Ken Burns’ latest historical documentary (and certainly not the last; he said at a recent press conference that he is working on seven other films right now) is, according to Burns and collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward, the first project to intertwine the stories of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt into one family history. The 14-hour film spans the years from 1858 (Teddy Roosevelt’s birth) to 1962 (Eleanor Roosevelt’s death), and airs seven consecutive nights.
“Half [our] films have touched upon the Roosevelts, and for as long as we’ve worked together,” Burns told reporters, about how he and Ward came about this project, “Geoff and I have been conspiring to do something on the Roosevelts, one or more of them, and decided that we had a chance to do what has actually never been done before. There is tons on Theodore, tons on Franklin, little bit less on Franklin and Eleanor, a little bit less still on Eleanor, but nothing that unites them as [an] intimate family drama.”
The Roosevelts is indeed an intimate story, even as it touches on the epic world events that surrounded the lives of these fascinating people. One of the more touching parts of the film chronicles how Franklin suddenly became debilitated with polio as a young man. Ward, appearing on camera in a Ken Burns film for the first time — and who contracted polio himself as a child — tears up as he offers insight into what Franklin must have been feeling with the sudden loss of his leg function.
Insights like this from Ward and others, along with the familiar narration voice of Peter Coyote, are all on hand for Burns fans. And, of course, there are plenty of historical photos, film footage and letters to further enhance our intimate understanding of three people who helped shape the 20th century and beyond in America.
One of the notable pieces of footage in the series isn’t very long, but it is impactful. According to Burns, the film had been done for a while when they discovered, through the University of Pennsylvania, four seconds of Franklin that they just had to cut into the film.
According to Burns, that footage is accidental stuff. “This is stuff of him in Bismarck, North Dakota, coming off a train and they’ve got a platform that’s extending halfway through this room off the back of the train with two railings. And he suddenly lumbers down. And you get a couple of seconds of looking at this and you begin to understand just what an incredible effort it was … that he actually ever made it out of bed any single day.”
Ward added, “My view is anybody who is handicapped ought to know how hard that man worked, and so anything we can do to show that, I’m proud to have done.”
There is much more beyond that for which Ward and Burns can be proud, as The Roosevelts is another winner in their canon.
The Roosevelts airs Sept. 14-20, 8-10pm ET each night, on PBS (check local listings).