- More like a Painting – The War: A Ken Burns Film: An Interview with Roger Spiller
The following interview with military historian Roger Spiller has two purposes: first, to examine aspects of the making of the Ken Burns documentary and, second, to discuss the role and ethics of the historian as film advisor. Roger Spiller, now George C. Marshall Professor, emeritus, of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, is the author of An Instinct for War: Scenes from the Battlefields of History (2005) and is an editor of the two-volume anthology Reporting World War II (1995–2007), among other works. A collection of his essays entitled In the School of War is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. From 2004 to 2007, Spiller served as an advisor for The War: A Ken Burns Film (PBS Home Video) as well as The War: An Intimate History, 1941–1945 (New York: Knopf, 2007), a companion volume written by Geoffrey C. Ward.
Directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the series is a fifteen-hour television documentary on World War II first seen on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network in September 2007. Burns is best known for his PBS series The Civil War: A Ken Burns Film (1990)—one of the most influential documentaries in film history. The Civil War was truly unique in its creative innovations and the popular reaction to it (over forty million viewers). [End Page 1397] If his latest work does not achieve the extraordinary success of the Civil War documentary, this “intimate” story of the American civilian and military experience of World War II, with its revelations about the common man (no generals here) and its uncompromising images of the battlefield, is compelling in its own right.
What led Burns to invite you to join the project? Was he familiar with your work? At what stage did you become involved? What, exactly, did he ask you to do?
Paul Fussell recommended me. I don’t think Ken had read any of my stuff before then, but I think he did later on, especially the pieces having to do with the experience of combat, the soldier’s life, “shell shock,” and such. Lynn Novick asked if I would join the board of advisors as the military historian. I thought at first that my role would be limited to the military history of it only, but as the project went along the team involved me in just about every aspect of the production—the concept; the design; the content; the scope of the episodes; the sound effects, and even the music. One of the reasons I was attracted to this offer was the prospect of learning something about film making in general, and historical documentaries in particular, and I was certainly not disappointed. What I did not anticipate at all was that I would learn a great deal more history as well.
The other advisors include historians Lizabeth Cohen; David Kennedy; William Leuchtenburg; religious scholar Martin E. Marty; and the former editor of American Heritage, Richard Snow. Samuel Hynes and Paul Fussell appear in the series as well as serving as advisors. What was your particular contribution? What interaction, if any, did you have with the other advisors or participants in the project?
I think I must have been the last, or one of the last, advisors to be invited to participate. When Lynn told me who else was on the board, I was excited—and relieved—to learn that several of the others knew a great deal of military history themselves. Paul Fussell, Sam Hynes, and Richard Snow and I were already acquainted. Paul and I had met in the early ‘eighties. Sam and I had worked on a couple of projects for the Library of America, and Richard had recruited me in the early ‘nineties as a contributing editor for American Heritage. Others, like William Leuchtenberg, I certainly knew by their very fine reputations, and I felt privileged to be able to work with them. Although we each had our specialties, we were all engaged in the widest possible...