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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Ken Burns:American Lives
Ken Burns:American Lives
Paramount // Unrated // October 25, 2005
List Price: $139.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted October 28, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Show:

Ken Burns is American's foremost maker of documentary films.  He revitalized the genre with his groundbreaking 11-hour series The Civil War, and has solidified his position at the top with two other mammoth shows:  Baseball and Jazz.  Burns likes to examine the forces that have shaped America and in American Lives, a new boxed set of previously released shorter works (but by no means short.  The entire set clocks in at nearly 25 hours), he looks at Americans who have left their stamp on the country.   These seven biographies are not only very informative, but they are also immensely entertaining and enjoyable.

Like The Civil War and Burns' other documentaries, these biographies tell their story through sources that are contemporary with the events they are documenting.  Burns and his associates sift through thousands of documents and photos in archives across the nation to come up with the images and words for his films.  He eschews using an "all seeing" narrator and instead has people who were there and historians relate the story as they see it.  He often uses professional actors to read letters and journals written by the people who experience the events his films cover.

While Burns' reliance on primary sources and lack of a single narrator were novel approaches to the field of documentary film making, his major accomplishment is the content of his programs. Through his work, Ken Burns shows that history isn't just boring dates and dry facts; it can be engrossing and dramatic. It is about people, and the stories of their lives.  He has a wonderful gift for being able to bring history alive and putting the events of the past into a context so modern viewers can understand the significance of them.

The shows included in this set are:

Thomas Jefferson:

I read a lot, especially early American history.  I've read books on Adams, Franklin, the founding of our country, and I'm in the middle of reading Dumas Malone's epic six volume biography of Thomas Jefferson and find it quite interesting.  Having at least a passing familiarity with the subject, I found this biography of Jefferson to be very well done, entertaining and informative, but not entirely complete.

This documentary, filled with film of Monticello and other places Jefferson lived as well as paintings created at the time, gives a nice overview of one of America's greatest thinkers and influential men.  Jefferson was a very complex person and there are still many things about his personality and life that aren't clear.  Burns looks at some of his many contradictions that made up this great man such as his writing about the equality and liberty of men, yet owning slaves.   The question of whether he fathered the children of one of his slaves is also addressed.

I find it a little troubling that some things that should have been examined more closely weren't.  I wish more time had been spent on Jefferson's presidency, it was glossed over for the most part, and his the way Jefferson treated Adams while he was his VP is also not mentioned.  (Jefferson actively tried to undermine much of Adams work.)  They give him more credit than I would for the Paris Treaty, implying that he did most of the work when that wasn't the case.  These aren't egregious errors, but errors none the less.

This documentary is about 3 hours long, and it could stand to be another hour longer.  The main flaws that I noticed were ones of omission, and this was surly due to the lack of time.  Jefferson isn't an easy person to characterize, but Burns does a magnificent job in the time that he had.  I would love to see what Burns would do with other important early Americans like Hamilton or John Adams.

Lewis & Clark: The Journey of The Corps of Discovery:

Narrated by Hal Holbrook, this show follows the Core of Discovery expedition as it explores the land that Jefferson had bought in the Louisiana Purchase and the land west of the Rockies.  As one person put it, this was the best road trip in American history.

Thomas Jefferson's secretary Meriweather Lewis and his friend William Clark gathered a group of 40 men and set off on a 4000 mile trip through untamed, and often unmapped, wilderness.  Following their trail, this show portrays how daunting of a task that was, and the many hardships they faced.  Drawing from diaries from the members of the party, in addition to Lewis and Clark's own journals, viewers get a feel for what it was like.

The show paints an interesting portrait of Sacagawea, the female Indian guide and translator who joined the party after their first winter and traveled thousands of miles with the Corps, all while carrying her newborn baby on her back.  It tells of the group's astonishment at the scope of the Rocky Mountains, and their tough journey across them.  (They had heard rumors of mountains in the area and planned to cross them in two or three days.)  One of the most powerful moments is near the end when writer Dayton Duncan nearly breaks into tears as he recounts Lewis' fate.

This is a great adventure story, and Burns does a fantastic job of communicating the scope of what the Corps was doing, as well as what it meant to America.
Frank Lloyd Wright:

This is one of the more recent subjects that Ken Burns has made a documentary about, and this was also the weakest show in the set, though it was still very good.  Frank Lloyd Wright was an inspired architect who had a great influence but he was also a liar, egotist and all around jerk.  This show does cover the major buildings that Wright designed, but it also spends a lot of time on his personal failings than I was expecting.  While that doesn't ruin the story and gives you a good idea about the man he was, it also plays like a tabloid piece.  He abandons his six children and wife, has affairs, lies to get jobs and basically is an ass.

While I'm not complaining that they looked at Wright's personal life, I do think it was emphasized more than it should have been.  The program wasn't all devoted to the architects flaws though, they do cover the buildings that he designed and discuss why they were so revolutionary.  Some wonderful steady-cam work takes you into an through his houses and buildings to give you a feel of what it's like to stroll through them.  A solid show that was entertaining and enlightening, but not Burns strongest work.

Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story Of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony:

As I mentioned earlier, I read a lot, especially history.  Because of this, I consider myself pretty well versed in American history, but I had never heard of Elizabeth Stanton, and knew very little about Susan B. Anthony.  This documentary was therefore astounding.  These two women, who were opposites in many ways, worked tirelessly to get women the vote.  They did this during a time when women had almost no rights.  Not only couldn't they vote, they couldn't own property, and were literally the possessions of their husbands.  If a woman was somehow able to divorce an abusive husband, she had to leave her children and everything but the clothes on her back, everything else belonged to her husband.

This documentary tells the story of how these two women, through logic, determination and sheer will power, virtually created the suffragette movement in America and how that eventually led to women obtaining the vote.  It's an amazing story, and one that was never discussed in my history classes in high school or college.

This isn't a radical left wing diatribe against men either, which it could have easily turned into.  This documentary is a celebration of the work to women did to bring their gender equality.

Mark Twain:
Another remarkable documentary about a remarkable man.  Filled with Twain's own wonderfully insightful writing, this biography of one of the greatest American writers is outrageously funny and heart breaking.  Twain had a very eventful life.  A man who took arms against the North in the Civil War (though he never fought in a battle) yet was strongly against slavery and racism.  He made a fortune and lost it, and was celebrated as being the funniest man in America, but also used his humor to comment on social conditions in America.

This documentary really brings Twain to life.  Viewers cheer at his successes and despair at his defeats and failings.  An immensely entertaining writer, his pithy observations and maxims are liberally sprinkled through the story of his life making this a wonderfully enjoyable program.

Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip:

This was one of the more light-hearted documentaries Burns has been involved with.  In 1903 Horatio Nelson Jackson was sitting in a club having dinner with his wife in San Francisco.  They had been in Alaska and were about to take a train back to the East Coast when Jackson overheard someone say that the automobile was just a passing fad for the rich that would soon die out.  Horatio disagreed, and bet $50 that he could cross the country by car in under three months.  A few days later he bought a used Winton roadster, hired a mechanic to travel with him, and set off across a country filled with dirt roads and carriage trails.  He would become the first person to cross the country by car, but the trip was anything but uneventful.

This often humorous tail is mainly told through Jackson's letters to his wife back home and newspaper accounts of his travels.  When he would ride into a town it would be a huge event.  At the time most people hadn't even seen a car and his journey was an exciting event.

A fun documentary that really makes you think about how much has changed in just over 100 years, this also had the least amount of meat to it.  You get a feel for Horatio, but don't really get to know him like you do some of the other people that Burns has profiled.  His mechanic is still a cipher at the end of the show too.  It was a very enjoyable show, even if it wasn't the most enlightening.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson:

"When black Americans were expected to defer to whites, Jack Johnson battered them to the ground."

This was my favorite documentary in this series.  Born to parents who were former slaves in Galveston TX, Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in the world in 1908. It was a long battle, since several reigning champions wouldn't even fight him since he was black.  There was a color line, and champ after champ stated that they'd never fight a black man to defend the title.

A riveting story, I was totally engrossed at Jackson's climb to the top, and just and amazed at his fall.  Race plays a huge part in the story of course, and it is astounding how threatened people felt by a black boxing champion.  After he defended the title against a previous holder, the undefeated James Jeffries, in 1910, there were race riots in several cities with both black and white people being killed.  (Though more black than white.)  His fall from grace, which he helped accelerate by flaunting his success, was due to government persecution.  Jackson liked to date white women and even married one, and the powers that be at the time couldn't have that.

Samuel L. Jackson gives voice to Johnson's words, and does a tremendous job, and the soundtrack by Wynton Marsalis is top notch.  This is Burns at the top of his game; looking at America and showing both the good and the bad.   A superb film.

The DVD:

These seven documentaries each come in their own single-width keepcase and all seven cases are contained in a slipcase.  Lewis and Clark and Unforgivable Blackness are double disc sets, and Mark Twain comes on a single double sided disc.  The other shows are presented on single DVDs.


All of these programs come with stereo surround audio but there are no subtitles. (Unforgivable Blackness has a 5.1 audio track also, but stereo is the default.) The audio is very good, with no dropouts or distortion, and the dialog is easy to hear. The background music is very clear, as are the sparse sound effects. An appropriately sounding audio track.


The quality of the full frame video on all of these discs fit the subject matter very well. (Unforgivable Blackness is presented with an anamorphically enhanced widescreen picture, but it is the only one.)  Of course, some of the archival photos and films clips are showing their age, but that is to be expected. The newly filmed segments look very good, with appropriate colors and contrast. There were no digital defects worth mentioning.


Some of these discs have a good selection of extras, while others don't have too much.  The extras included on each disc are:

Thomas Jefferson: There are two bonus items that appear on several of the other discs.  First is Ken Burns: Making History an 8-minute featurette that has Burns explaining how he approaches a new documentary and the process he uses to put one together.  Also present is a Conversation with Ken Burns, a 10-minute engaging talk with the film maker about America and what it means to him.

Lewis and Clark: This disc has an episode of The Charlie Rose show featuring Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan which runs about 20 minutes.  This gives a nice overview of the series.  A second episode of The Charlie Rose show is also included, this time with writer Stephen Ambrose as the guest.  There is also a featurette on the making of the special.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Another Charlie Rose Show is included with this show.  Ken Burns and Lynn Novick talk about the architect and their documentary on him.   Ken Burns: Making History and  Conversation with Ken Burns are also present.

Not For Ourselves Alone: The only bonus on this disc is an 8½-minute making of featurette.

Horatio's Drive: There is a 7-minute making of featurette and 15 minutes worth of outtakes.

Mark Twain: This had some of the best extras.  There are two making of featurettes, one with Ken Burns that last 20 minutes and one with Dayton Duncan that runs for 10 minutes, interview outtakes and a selection of Mark Twain quotes that are illustrated with photographs.  Ken Burns: Making History and  Conversation with Ken Burns are also present.

Unforgivable Blackness: This disc has a good selection of bonus material.  There was a nice 16-minute making of featurette, 23 minutes worth of deleted scenes and a music video with Wynton Marsalis.

Final Thoughts:

This is an amazing set.  I watched these shows over seven or eight days and never tired of them.  Ken Burns has a knack for bringing history alive and making it interesting while still being educational.  If you have any interest in what makes America what it is, this set is a must buy.  Highly Recommended.

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