV stations are using online as well as video to tell additional WWII stories, including audience-generated video and text.


Hector Galàn, who worked with Burns' team on the additions, is an independent producer in Austin, Texas.

Gus Chavez, co-founder of Defend the Honor, wrote to congressmen July 27 that Burns' proposal left out Latinos from "all aspects" of the project.