The 140-year history of our National Park System in many ways reflects the evolution of the nation itself during that span of time, and it's filled with conflicts, contradictions, and colorful characters. So it's only fitting that Ken Burns, himself a precious national resource, should turn that story into one of his epic PBS miniseries, The National Parks, subtitled America's Best Idea.
Covering 12 hours in six episodes, the project has real sweep, from the cessation of the Yosemite Valley to the State of California for the public benefit in 1864 and the nearly accidental creation of the first actual National Park in Yellowstone in 1872 (pushed through Congress so that a railroad could sell more stock) to the contentious creation of new parks and other protected areas in Alaska in modern times. On the way, there are wars between development and conservation, states' rights and the national interest, public promotion and wildlife preservation, and the worlds of industry and nature.
And then there are the people. Not only Rockefellers and Roosevelts, however, or John Muir or Ansel Adams or Stephen Mather, the self-made millionaire who virtually invented the National Park Service. There are also lesser-known people like Horace Kephart and George Masa, an odd couple who devoted their lives to saving the Great Smoky Mountains from loggers, and Lancelot Jones, son of a former slave, who held out against the development of Biscayne Bay. Burns, as always, touches on racism - against Native Americans and many other Americans, be they African, Asian, or Hispanic - but he always incorporates the subject in a way that illuminates. In fact, his ultimate underdog in The National Parks is literally a canine: the wolf, hunted to near-extinction before being restored to Yellowstone after a half-century of lobbying by visionary naturalists.
Two drawbacks: The story becomes more episodic as it goes along. And its main theme - that the preservation of these places for the people is what makes the parks a particularly American institution - is repeated from segment to segment, as are many of the series' best images. So, watching one installment at a time is the way to go.
Blu-ray Disc is absolutely the way to go as well. This is Burns's debut on the high-rez format, and technically it's just grand. The series involved 6 years of location shooting, and the transfers here from Super 16mm are wonders of light, color, and mist, all brilliantly detailed. Archival photos, some dating back 150 years, have an immediate presence.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound, if anything, is even better. Voices are crystal clear and have strong individual character. The mix of music and effects behind them has been painstakingly, lovingly crafted. There's the sound of wind and water, of course, but also of gunshots, railroads, and earthquakes (each given just the right amount of extra oomph in the subwoofer) - as well as the songs of birds and, yes, the distant howls of wolves. And it all supports the storytelling without ever overwhelming it.
Each of the six discs has an extra. By far the best is on the last disc, which offers "Contemporary Stories" (mostly not told in the series) of how the Park System has come to preserve the history of minority Americans in places like the Black Hills and Manzanar. Also enjoyable is the omitted segment, on Disc 4, about Frank Pinkley (who faithfully tended the Casa Grande ruins in Arizona for years before becoming a Park Service superintendent), as well as some of the "Musical Journeys" on Disc 3. The making-of shorts on the first two discs don't go into much depth, however, and the featurette on Disc 5 consists entirely of excerpts from the series.
By the way, after you've noted the sponsorships on Disc 1, you don't have to sit through them again before every subsequent episode. Just press Skip. Buy It Here
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