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By Bryan Newbury
October 3, 2007 

Glenn FrazerReviews of previous installments in Ken Burns’ epic undertaking, The War, suggest that there are a whole lot of loose ends that need tying up in the final episode. It is a pleasure to report that many of them are, and in stylish fashion. One would have to expect the finale to live up to the hype preceding the series. In many ways it does, and it stands just behind Episode Three in terms of quality and sheer entertainment value, to say nothing of coherence and consistency.

If one moment stands out head and shoulders above all others, it comes in A World Without War. This remarkable moment could almost be expected, in that it is wholly unexpected, given the context. 

A ton of dramatic, world-shifting events occur in the time period covered by Episode Seven. There’s V-E Day. V-J Day. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The whole gruesome picture of Nazi death camps coming into focus. A filmmaker could easily spend fifteen hours on the preceding alone.

In classic Ken Burns fashion, though, the thing that sticks out in The War has to be an image of a shark.

No witness can boast a more shocking or compelling account than that of Maurice Bell, a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Shortly after delivering its secret cargo (rumored to be a number of things… possibly scented toilet tissue for General MacArthur) to the B-29 fleet, the Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedoes. Bell recounts his escape from the ship in detail, pushing off with his feet so as not to get sucked in by the sinking vessel’s whirlpool. He, along with a few hundred fellow sailors, survives the night in the dark, surrounded by nothing save vast water and terror. For four days and five nights, they remain stranded at sea. The distress signal was taken for a deceptive ploy on the part of the Japanese. Without food or fresh water, many of the men go mad. As Bell recalls, a number of them would dive to the area of colder water at their feet, thinking it a water fountain below deck. The image conveyed reminds the viewer of Gericault’s painting. 

O, and then came the sharks. 

Every so often, one of Bell’s shipmates would strike the fancy of a local shark. The hapless seaman would be carried below the water, leaving nothing but a pool of blood behind. 

It would be imprudent to equate it with Auschwitz or the hell’s sewer experienced by soldiers and marines on Sugar Loaf Hill, but nothing matches the imagery of this flotilla of the damned in the middle of the Philippine Sea.

With the dramatic climax out of the way, A World Without War segues into the experiences of witnesses in the post-war (or, World War to Cold War transitional) United States. The marriages, vocations and psychological aftermaths of the film’s subjects. There are periods of great poignancy, especially in the case of Babe Ciarlo’s grief-stricken family, Eugene Sledge’s difficulty adjusting to peacetime life, Robert Kashiwagi’s battle for acceptance, John Gray’s experience back in the Old South, knowing that the spoils of victory would not be his, and just about everything dealing with the real star of the series, Glenn Dowling Frazier.

Early on, we’re told of his throwing spare dog tags into a mass grave. He did this so his family could have some closure were his body not to be found. The grave was discovered before his time as a war prisoner, from the Bataan Death March to the second atomic bomb, was finished. The army had confirmed his death and notified his family in the interim; yet, his father refused to believe.

At this point an analogue could be drawn to Babe Ciarlo’s mother. Knowing the outcome, it is probably unfair to suppose that, in the recesses of her heart, Ciarlo’s mother knew all along that her son was indeed a casualty. She scanned newspapers daily for a picture of her son until his body was finally returned.

Frazier’s father seems different. It is hard to argue a person’s instinct, being able to feel that someone is still out there in the flesh. Glenn Dowling’s recollection of his father’s calm demeanor—moments after a his mother, aunt, &c. fell to the ground fainting—when he called from San Francisco to inform the family that the confirmation was a trifle premature suggests something we all sense in an emotionally connected parent. 

Following his homecoming, it would seem that something as elemental as a vanquished love did more harm than his years as a prisoner. So it goes, and the reasoning behind an emotional telling of World War II turns out less suspect.

Though A World Without War brings a satisfying conclusion to the series, it is not without its flaws. Again we are confronted with a proclivity for suspect proportionality in the work of Mr. Burns. It is a welcome development that we might become familiar with the likes of Glenn Dowling Frazier and Eugene Sledge. If book sales for the two don’t see a bit of a spike, it would be a shame.

Even so, it is difficult to reconcile the fact that the only atomic assault in human history, or one of the most ghastly chapters in inhumanity, share inordinately short screen time. In the end, one has to question whether Burns was up to the task of tackling The War. He must be lauded for his ambition, if for no other reason than that it is virtually impossible to do justice to the subject. His approach falls short of the mark, but that doesn’t diminish the fifteen hours of essential viewing for those of us enamored of human struggle, history, or simply the art of documentary filmmaking.


Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

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