TV documentary on Vietnam War a decade in the making

Film-maker Ken Burns hopes his 10-part television epic, The Vietnam War, will offer a more balanced view of the conflict.
Film-maker Ken Burns hopes his 10-part television epic, The Vietnam War, will offer a more balanced view of the conflict.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS •One side may declare victory, but there are arguably no winners in a war.

Indeed, half a century after the United States plunged into war in Vietnam, scars remain unhealed.

With a 10-part television epic, Ken Burns is hoping for a fuller understanding of it.

The celebrated documentary film-maker has spent 10 years making The Vietnam War, which aims to offer a more balanced view of the conflict by bringing in a wide range of American and Vietnamese voices.

"In many ways, the Vietnam War was our second civil war," said Burns, 64, who won awards for his 1990 documentary of the 1861-1865 US Civil War.

"I think that, in the US, Vietnam is still very unsettled and a source of a great deal of division. And I think so too in Vietnam," he noted.

The series, set to a hypnotic score by members of industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails, started to air on Sunday on American public broadcaster PBS.

It will also be broadcast, in a slightly condensed form, on the French-German channel Arte from today .

Burns, who co-directed The Vietnam War with Lynn Novick, called the US$30-million (S$40-million) project - reviewed at all stages by two dozen historians - the most ambitious of his career.

He said the television epic was, "in some ways, like a Russian novel, an epic sweep across generations with lots of primary characters, secondary and tertiary characters".

As expected, he brings in decision-makers and rank-and-file soldiers.

But he also found it vital to speak to people who did not fight in the war, which set off a protest movement in the US.

"Courage could not always be on the battlefield," he said. "It could be the decision not to go to war, to protest that war."

"But also, most importantly," he added, was including "the voices of the Vietnamese, both our enemies and our allies, civilians, and to have a much fuller multidimensional portrait".

According to the Vietnamese government, more than three million civilians died over the span of the war (1955 to 1975) along with more than 2.5 million troops fighting for both the triumphant communist North and the US-allied South.

US official figures noted that 200,000 South Vietnamese and 58,200 US soldiers died.

"When the Americans talk about the Vietnam War, they talk only about themselves and that is limiting. We were obligated to include all these other voices," Burns said.

He was struck at the parallels when speaking to US troops and communist Viet Cong forces about their war experiences.

"I think that if the Vietnamese are able to see the film, they're going to learn a lot, not just about us, not just what went on in the US and the divisions, but as real human beings - as I hope that our American audience will begin to see the Vietnamese as real human beings who suffered an awful lot like them."

Making The Vietnam War, Burns and Novick collected an extraordinary quantity of archives, including more than 25,000 photographs and previously unreleased recordings from former US presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

The film team went on two trips to Vietnam to interview veterans, who have far fewer opportunities than their US counterparts to express themselves publicly.

Burns found startling frankness there.

"They're old enough, they're celebrated enough. They are at the end of their lives. It is possible now to relax a bit from the hard party-line. There's a kind of immunity that an old soldier gets," he said.

"I think war offers us an opportunity to study human behaviour at its worst obviously, but also at its best. And that's what we tried to cover."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'TV documentary on Vietnam War a decade in the making'. Subscribe