Updated: June 14, 2015

Best Ken Burns DVD Collections

Buying the Ken Burns Video Series on DVD
Perhaps one of the most well-known and prolific documentarians of all time, Ken Burns is renowned for his astonishing attention to detail, the breadth and scope of his work, and his innovative cinematography and music selection. Ken Burns makes magic on the screen. In a time when historical documentaries are most often overlooked in favor of flashy, fast-paced dramas and reality shows, he has managed to capture not only critical success, but commercial success as well. Instead of depending on highly sophisticated computerized effects, he does this with tried and true techniques. How does he manage to engage wide audiences time and time again with documents on our National Parks, the civil War, the Brooklyn Bridge, and other such topics? It is, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, because he celebrates America, and the people who really make it great: his films depict the contributions of ordinary people who become extraordinary by sheer force of will. And he makes us feel this. He takes subjects which, in the hands of lesser directors, would be dry and boring and turns them into epics that grab our attention and our hearts. In this guide, we take a look at the DVD collections of Ken Burns works that are available - which series are the best? how much do they cost? where to buy them?

ken burns dvds


Ken Burns Documentary DVD: The Brooklyn Bridge

Would you watch a PBS DVD on the making of the Brooklyn Bridge? Millions did just that when it was Ken Burns's. Instead of a clinical discussion of the architectural nuances of the bridge, Burns zeroed in on what people really want to know: the interesting story behind the making of the bridge, one of the most recognizable in the world. John Roebling, a civil engineer famous for his steel rope suspension bridges, worked tirelessly on various projects. At the building of what would become his most famous work, his foot was crushed by an incoming ferry when he stood at the edge of a dock. His toes had to be amputated, but he declined further treatment. He opted, instead to pursue water therapy - continuously pouring water over the wound - and got tetanus. He died soon after. His work was not dead, however. His son, Washington, completed the bridge an incredible 14 years later. While bed-ridden. The family history is fascinating, as is their dogged persistence to build something of worth, something that would change the city. And it did. Ken Burns also includes interviews with famous residents describing the impact of the bridge on New York City.

The documentary, which is available on Amazon for $20 (see link above) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1982 and for the Gold Satellite Award for Best Documentary DVD in 2005. It was the winner of the Erik Barnouw Award from the Organizations of American Historians. The hour-long flick was just a blip on the screen compared to his later works, but it did cement his reputation as a superb director.

Ken Burns Civil War DVD

Clearly Ken Burns's masterpiece, The Civil War, this eleven-hour epic was the most successful public television miniseries in US history. That millions of people tuned in to watch a documentary series on the Civil War is testimony enough to Ken Burns's talent. But the programs also brought worldwide attention to the "Ken Burns Approach." In this style, the narrator reads letters and documents dramatically; still historical images of places are intermixed with live footage of the same subject's land, rivers, lakes, etc.; there are anecdotal interviews; and the musical score plays a starring role. A review on Apollo Guide summed up the critical and audience response to the film: wow. Reviewer Scott Weinberg was literally awed by the movie. The only thing wrong with the eleven hour movie? It wasn't longer. The ability to mesmerize modern audiences with this subject is remarkable. The 2002 release of the enhanced DVD copy brought extra features like interviews, commentary, and re-mastering of the incredible soundtrack. The series won more than 40 major awards, including two Grammys, two Emmys, and a People's Choice Award.

If you hear documentary DVD and the Civil War in the same sentence, you're probably halfway on your way to sleep. But Ken Burns managed to captivate 40 million viewers. You can experience that as well with the complete DVD collection, available for $85 The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns.

Ken Burns DVD Disks You Can't Miss

Ken Burns turned his talent to other popular subjects in his subsequent PBS DVD collections, "Baseball," "Jazz," and "National Parks: America's Best Idea." Each is a mammoth effort, running several (and we mean SEVERAL) hours long. And yet, like the Civil War Collection, they captivated millions of viewers, with their personal view of history. Marina Goldovskaya, a cinematographer and UCLA Documentary Film professor, compares Burns to directors such as Pare Lorentz, who created films that discussed how society and its various institutions worked in the 1930s. She says that his films teach us a lot and that he's doing good work, not only in terms of film, but it terms of helping us understand our history.

Burns's films, available here in boxset DVD form, stand out even from today's other documentaries, such as those created by Michael Moore. That is exactly how Burns wants it. He doesn't want to emulate Moore's style, because, he says that Michael Moore never creates a convert. "He just inspired the congregation." Burns wants to tell a story, and he does this time and time again with pictures, words, and music. "Baseball," "The War" (WWII), "Jazz," and the "America Collection" cost a bit less than $80, for which you get hours and hours of spellbinding and informative entertainment.
Ken Burns's work has been praised by critics, but often viewer comments are more useful in our decisions. The PBS DVD collections have been called "noble," "powerful," and the music "devastatingly effective." These are not just insular films made for use in classrooms or for historians. They are a way of making our history meaningful to everyone. When you're flipping through the channels, finding nothing of substance, you can always turn to your DVD collection and find the inspiration you're looking for with Ken Burns.