Nature's Cathedrals


By now, you might think, celebrated filmmaker Ken Burns should be able to concoct historical documentaries in his sleep. With acclaimed series like The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz under his belt, interlacing sepia photographs and snippets of scholarly interviews must be child's play—right?

Not so, apparently. Burns confesses to struggling with a thorny challenge while crafting his latest project, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, a twelve-hour, six-part series that starts airing September 27 on PBS. The problem? The scenery was just too pretty.

The footage, shot over the course of six-plus years, captured landscapes so spectacular that they threatened to overshadow the documentary's storytelling, Burns said in a July phone interview. “Beauty is seductive, and beauty in some cases can be distracting,” he observed, speaking from the New Hampshire offices of Florentine Films. “It was one of the huge dynamics of the editing room. We wanted to make sure that the beauty didn't derail narrative—that it served it—and, at the same time, that our narrative wasn't so single-minded in its purpose that it didn't leave room for the just awe-inspiring beauty.”

No one who watches even a portion of The National Parks—which has an accompanying Web site ( and book (...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.