Ken Burns' Documentary: The National Parks -- America's Best Idea
The reputation Ken Burns has acquired over the years is a glowing, highly lauded reputation, and for good reason. His use of history, video and well-written narrative has won awards and has entertained and informed all those who have come into contact with his documentaries. The documentary to be critiqued and reviewed in this paper is The National Parks -- America's Best Idea.
How Yosemite Got its Name
The first segment of The National Parks focuses on the very popular national park, Yosemite, in California. Burns starts off by pointing to a group of "armed white men" called the Mariposa Battalion. It was in the middle of the California gold rush in 1851 and they were riding through California searching for Native Americans they could drive from their homeland. On March 27 of that year these men found what would later be called Yosemite. Tall granite peaks and waterfalls that were spectacular made a big impression on them. The water from the falls fell "thousands of feet" to the valley floor.
One of the men in the Mariposa Battalion believed that the sheer beauty of the place was unlike anything he had ever seen; he named the beautiful place "Yosemite" because he erroneously believed "Yosemite" was the name of the Indian tribe that the battalion had tried to destroy. The men burned every house that belonged to the Indians. Ironically the name "Yosemite" meant "someone to be feared" and "killers," according to Burns' documentary.
Burns' documentary shows an interview with Alfred Runte, whose mother drove him and his siblings across the country from New York State to visit national parks. He says in the video that from the moment he saw Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park, he was hooked for live. Next, Burns shows a photo of President Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1903 came to California and asked noted conservationist John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club) to show him around Yosemite. "I do not want anyone with me but you," Roosevelt had written in a letter to Muir. Roosevelt mentioned in his letter that there would be no politics associated with his trip; all he wanted was to be with Muir "out in the open" at Yosemite.
Getting the president of the United States up to Yosemite was a big deal and there was a long caravan of wagons pulled by horses to transport the president and his entourage. Muir found himself sitting in the president's coach, along with the California governor, the secretary of the U.S. Navy and some college presidents. It was Muir's chance to lobby the president to make "all of Yosemite a national park," Burns explained. While the entourage was lodged in a hotel, Roosevelt was alone with Muir, a plan that the president had "hatched" before the trip.
Muir's words from his recollection of this amazing meeting with the president are read by a narrator at this point in the movie. The words dramatically described the campfire around which Muir and the president sat and talked, and the mighty sequoias (redwoods) provided a dramatic setting. The sequoias were "like a cathedral" and the two men slept under the stars, with no tent, just sleeping gear. On their second night out, it snowed in the high country and Roosevelt later said it was "…the grandest day of my life."
Later in the film Burns tells the story of the first automobile to ever arrive at Yosemite. It was a 2-cylinder open air "car" that made a strange "putt-putt" sound; it arrived in June, 1900. The owner of the car and driver was 300-pound Oliver Lippencott, and he was not just exploring Yosemite for the sake of exploring nature, he was on a promotional tour to help the manufacturer of his vehicle. He wondered if modern inventions like the car would rob natural wonders like Yosemite "of its charm." But, he argued in Burns' movie, if a modern invention like the auto can bring citizens closer to their natural world that must be a good thing.
Hawaii National Park
The documentary moves on to a quote by historian Dayton Duncan, who said that when people are in nature, away from all the trappings of civilization, they are rejoined with the natural world in a way that resembles the way early man had become one with nature. Another narrator speaks the writing of Mark Twain as the legendary author visited Hawaii and saw the molten lava flowing from a volcano. "Imagine a coal black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire," Twain explained, referring to the lava. "The smell of sulfur was strong," Twain wrote, "but not unpleasant to a sinner." Twain had actually stayed near Kilauea Crater and his writings helped Americans realize what an amazing sight the Hawaiian volcanoes were to witness. Hawaii National Park became official in 1916.
George Caitlin was an artist featured in Burns' movie; he saw buffalo by the hundreds roaming the Great Plains and had "a premonition" that one day the buffalo and the Indians that lived on the Great Plains "would be gone." History shows that he was correct. Nathanial Langford wrote about how in 1870 his exploratory party discovered some extraordinary natural beauty around Yellowstone and the group he was with suggested it all be preserved and none of it should become private property. But his recollections (written 30 years after his trip) are not believed by historians; especially the part in which he said he came up with the phrase "National Park."
John Muir visited Alaska in 1879 and canoed along the coastline. He wrote some wonderful words about glaciers: "Every lover of wildness will rejoice with me," he wrote "as the kindly frost is so well preserved." Muir published article after article about the natural world and the need to preserve what has been given to society. He published in Harper's monthly magazine, and in other national publications. He said it was his duty to "…preach nature, like an apostle." When he reached what is now Glacier Bay, he said, and he was fascinated with the "calving" of the glaciers (pieces shear off and plunge into the water) and he made camp on the surface of the glacier, part of his research. Interestingly, Muir had come down with a terrible cough, and yet there he was sleeping on a glacier, an icy cold massive chunk of ice. Later, after losing his cough, he said, "No lowland microbe can survive on the glacier."
"In God's wildness lies the hope of the world," Muir wrote. "The great…unredeemed wilderness" was championed by Muir through many years and in many contexts. The film brings Muir's life into real focus, which is appropriate because not many people in the 19th and early 20th centuries were as devoted to discovering and writing about America's natural wonders. Muir met and befriended Native Americans in Alaska, and he was given the name "Ice Chief" for his intense interest in glaciers. Muir said that while the glacier is constantly falling into the sea, it's "destruction" can also be seen as "creation." Muir's letters to newspapers from Alaska were so popular, that steamship companies began bringing large groups of people to Alaska to see these amazing glaciers.
Glacier National Park
George Byrd Grinnell is given credit for advocating that a new national park be created on the border of Montana and Canada. It was officially created in 1912, and it had been the dream of Grinnell -- who was a natural world mentor to President Teddy Roosevelt -- for twenty-five years. Roosevelt had to require a group of Indians to sell their portion of a mountain that was to become part of Glacier National Park. The National Geographic Magazine explains that there are wolves, grizzly bears, golden eagles, bighorn sheep, and "impatient wildflowers shoving through snow to unfurl their colors" at Glacier National Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park
The Burns' film portrays a "hoax" that was conducted as a publicity stunt to lure visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park. It was 1915 and a 20-year-old woman wore a leopard skin outfit and supposedly was trying to survive in the park for a week wearing just the leopard skin outfit. She was referred to as "Eve" (as in Adam and Eve). The newspapers were full of the story; the newspapers received first-hand accounts of seeing Agnes Lowe naked, and the publicity was widespread. She was an attractive young woman and when her stunt ended, there were "sixty four marriage proposals waiting for her." But it was a hoax. She had been living in a comfortable lodge, not out in the weather at all. It had been a stunt put on by the Denver Post, in order to stir up publicity. The exploit worked, as millions of Americans who would not have heard of the Rocky Mountain National Park now were aware of it.
Death Valley National Park and Biscayne National Park