"We're emotional archaeologists - we're not interested in excavating the dry dates and facts and events of the past," Burns said on a recent publicity visit to Salt Lake City. "We're interested in some kind of higher emotional resonance, which required that we be overtaken in a way by the emotion, the pain, the loss, the grief of the war. Even at the remove of 150 years, and still photographs solely, it was a gut-wrenching experience for those of us involved. And I said, 'I'm not going to do it.' "
Burns changed his mind in the late '90s when he learned that about a thousand World War II veterans were dying every day, and that "our kids in high school, too many of them, think we fought with the Germans against the Russians," he said.
"I realized that, hey, I'm in the memory business, and every time one of these veterans died, it was like a library burning down," Burns said. "It was the loss of so many volumes of stories that I couldn't abide it."
From that desire to preserve memories of World War II came "The War," a 14-hour, seven-part miniseries that begins Sunday at 8 p.m. on KUED Channel 7.
One of Burns' first challenges was to decide how to distinguish his movie from thousands of other World War II films and books.
"In surveying them, none showed the Second World War with the simultaneous Pacific and European and home front going on," Burns said. "There were some [accounts] that were bottom-up, but they were about an intimate moment and provided no context. Most provided context with no intimacy."
So Burns and his longtime collaborators, co-director Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward, decided to show World War II not from the viewpoints of generals and world leaders, but through the eyes of regular Americans from four towns - Luverne, Minn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; and Waterbury, Conn.
The towns yielded many facets of the wartime experience. Mobile is a port city, so thousands flocked there for shipbuilding jobs - and Mobile had a large African-American population, many of whom enlisted and fought discrimination in uniform. Sacramento, like many West Coast cities, had a sizable Japanese-American population; American citizens who were shipped off to internment camps solely because of their skin color.
The film's interviews, and the letters read by actors (including Tom Hanks, Josh Lucas and Samuel L. Jackson), are all from people from those towns who lived through the war, either in combat or minding the home front.
"If you weren't in this war or weren't anxiously waiting for someone to come back from that war, you're not in our film," Burns said. "There's no Shelby Footes, no Monday-morning quarterbacks, no armchair historians. . . . We wanted to be entirely bottom-up, and that meant there could be no experts."
The chronology of the war, as depicted in the film, is frequently shown the way Americans then learned about it - usually through newspaper accounts, newsreel footage and long-delayed letters from loved ones on the front lines. Sometimes events aren't shown when they happened, but when the people of Luverne or Waterbury experienced them.
For example, the Nazis' systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews is briefly mentioned as foreshadowing in the first two episodes, but not brought up again until the seventh episode, "when three of our guys from three of our towns stumble on the Holocaust," Burns said. "And that makes it fresh, makes it new. It's no longer 6 million, it's human lives, real individual human lives."
As Burns was finishing the elaborate sound-effects mixing on "The War," Latino groups began a campaign criticizing the movie, saying the stories of Latino World War II veterans were being ignored.
Burns, still clearly agitated by the criticism, answers now that no Latinos came forward with their stories in the four towns his team researched. He also said that, because of the movie's format, "we don't have a lot of different stories. We don't have a WAC or a WAVE, we don't have a merchant seaman, we don't have a person in this battle or that battle."
Burns defends his artistic license. "If you were painting a still life and you leave out an orange," he said, "does the orange lobby then lobby to have Cézanne put back, in addition to the banana and the apple and the pear, the oranges?"
Burns did go back and add supplemental stories of Latino and American Indian veterans, which appear at the end of some episodes. "These additional scenes that we produced are as good as anything else in the film, so I have my revenge," he said.
"The War" also faces controversy over a few bits of profanity, including an explanation of the acronym FUBAR (which is the title of episode 5). PBS stations are stewing over whether to air the naughty words and possibly incur the FCC's wrath. KUED will air the unexpurgated version after 11 p.m., but will show a version with the words bleeped out during prime time.
"We feel we've been forced into this decision," said KUED general manager Larry Smith. "We still don't have guidance [from the FCC], no clear-cut definitions on what is appropriate."
One lesson of making "The War," Burns said, is that all wars have a common thread.
"If you could get somebody from the Peloponnesian War to Iraq and bring them back," Burns said, "they would say, 'Yes, this is true: I was scared, I was bored, I was hot, I was cold, my officers didn't know what they were doing, they didn't give me the right supplies, I saw bad things, I did bad things, I lost good friends.' That is war."
* SEAN P. MEANS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8602. Send comments about this article to livingeditor@sltrib .com.
Ken Burns' 'The War'
* The first episode of "The War," a documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, will debut Sunday at 8 p.m. on KUED, Ch. 7. The remaining six episodes will air at 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and 2.
* Episodes shown in prime time will be edited for offensive language; the unedited versions will be rebroadcast each night at 11. For more information, go to www.pbs.org/thewar.
* Read a review of the documentary by TV critic Vince Horiuchi on E17.