You know, national parks and engrossing viewing aren't two terms that are often coined together but put in the more than capable hands of documentary filmmaker extraordinaire Ken Burns they make for effective, if unlikely, bedfellows. Originally shown on PBS, Burns' 2009 twelve and a half hour six episode epic is now on DVD and, more impressively, on Blu-ray as well. Spread out over six separate discs, this massive and ridiculously compelling project can now be enjoyed at your own pace, on your own schedule, and in 1080i high definition
Starting at the beginning and tracing the history and evolution of the National Parks system up to the 1980s, this a series unexpectedly ripe with mystery, suspense and adventure. Unlike many historical 'documentaries' Burns' material relies not on hokey reenactments or suppositions, but on cold hard facts. As such, his stories are told with archival photographs, film clips and interviews with historians and experts in their various fields. This, coupled with the intelligent and down to earth narration courtesy of Peter Coyote, gives hits a warm, approachable feel that makes it very easy to watch and just as easy to get sucked into.
Here's a brief look at how the six parts of this epic mini-series play out:
Disc One: The Scripture Of Nature
Covering the years between 1851 and 1890, when America was still very much in its infancy and 'manifest destiny' was in full swing, this premiere episode tells us how Yosemite Valley was originally discovered and appreciated by the Native American Indians. Soon protected by the government, this area of amazing natural beauty became appreciated by one John Muir, one of the first preservationists in the country's history. While all of this is going on in the West Coast, and preservationists are irritated by capitalist opportunists intent on taking the park for all its worth, a massive stretch of land in Wyoming, still a territory in 1872, unveils a massive array of never before seen natural oddities called geysers! Congress decrees Yellowstone a national park and tourists arrive by the droves when a railroad system is put in place to help transport the droves and protect them from unfriendly Indians.
Disc Two: The Last Refuge
The second disc covers the years between 1890 and 1915. As the country starts engaging in massive development from east to west, some citizens start to wonder if the country isn't moving too fast, and as such, missing out on so much of what the land has to offer. As forests and natural treasures are depleted and destroyed in the name of progress Theodore Roosevelt is elected President of the United States and ushers in a new area of conservationism starting by protecting 800,000 acres in and around Arizona's Grand Canyon. John Muir, still out on the west coast, tries to stop the city of San Francisco from burying a part of the Yosemite Valley he loved so much under a massive water reservoir, but sadly the last efforts of his life will prove to be in vein.
Disc Three: The Empire Of Grandeur
When 1915 rolled around, Americans had an even dozen National Parks at their disposal. Property of the people rather than a single person, these were and still are beautiful areas meant to be enjoyed by everyone. Enter a wealthy man named Stephen Mather who is given the task of keeping in charge of the parks for a year. He and his partner, Horace Albright, decide to launch a massive publicity campaign to enlighten the populace as to all that the parks have to offer them in hopes that with greater attendance and public interest they'll in turn be able to persuade enough members of Congress to launch a committee. It worked, and The National Park Service was born. With this task complete, more national treasures are added to the list including some Hawaiian volcanoes, Mount McKinley, Acadia and quite a few more.
Disc Four: Going Home
Covering the years between 1919 and 1933 we learn how Mather and Albright struck an alliance with some automobile manufacturers in hopes that mass production of affordable transportation will lead to more people having great access to the parks system. While all of this is going on a Japanese shutterbug launches a campaign to save the pristine forests of the Smokey Mountains he's become so fascinated with while a couple in Nebraska do their part in their home state. Politics begin to play a noticeably larger role in things by this time, though most of the core involved in the development still seem to have their hearts in the right place.
Disc Five: Great Nature
With Franklin Delano Roosevelt now in office, the new president decides to further expand on the existing National Parks and but winds up facing some fairly fierce opposition from various corporate and political opponents. Regardless, he does what he can to preserve areas from the east coast, such as the Florida Everglades, to the west coast, like the High Sierra range in California. Meanwhile, a National Parks employee named George Melendez Wright notices that the parks protect the lands but rarely the animals which inhabit them and so he launches a campaign to get that changed, and by that point, we're pretty much brought up to the year 1945.
Disc Six: The Morning Of Creation
The last and most recent chapter covers the years from 1945 through 1980. When the Second World War comes to a close, Americans are keen on getting out and exploring their country. There's a renewed sense of wanderlust and family values and the parks are the perfect place for young families to enjoy themselves easily and affordably. Biologist Adolph Murie calls into question the National Park Services' practice of killing predatory animals while Congress tries to pass a measure to build dams in the parks, met with strong opposition by an activist named David Brower who organizes a grass roots movement to stop it. Jimmy Carter is elected and decides to monkey with a massive fifty six million acres of Alaskan land an even bigger grass roots campaign is launched which succeeds in having seven new parks built in the remote northern state.
You don't have to be a history buff to enjoy this series, though there's no doubt that it'll help. Burns' material is just genuinely interesting. Not content to just explain how and why these parks came to be (which would really be a whole lot of explaining the obvious - they're protected and preserved because they're beautiful), this series unearths the stories behind not only the major power players involved in the decisions but some of the more unsung heroes (and villains) as well. It's often these quirky little sidelines that are the ones that'll stick with you. Strange little bits of Americana and historical trivia you might not necessarily associate with preservationist movements or parks but which absolutely belong and deserve to have their story told.
At twelve and a half hours it's a bit of a daunting task to get through this collection, so it's best to stretch it out over a week or so. The individual episodes all run in the two hours mark so they too can seem a bit overwhelming, as there really is a lot of history here, but don't let that dissuade you. Once you start paying attention and enjoying the stories that are told, it's even easier to enjoy the visuals. There's such an amazing collection of old photographs and clips here put alongside plenty of equally impressive modern day footage that even if this were completely silent it'd still be pretty enthralling. Thankfully we get some great stories to compliment the lush visuals, making for an all together excellent package able to be enjoyed by anyone who not only appreciates the history of the country, but who just enjoys a good story.
The Blu-ray Disc
The six discs all present their content in AVC encoded 1080i 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen and while the picture quality isn't perfect, it's generally quite impressive. The series was originally shot on super 16 film according to the packaging, so detail levels can be pretty good. That said, some shots definitely look better than others. There's a bit of softness here and there and understandably some of the archival clips look a bit worse for wear. Amazingly enough, it's the old photographs that fare the best here. If you're used to seeing standard definition documentaries with photographs in them, you'll be blown away by the added texture and detail present in the still images used throughout this series. The newly shot bits look quite good, with decent color reproduction and strong black levels, while the interview bits are also clean and quite clear throughout. There isn't much in the way of edge enhancement to note though you might spy some minor compression artifacts in a couple of spots. Generally though, the presentation is quite good and the complaints levied are minimal indeed.
Audio options are supplied in a 48kHz 448 kbps Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track and in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo option with English SDH and Spanish SDH supplied as well as an audio track that describes the video for the visually impaired, which is kind of a cool touch. As has been mentioned, most of the content is handled by standard interviews so this is definitely a front heavy affair though the instrumental score used throughout the series is spread around nicely and too good effect. The music is clean and clear as the dialogue, it's all perfectly easy to follow and understand and while it's not something you'll reach for to demo your surround sound system, it suits the content very nicely.
PBS has spread out the extras for this release across the six discs in the set staring with an interesting documentary on the first disc entitled The Making Of The National Parks (25:24, AVC encoded 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen), which is a great look at the work that Ken Burns and his cohort Dayton Duncan put into getting this huge project off of the ground. They basically give us a 'guided tour' (so says the packaging at least, and it's an apt description)of what went in to researching, producing, shooting and editing this project. Disc two contains Capturing The Parks (23:34, AVC encoded 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen), a great piece about shooting on location in the Grand Canyon and in Denali starring Burns, Duncan, and their crew of camera men and technicians. If striking images is what you're after, this delivers some great ones, and contains some interesting stories on how they were captured as well. Disc three contains Musical Journeys Through The National Parks which features six individual segments set to different scores: National Parks Timeline (8:51), Peace At Least/Across The Ocean (5:31), Horizons (2:09), Green Groves Of Erin (3:14), The Shores Of Ogygia (2:33) and Teddy Bears' Picnic (3:14). These can be watched individually or through a 'play all' button and they're basically really cool little music videos. Disc four delivers two separate outtakes: An Interview With Nevada Barr, Author And Former National Park Service Ranger (7:17) and The Boss - The Story Of Frank Pinkley And Case Grande (10:24). It doesn't say why the scenes were cut, as they're both pretty interesting and worth checking out. Disc five has The National Parks: This Is America (44:20), a short film narrated by Ken Burns that takes a look at the history of the National Parks by relaying different human interest stories from various people who have devoted their lives to protecting them and preserving them. Starting off with some footage of a very busy New York City, and allowing an interviewee to explain what it was like growing up where there weren't a lot of parks available, it makes a pretty good case for why this areas need to stay protected. Last but not least, disc six has a collection of five Contemporary Stories From American's National Parks. Here you'll find a nice selection of short films all centered around the parks: San Antonio Missions: Keeping History Alive (12:09),Yosemite's Buffalo Soldiers (11:30),Mount Rushmore: Telling America's Stories (9:35), Manzanar: "Never Again" (14:16) and City Kids In National Parks (13:45). They're all presented in AVC encoded 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and like the other supplements they do a nice job of complimenting the feature content and further fleshing out the stories of the parks.
The National Parks: America's Best Idea is a remarkably engrossing and thoroughly fascinating series ripe with hours of stunning visual footage and filled with fascinating stories. PBS' Blu-ray boxed set looks great and sounds just find and contains a surprising selection of equally enjoyable bonus material too. Those already familiar with Burns' material know they want this, and those who haven't yet invested in one of his sets can consider this one heartily suggested as a great starting point. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.