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Hemingway & Ken Burns

A colleague of mine on the Rust sent me a revealing interview with Ken Burns on documentary making.


He revealed that he can take 10 years to make a documentary and – though the funding is a problem as he operates in the public broadcasting sector – he would not go to Netflix who would fund without question but then expect the final product within a year.

And that is the point about Ken Burns or to be exact two: he will not compromise on time and maintains strict production values.

He has a team of scriptwriter Clifford Ward, narrator Peter Coyote and co-director Lynn Novick that he deploys in every documentary.

Last night the third episode of Hemingway took us into the Spanish Civil War and his third marriage to war reporter Marsha Gellhorn.

Hemingway was an American Republican, an admirer of Teddy – not Franklin – Roosevelt and a non-interventionist.  So his decision to report on the Spanish Civil War was at first sight an odd one.

The motive was money as he was paid $1,000 for each report. That he loved Spain more than any other country might have influenced him too.  He also wrote one of his best-known novels based on that war For Whom the Bell Tolls.  

The marriage did not last as Hemingway was so competitive he saw Martha Gellhorn not as his partner but his rival.

We live in a age of documentary-making but a Ken Burns one always stands out.

Channels 4 and 5 produce documentaries regularly on the Royal Family generally with a poorly substantiated reveal and weak academic input.

An Amazon sports documentary will often leave the nasty bits out in order to get the subject’s consent to participation.

Ken Burns – as in his masterful The Vietnam War – lays out all the facts for the viewer to decide.

Hemingway was a hugely complex man.

It’s easy to portray him as macho alpha male (hunter, brawler, drinker, womaniser) and wordsmith when he had a hinterland of trauma, mental illness and anxiety over his ability.

Burns explores the hinterland as well as the myth which makes this documentary so compelling.

About Bernadette Angell

After cutting her journalistic teeth in Boston USA, Bernadette met and married an Englishman, whom she followed back to London. Two decades and three children later, they divorced. She now occupies herself as a freelance writer (credits include television soaps and radio plays) and occasional amateur gardener. More Posts