Ken Burns Documentaries

DVD Review: Ken Burns’ The Statue of Liberty – Liberty’s Too Precious a Thing to Be Buried in Books…

This was perfect timing. I’d loaded up my queue at Netflix with Ken Burns documentaries last year after finally viewing all of the Baseball boxed set and seeing just how terrific these documentaries are on DVD. As the news broke this past weekend that the National Parks Service is looking to finally reopen the Statue of Liberty to tourists after new security measures have been installed, Burns’ DVD documentary arrived in my mailbox.

The Statue of Liberty is structured like a video essay, and divided into parts. The DVD opens with narration reciting a quote by Thomas Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence with a shot of the statue against a New York sunset as birds and ship’s horns sound in the harbor. Pictures of immigrants, both still photos and grainy black and white films are interspersed as other comments are made.

What it makes us feel inside that’s so important… – David McCullough.

McCullough is the prime narrator of the piece, but there are comments from the likes of Milos Forman, Barbara Jordan, Jerzy Kosinski, Carolyn Forche, and James Baldwin defining liberty.


This first section deals with the actual physical statue itself and talks about how it came to be as a gift from the French people to the United States. Frederick August Bartholdi is the most well-known name connected with the statue. His idea was Liberty enlightening the world…

Only a little bit of biographical background information is given of Bartholdi, who created quite a few larger-than-life statues before he created the Statue of Liberty. The original design was actually first proposed to be at the entrance of the Suez Canal, but Bartholdi was inspired sailing through the Verrazano Narrows into New York Harbor that this was where his lady with the torch should go.

A lottery was formed in France to fund the 600,000 francs Bartholdi believed construction of the statue would cost. The Freemasons played a pivotal role in the construction of the statue as well, and there are a few moments of background given on them and how they influenced his design of the statue. Bartholdi actually became a Freemason while designing and building the statue. He supervised the work, building three models, each one larger than the last. The third was 1/4 of the final size.

What I didn’t know was how many complaints there were about the statue by Americans well before it arrived. Bartholdi expected Americans to provide the place for it, and many objected to it. Many religious leaders saw it as a Pagan goddess. The New York Times even panned it. It was seen as being foisted off on the Americans, and as a souvenir which offends them…

If there is any place in America that needs light, it is certainly New York… – Bartholdi

Alexander Gustav Eiffel came into the picture to help design the support work for the statue. Here there are some amazing pictures of the statue rising above the buildings of Paris, as well as sketches and watercolor paintings of what artists saw at the time.

On July4, 1884 she is handed over to the U.S. Minister to France.

The pedestal was being designed in New York by Richard Morris Hunt. The pedestal was almost as tall as the statue itself, a fact I’ve often missed when I’ve seen the lady in the harbor – I’ll have to pay attention the next time I’m in there!

Just as the statue was being offloaded from its cross-ocean journey, the money ran out to pay for the pedestal. Joseph Pulitzer led the drive in his paper The New York World. It took almost a year for the funds to be raised and the pedestal to be completed before the statue could be raised.

At the opening dedication ceremony, nobody said a thing about welcoming immigrants.


This brings Burns to the second part of the documentary, how the statue became a symbol for immigrants coming to his land. Comments made by immigrants are read over old black & white films of the immigrants coming into and through New York.

…a symbol of why we came and let’s not forget it… – Mario Cuomo

For many, seeing the Statue of Liberty as they first set foot in America made it feel like a whole nation was welcoming them. It’s an image for immigrants – many had a need to have their photographs taken with her in the background to send back to those they left behind. A variety of immigrants from across the globe are interviewed and provide feedback as to what it meant the first time they saw the Statue for themselves.

The Communist papers portrayed her quite differently, and images, not seen by many Americans, are shown. This documentary was first presented in 1985, so it was at a time when the Cold War was still going on. Burns also addresses briefly how her image was commercialized by Coke, beer, candy, cookies, wine, used for wartime propaganda (buy bonds, conserve wheat), etc.

… isn’t a symbol of power, she’s an act of faith…

For some, though, what she represents isn’t what’s actually been realized in this country. James Baldwin states, For black inhabitants of America, the statue of liberty is a bitter joke…

This leads to a discussion of what the threats to liberty are. In light of events of the past few years, many of us think we know. However, I liked viewing this without that perspective coloring the documentary. Sure, there are plenty of images of the Statue with the World Trade Center in the background, but even during the heart of the Cold War, we seemed to value liberty above all else. In particular, Mario Cuomo’s comments as a governor here and how tempting it is for politicians to erode our sense of liberty are compelling.

The greatest threat is the inattention of the people of this country to liberty…

The pictures are of amazing quality for how old they are. Passages read from newspapers reporting on the progress of the building of the statue. Sketches, watercolors, etc. depicting the statue’s progress are also reproduced. The quotes are great – often surprising. Burns sets them to a soundtrack that brings emotion to the still photos. He has an amazing talent and I commented while watching this that he’s a true artist of his craft.

Although this was filmed in the early to mid-80s, many of the scenes feel like they are older – possibly ten years older or more. This is probably due to some graininess and lack of clarity in the film quality. However, this was an age before digital photography, and in some ways, the graininess sets the tone for the piece better than the clearest picture could.

Special Features

Ken Burns: Making History – Burns talks about he and his crew approach the various projects they embark on. Not specific to The Statue of Liberty, but a general overview of how he’s made some of the most amazing documentaries I’ve ever viewed.

A Conversation with Ken Burns – an interview with Ken Burns about what he wants to create as he creates his documentaries about moments in American history. Go beyond the statistics and the history books, and get into the emotions contained in history. Neither of these is more than ten minutes long.

This is an excellent piece that’s only an hour long (plus the Special Features should you choose to view them). It’s an excellent bit of history which does not just touch on the physical statue, but the idea of liberty itself and what that’s meant for various people in this country.

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