The name Ken Burns is synonymous with documentaries, and his unique style of using archival footage and photographs in his films has earned him Academy Award nominations several Emmy Awards, among other honors.
Ken started his career as a cinematographer for the BBC and other television studios, and created his one of his first documentaries, the Brooklyn Bridge, adapting David McCullough’s book about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, The Great Bridge.
He rose to even greater popularity when The Civil War was broadcast on PBS. The nine-part documentary drew 40 million viewers — one in every six Americans alive at the time. The show was the most watched series ever to play on public television.
For those not familiar with his work – or have only seen a couple of his documentaries – ThinkFives asked the question, what are Top 5 Ken Burns documentaries. Our historians offer this list as a start. But don’t stop there; we listed a number more as Honorable mentions.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
It’s hard to not to enjoy watching a series that focuses on some of the most beautiful locations in the United States. In National Parks, Ken Burns explores the history of the park idea, from the first sighting by explorers in 1851 of the valley that would become Yosemite and the creation of the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872, through the most recent additions to a system that now encompasses nearly four hundred sites and 84 million acres. This Emmy-winning series is about the people who had the vision to acquire and preserve such picturesque wilderness.
“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is a six-episode series produced by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan and written by Dayton Duncan. Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular locales – from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is nonetheless a story of people: people from every conceivable background – rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy.”
Country Music is a grand celebration of a rich uniquely American art form. As Ken Burns shares, “I think it’s one of the great subjects that we’ve ever taken on. This is a great story about race. Many people don’t understand the African American component to the founding of country music. The banjo comes from Africa, the fiddle from the British Isles. It’s never been one sound, it’s always been a mixture. And I think it’s incredibly emotional.”
The series premiered in 2019 and he filmed a total of 175 hours of interviews with 101 artists and other personalities for the series.
From Ken Burns Films
“Country Music chronicles the history of a uniquely American art form that rose from the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of our nation. From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, we follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music.
Country Music explores the questions “What is country music?” and “Where did it come from?” while focusing on the biographies of the fascinating characters who created it. And like the music itself, Country Music tells unforgettable stories – stories of the hardships and joys shared by everyday people.”
- 8 episodes
- Premiered: September 2019
- 34.5 million viewers
The Vietnam War
The Viet Nam War ear represents a difficult time in American modern history. More than just a military conquest, it signifies a time of political upheaval, the youth movement, and a changing society. To truly understand the war, historians need to consider a full array of political and sociological underpinnings.
Ken Burns tackles this challenging subject with testimony from nearly 80 witnesses, including many Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as well as Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both the winning and losing sides.
According to esquire.com
“The Viet Nam War is a heartbreaking and head-spinning series. The archival footage of the war’s major decision makers combined with interviews with the war’s veterans (Americans and Vietnamese) reveal an important truth: the ones who choose to go to war are spared its most violent consequences. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the Vietnam War would respond so well to Burns’ touch. It is a complicated, tragic subject, and Burns is a masterful navigator of that terrain. Still, that he was able to be both broad and microscopic, subtle and overt, in his evaluation of the war and its endless implications on the present day is a unique feat. It’s ultimately why The Vietnam War takes the number one spot.”
About The Viet Nam War
- 10 episodes
- Premiered: September 2017
- 39 million viewers
It’s our national pastime and as American as apple pie. Baseball may not capture the collective attention of young people as it once did, but it still draws millions of families to games each year. And what better way is there to spend a sunshiny Sunday afternoon with your kids than a day game, hot dogs and a drink?
In his 9-part documentary, Ken Burns examines nearly 200 years of American history through the prism of our national pastime.
From Ken Burns Films
“Americans have played baseball in one form or another since the early 19th century, while they conquered a continent, warred with one another and with enemies abroad, struggled over labor and civil rights and the meaning of freedom. At the game’s heart lie mythic contradictions: it is a pastoral game that was actually born in crowded cities, an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating – and has excluded as many as it has included, a profoundly conservative game that has sometimes managed to be years ahead of its time.
Seeing as I cannot name a single, living baseball player, I did not expect to enjoy Baseball as much as I did, and perhaps those low expectations are fueling this ranking. But what I appreciate most about Baseball is how many other subjects Burns manages to relate back to the sport. Throughout the nine episodes (or “innings” as they are referred to in the film), Burns shows how the sport was intrinsically linked to other moments in U.S. history including the Civil Rights movement and World War II. At some point though, listening to historians endlessly extoll the virtues of “America’s Pastime” does get tiresome, just like the sport itself.”
- 9 episodes
- Premiered: September 1994
- 43 million viewers
The Civil War
Topping our list of the Top 5 Ken Burns documentaries is the breakthrough PBS documentary, The Civil War. The series filmography was groundbreaking for the time, and spawned film techniques that have since been called the “Ken Burns effect.”
Its theme song, “Ashokan Farewell” was also widely acclaimed. The series was extremely influential, and serves as the main source of knowledge about the Civil War to many Americans. The series is not without its distractors as some historians have criticized for its historical accuracy, especially its lack of coverage of slavery as a cause of the war.
The Civil Way was a monumental achievement and is still recommended viewing by many teachers.
According to Ken Burns Films
“The Civil War explores the most important conflict in our nation’s history. The war was fought in 10,000 places, more than 3 million Americans fought in it, and over 600,000 men – 2 percent of the population – died in it. It saw the end of slavery and the downfall of a southern planter aristocracy. It was the watershed of a new political and economic order, and the beginning of big industry, big business, big government. It was the first modern war and, for Americans, the costliest, yielding the most American casualties and the greatest domestic suffering, spiritually and physically. It was the most horrible, necessary, intimate, acrimonious, mean-spirited, and heroic conflict the nation has ever known.
What began as a bitter dispute over Union and States’ Rights ended as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America. At Gettysburg in 1863, Abraham Lincoln said perhaps more than he knew. The war was about a “new birth of freedom.”
- 9 episodes
- Premiered: September 1990
- 40 million viewers
- Jazz, A Ken Burns Film
- The Dust Bowl
- The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
- The Address
- Benjamin Frankin
What is your favorite Ken Burns series?