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Blu-ray release brings ‘The War’ home for Memorial Day

Ken Burns' “The War” was recently released Blu-ray.

Ken Burns' “The War” was recently released on Blu-ray.

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Ken Burns’ epic documentary “The War” is filled with thousands of real-life scenes such as this from World War II.

Updated: July 2, 2012 9:45AM

Memorial Day weekend is filled with family gatherings, barbecues and a day off from work for most Americans. But it should also be a time to reflect on what the celebration is all about — the service rendered by veterans of every U.S. war and the sacrifices they and their families have made.

With that in mind, one recent Blu-ray release is ideal viewing this weekend. “The War” (Paramount Home Media and PBS, $129.99), by Ken Burns (along with his co-producing partner Lynn Novick), is the documentarian’s iconic 15-hour look at World War II not just from the front lines, but from the homefront, specifically four U.S. cities (Luverne, Minn.; Waterbury Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; and Sacramento, Calif.). And it is those perspectives that give this film its unique, powerful vision for what Burns ultimately refers to as “the necessary war.”

The Emmy Award-winning, 7-part PBS miniseries released in 2007, features Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Lucas, Adam Arkin and Kevin Conway among others as narrators and/or readers, as well as a host of real-life WWII vets recounting their stories and those of their families and comrades. Historical photographs and letters “come to life,” newsreel footage is crisp and visually potent (thanks to a stunning Blu-ray transfer), and anecdotes are as powerful as they are eye-opening. Two hours of bonus features include a marvelous “making of” featurette that reveals the Herculean tasks that the filmmakers and their crews undertook to research and piece together 900 seamless minutes of documentary storytelling at its finest. “The greatest generation” has one of its greatest champions, with unflinching clarity and balance, in this must-have, 6-disc set.

“We just love this film, Lynn and I,” Burns said. “It’s the only [documentary] subject that we’ve done that already had thousands of other films about the subject matter. That didn’t even occur to us until the film (which took six years to complete) was nearly done. But that didn’t matter. We had to tell this story because we were losing 1,000 vets a day. ... High school graduates actually thought that [in WWII] we fought with the Germans against the Russians.”

The idea of using four U.S. towns to tell the story of WWII was Burns’ way of making the story a universal one, shared by people from all walks of life, all racial backgrounds and economic class.

“We had Waterbury first,” Burns said. “We had read Eugene Sledge’s [memoir, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa] and he was from Mobile (Ala.), so we had to go there. We wanted a West Coast city but not one that was overly familiar, so we chose Sacramento. And then we wanted a small Midwestern town and we had already been talking to someone about [WWII fighter pilot] Quentin Aanenson and we found out he grew up in Luverne, so we went there. We discovered in the newspaper morgue there all these front page editorials every week during the war and it was some of the greatest writings we had come across.”

Perhaps this documentary, more than any that Burns has produced in his career (including his upcoming doc on the Vietnam War), is his most personal and closest to his heart. He dedicated “The War” to his late father, whose photograph is featured in the film’s opening sequence.

“The opening that goes for three or four minutes over the fresh face of a young second lieutenant, that’s my dad,” Burns said. “He arrived in Europe in April 1945, so he missed the combat but spent a lot of time in the occupation [years].”

NOTE: “The War” airs on WTTW-Channel 11.2 in a marathon (each episode will air 2 times) beginning at 5 a.m. on May 26 through 7 a.m. on May 27, finishing up at 11 p.m.

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