After the release of writer/producer/director Ken Burns' monstrous serial documentaries - "The Civil War," "Baseball," and "Jazz" being the best-known - some of his older work is making its debut on DVD, here through new distributor Paramount.
For his second film, Burns chose to document the life and death of Huey P. Long, a Louisiana Governor (and U.S. Senator) who was assassinated in 1935 when his unrelenting demagoguery caught up with him. "Every man a king" was his slogan, and Long delivered on his promises to pave roads, build bridges, feed the poor, provide education, and raise his state's profile from a backward and beaten state from the Civil War, to a people Washington couldn't ignore.
Ken Burns presents highly personal portraits of a man that started out doing good deeds, and was shot after having turned Louisiana into his personal militarized fiefdom, drawing from Long's son (also a Senator), associates, rural folk, members of the wealthy and intellectual establishment, political associates, and a rich trove of archival footage.
Many of the interview subjects have passed on, making their comments and anecdotes invaluable to historians. Of particular note is author Robert Penn Warren. A youthful reporter during Huey Long's career, Warren's literary legacy includes the unforgettable novel, "All The King's Men," and he closes the documentary with a moving tale of being approached at out-of-state gas stations by locals trying to understand the impact and folk hero status of Huey Long, shortly after the state funeral.
Long is also seen in vintage newsreels, and the viewer becomes easily swayed by his magnificent speeches and acts of deliberate buffoonery; his wit was disarming, the tenor of his voice alluring, and his demands for fairness remain particularly sobering. (What's surprising is how none of the vintage critical attacks included the dreaded words socialist and Communist, since Long's slogans and policies sometimes walked a very fine ideological line. A clue to this ambiguity perhaps exists in excerpts from a lengthy Congress newsreel, where Long's wildly physical oration is overshadowed by the uncontrolled laughter from fellow Senators, seated behind Long; one can argue his antics and filibustering were largely tolerated because they were so damn amusing between more mundane government business.)
Burns always shifts between his interview subjects, playing various perceptions against various subjective realities, until the recorded facts of Long's tragic life lead to that sad, final act. Even when he lay dying in hospital, Long just didn't understand why anyone would've wanted to actually shoot him.
When seen conducting his "Every man a king" song with an all-female orchestra, or editorials and satirical cartoons from his vitriolic newspaper fill the TV screen, it's easy to understand why Long continues to have admirers, and critics utterly embarrassed by his legacy of uprooting the democratic rules of local government.
PBS' DVD boasts a good transfer of the 16mm doc, featuring footage not present in the original broadcast version. The included two extras are actually from "The Civil War" set. "A Conversation with Ken Burns" is a Q&A session with Charlie Rose discussing his technique in creating a narrative that's independent of the demands and focal limitations of commercial network TV. The interview also has Burns discussing the death of his mother, and his affected childhood.
"Making History," while largely visually favoring music and stills from "The Civil War" doc, illustrates the methodology in filming stills, and the immense chore of editing a narrative from the mass of archival materials.
This PBS title is available alone, or as part of The Ken Burns' America Collection, which includes "Brooklyn Bridge," "The Statue of Liberty," "Empire of the Air," "The Congress," "Thomas Hart Benton," "Huey Long," and "The Shakers."
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan