American Splendor: Ken Burn’s The National Parks

Ken Burns’ new documentary explores America’s “best idea,” writes Hugh Lilly

Ken Burns is a name so synonymous with documentary filmmaking that there is, semi-officially, a technique named for him: the “Ken Burns Effect” prescribes zooming in and out on and panning around a black-and-white photograph while in voiceover text written by the photograph’s subject, describing events illustrated by the image, is read.

Especially when coupled with scene-specific sound effects and music from the era being depicted, the technique has the ability to breathe life into still imagery, and is useful especially if film footage is unavailable, or as an innovative last resort because still photography was the only form of visual record from the period.

Burns’ previous films—Baseball, Jazz, one on the Second World War and, perhaps his best, The Civil War—have been extremely well-received by critics and the public alike, and he has now turned his attention to America’s National Park system in an epic film that spans twelve hour-long episodes totalling some 827 minutes—just shy of fourteen hours.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea combines the aforementioned filmic effect with stunning new high-definition footage shot in almost every state that took more than six years, and the talents of a number of master cinematographers, to acquire. Featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, John Lithgow, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Adam Arkin, Sam Waterson and Campbell Scott, the film, is less a nature documentary—though it certainly has a distinct environmental message—than it is a history of the people behind the creation, maintenance and promotion of the parks.

Well-known historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, instrumental in the creation and expansion of the parks in their infancy, are given equal screen-time alongside lesser known—though no less important or influential—people, such as Truman C. Everts, a writer and expedition leader, and the conservationist and naturalist John Muir, who is a cornerstone of the documentary. Muir, a Scottish émigré, invested the majority of his life in defending, protecting and promoting the nation’s first park, Yellowstone. In fact, Burns practically deifies Muir—largely because he fits exactly the prescription the filmmaker must have been looking for: someone who came to America to explore the freedom and boundless opportunity the country professes to offer, and found in her natural beauty a near-religious experience.

Artists and writers are highlighted too: the work of photographer Ansel Adams, so significant in crafting public appreciation and admiration for the parks, is explored along with writings by Alfred Runte, Terry Tempest Williams and Dayton Duncan, the last of whom scripted the film. Though they become less relevant to Burns’ project as it develops, politicians play a vital role in revealing how and why the parks operate as they do; their writings and speeches are especially illuminative in the first five episodes. Issues of land ownership are rightly at the core of American political life, and Burns sees the parks—and other places, such as the many national ‘monuments’ around the States—as a microcosm of democracy itself.

Other commentators include descendants of historical figures, like Martin Murie, whose parents and uncle played a significant role in preserving wildlife within the parks; historians like William Cronon and Clay Jenkinson, and many figures directly involved in the preservation and maintenance of forests and other natural areas—like park rangers and superintendents, and other conversationalists, like Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organisation.

Alongside traditional-style pieces and interpretations written and composed by Burns’ usual musical team of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, the film features pieces from an album by Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor, and uses—as would be expected from a film about grand, uniquely American vistas—selections from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Guitarist Bobby Horton, who also worked on The Civil War, provides additional pieces and cues that are utilised throughout the film, including a beautifully reflective interpolation of the traditional folk ballad “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”

Though it drags a bit toward the final episodes—which rush through the post-war discovery of America by its baby-boomer population, the surrounding economic troubles and the subsequent interest in restoring the parks to a near-natural state—the film is spectacularly well-made, endlessly interesting and informative, and just as well-researched as all Burns’ other endeavours.

The National Parks is newly available on a five-disc DVD box set, and there is an accompanying large-format book that should be available through most good booksellers, or online through PBS.org

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