Friday, September 4, 2009

The Homestead Act as one of America’s Best Idea and The National Parks

The Homestead Act of 1862 is considered by many to be President Abraham Lincoln’s best idea but America’s best idea is her national parks according to award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns in his new documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

The 12-hour, six-park documentary series, directed by Burns and co-produced with his longtime colleague, Dayton Duncan, who also wrote the script, is the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone. As such, it follows in the tradition of Burns' exploration of other American inventions, such as baseball and jazz.

“I’ve always been interested in how my country works; all of my films have asked the deceptively simple question, “Who are we?” I think our landscape, that is the physical geography of our country has been most revealing of our character, good and bad, to my mind the National Parks represents our best selves, a place, at least for this filmmaker, where we can come the closest to deepening that simple question,” said Burns.

Burns has been making documentary films for more than 30 years. Since the Academy Award-nominated “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1981, he has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made. The late historian Stephan Ambrose said, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”

The history of the National Park Service begins in the mid-1800’s and the film follows its evolution for nearly 150 years. Using archival photographs, first-person accounts of historical characters, personal memories and analysis from more than 40 interviews, and what Burns believes is the most stunning cinematography in Florentine Films’ history, the series chronicles the steady addition of new parks through the stories of the people who helped create them and save them from destruction. It is simultaneously a biography of compelling characters and a biography of the American landscape.

The compelling characters include people from every conceivable background- rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy.

His co-producer Dayton Duncan said these characters helped to tell the story of an idea-the uniquely American idea or invention, called national parks. “We wanted to tell the stories of the people who came up with the idea, who broadened it by adding new parks and new notions of what a park could be,” said Duncan, “our goal was to weave an interconnected narrative.”

Duncan also wrote the script for the documentary and came up with the idea of making a film about national parks during a cross country vacation in 1998. The project was eight years in the making.

“Making this film was one of the greatest joys of my life,” said Duncan, who has visited all but one of America’s 58 national parks. “Each park is unique and has its own fascinating historical story. But they are all connected by the transformative idea that they belong to each of us, providing a shared place that lives in the memory of every individual and every family that has visited them over the years. And they are connected by the notion that individual Americans in the best possible example of democracy, worked to make sure that future generations could enjoy them,” said Duncan.

The series will begin airing on Public Broadcasting stations on Sept. 27, 2009.


Archived Chat Ken Burns, Documentary Filmmaker. (2009, July 10). PBS Engage. Retrieved August 15, 2009, from

Archived Chat Dayton Duncan, Co-Producer and Writer of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea". (2009, July 10). PBS Engage. Retrieved August 16, 2009, from

Ken Burns. (n.d.). Florentine Films. Retrieved August 8, 2009 from

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