By Bryan Newbury
October 2, 2007
Leading up to 16 December 1944, Americans stationed in the Ardennes referred to their post as “The Ghost Front.” The respite from war’s horrors, however brief, must have been a godsend.
Brief it was. The German counterattack was something that no one was prepared for, some Germans included. The four-month period covered in The Ghost Front was one of dramatic twists and massive battles. Back at home, news of what would be dubbed The Battle of the Bulge was greeted with a good deal of dread. Just as conventional wisdom seemed to predict a relatively clean and timely conclusion to a war that had dragged on nearly half a decade, events stubbornly pressed forward in the opposite direction. The Allies appeared to cede territory to the Germans, the Japanese remained determined on the Pacific front, and the level of violence from Dresden to the Bonin Islands actually intensified.
The Ghost Front of the Ardennes proved to be anything but.
Episode Six of The War proceeds much like that time of calm in the forest. It is a series of glimpses at topics that are only partially resolved. Unlike the first five installments, nothing seems definitive. The subjects seem to drown in a sea of details.
To stretch the metaphor, we receive a mountain of statistics delivered in small packages. It would be too much of a stretch to imagine that a concrete image of Iwo Jima was intended to emerge in this dissonance. It is a neat trick, however unintended it might be.
Where episodes one through five strike up a narrative, however sprawling, The Ghost Front is downright lyrical. The strength of it is in the firsthand footage of winter battles, the recounting of soldiers, spending months in the same clothes without regard to even basic hygiene, the value of a godforsaken bit of volcanic rock measuring eight square miles, and the film of a shellshocked soldier describing his understandable distress at dead men all around him. It is a passage to transition us from the first action to the last.
It is hard to place a criticism on it just yet. Were it a stand alone film, it would be quickly relegated to the dustbin. The same dustbin that we’d throw “Wild Honey Pie” into were it taken as a single.
With that distinction in mind, and with the understanding that Burns neither claims to be nor should be a polemicist, the lack of social commentary or context in Episode Six cannot be avoided. Where have the 442nd and the African-American soldiers gone? While it suits the storyline to leave the issues of race and class resolved at those moments of recognition, that haircut or medal, these inconsistencies in the American character didn’t go away on Thanksgiving of 1944. The War has progressed in an elliptical sort of perpetual motion. Why did this come to a screeching halt? The viewer doesn’t have to take snaps on Monday morning to wonder why Burns & Co. didn’t take the opportunity to finally approach the attitudes and experiences of Axis soldiers and civilians in some detail. Yes, this is a series about the American experience of the war… ostensibly those of four American cities. While we speak of stretching— in any event, Episode Six effectively kills the rising action without a climax. If an intermezzo was needed, did it have to be 120 minutes in length?
If two hours of Burns’ work could possibly give a viewer The War fatigue, tonight would have to be it. There is a good deal of drama in the events unfolding, but it is certain that punches are being held for the finale. When it comes time to review The War in DVD format, at a time of one’s choosing, this observation could be refuted. As always, there are anecdotes from the subjects that are entertaining, revealing, and jarring. These moments are simple jabs, though, and it can’t be doubted that Burns, after giving and taking some substantial shots in the first eleven rounds, is marshalling his energy for the knockout punch in the twelfth.
Let’s raise a glass to hoping that he studied his subject intently while making Unforgivable Blackness.
A film by Ken Burns
Color and Black & White, 2007