Ken Burns Previews “National Parks: America’s Best Idea”


Video: Brattleboro Reformer interview –

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan received a standing ovation Wednesday evening, at the Bellows Falls Vermont Opera House, following the screening of a clip of their latest series: The National Parks, America’s Best Idea. The event was hosted by SCA and the Walpole Historical Society.

It was a local crowd of nearly 600 cheering for local folks, but the subject was anything but local. Covering 58 parks and at least 150 years of US environmental history, the 12 hour series is a long love letter to America’s most awe inspiring wild places and the people who have worked to keep them that way. Mesa Verde, Wind Cave, Mount Desert Island, Mount Rainier, Yosemite, Yellowstone – the clip captured each through a fine layering of archival photos, live film, ambient sounds, narration, and powerfully evocative original music.

“I keep making the same film over and over again,” Burns said, “by asking .the deceptively simple question: ‘Who are we? What does the past tell us?’ It’s a kind of emotional archaeology.” Noting the ten years of work, 100 hours of film, thousands of photos, and the enormous intellectual and artistic effort invested in winnowing this film down to 12 hours, Burns said “I hate clips. So we are going to lock the doors and show you the whole thing. If no one takes a bathroom break, we can be done by about 8 o’clock in the morning.” Nervous laughter…

Dayton Duncan, the producer and author of the series, spoke eloquently of the skill and contribution of the rangers who hike their park and know each and every vista, marking them for other to enjoy, such as Thomas Moran’s Artist Point in Yellowstone. Duncan told of searching for something equally outstanding in another park, hiking up peaks, checking angles, backtracking and finally coming to the end of a path where there was bench and a sign labeled “Best View.” And, yes, they knew it was. “The national parks,” he said “allow us all to go to a transformative, awe inspiring, spiritual place.”

Duncan acknowledged SCA founder Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam who was in the audience, the organization she launched 50+ years ago to help rebuild and restore national parks, and, choking up briefly, the impact the SCA experience has on young people.

Crediting Wallace Stegner, who said: “The National Parks are America’s best idea.” for the title of their film, the filmmakers might equally have used words from the legislation creating Yellowstone, America’s first national park. Carved in limestone at the Gardiner Montana entrance they read simply, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” As one of the narrators noted, it did not say some of the people, it said [all of] the people.

Thanks Ken and Dayton for an inspiring evening and a brilliant new film.