The Write Stuff: Screenwriter Geoffrey C. Ward and The Vietnam War

U.S. Marines marching in Danang, Vietnam, March 15, 1965. Photo courtesy Associated Press.

U.S. Marines marching in Danang, Vietnam, March 15, 1965. Photo courtesy Associated Press.

“If we live long enough, we may even get over war.” —Maya Angelou.

I graduated from high school in 1965 and college in 1969.  The relentless war in Vietnam fueled an escalating war on the streets of our inner cities and college campuses; heroes were assassinated; politically-empowering music flooded the airwaves and footage of war and anti-war skirmishes saturated the Six-O’Clock News. Civil Rights activists and anti-war protesters, conscientious objectors and draft-card burners captured the headlines of the day. A substantial number of young men from my generation were drafted and annihilated in a war that bore no resemblance to the war our fathers and grandfathers fought in WWI and WWII.  Anger, fear and hate drove Americans out of their post-WWII happy place.

I thought I understood what was going on and why, but I was young and naive. As it turned out, most Americans were grossly misinformed about the senseless war in Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese culture and landscape that we were eviscerating. On May 7, 1985, during my lunch break as a gainfully employed adult, I stood in a crowd in lower Manhattan and watched a ragtag procession of Vietnam veterans march through the “Canyon of Heroes.” What can you say about the walking wounded? It was too little too late, and it was heartbreaking.

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Photo courtesy John Filo/Getty Images.

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Photo courtesy John Filo/Getty Images.

As time passed, I reviewed some high-profile films about the Vietnam War, including one by my friend, Academy Award®-winner Terry Sanders, about the struggle to justify and design a suitable national monument honoring our Vietnam War vets. But soon, the war faded from the news, and the film community, the country and I moved on… that is, until I previewed The Vietnam War, the powerful new 10-part, 18-hour PBS series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  I couldn’t help but see the parallels between then–the secrecy, lies, “fake news,” and mindless meddling and military intervention in cultures alien to our own –and now.

The series rounds out a Ken Burns trilogy that began with The Civil War (1990), followed by Burns’ and  Lynn Novick’s seven-part series about WWII, The War (2007). (See a full list of PBS airdates and comprehensive streaming info for The Vietnam War at the end of this post.)

Geoffrey C. Ward was born in Newark, Ohio, and grew up on the south side of Chicago and in New Delhi, India. He’s been the sole or principal scriptwriter for Ken Burns’ Huey Long;  The Statue Of Liberty; Thomas Hart Benton; The Civil War; Empire of The Air: The Men Who Made Radio; Baseball; The West; Thomas Jefferson; Frank Lloyd Wright; Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; Jazz; Mark Twain; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack JohnsonThe War; Prohibition; and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Ward also wrote or co-wrote companion volumes for seven of those series.

To date, he has two Writers’ Guild Awards, seven Christopher Awards, and six Emmy Awards on his mantle. An independent historian and biographer, Ward has penned six other books, including A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (Harper & Row, 1989), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and a nod from The Los Angeles Times for best biography, the Francis Parkman Award from the Society of American Historians and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

I first connected with Geoffrey C. Ward during my 11-year stint as the Director of The Christopher Awards.  He was a perpetual Christopher Award winner for his work with Ken Burns, for whom he most recently scripted The Vietnam War series.  Geoffrey graciously agreed to share his take on the project and subject with me.

Author/historian/screenwriter Geoffrey C. Ward scripted the entire 18-hour PBS series,THE VIETNAM WAR, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Photo: Diane Raines Ward.

Author/historian/screenwriter Geoffrey C. Ward scripted the entire 18-hour PBS series,THE VIETNAM WAR, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Photo: Diane Raines Ward.

Judith Trojan:  You have collaborated with Ken Burns as the sole or principal screenwriter of his films since 1984. Whose idea was it to produce a series about the Vietnam War?

Geoffrey C. Ward:  I honestly can’t recall whose original idea it was. Whoever it was, we all jumped at it.

Trojan:  You’re credited as the sole writer on The Vietnam War series, which is 18 hours long and is broken down into 10 episodes. That’s an extraordinary mountain to climb, given the scope of this project. Would you say that The Vietnam War is the most complex and difficult project you’ve tackled for Ken? Did you have any reservations about revisiting such a painful chapter in U.S. history?

Ward:  Ken specializes in lofty mountains. This was by far the highest I’ve had to scale. I didn’t have reservations, but I did have concerns about the sheer size of the literature I’d have to mine.The script and the companion volume took more than five years. I was writing furiously till early this year – and am still recovering.

This 12-year-old girl was killed in the May Offensive (Mini-Tet) in Saigon, 1968. The Saigon fire department had the job of collecting the dead from the streets during the Tet offensive. They had just placed this child, killed by U.S. helicopter fire, in the back of their truck, where her distraught brother found her. When <em>The New York Times</em> published this photograph, it implied there was no proof that she was killed by American firepower. Photo courtesy Philip Jones Griffith/Magnum Photos.

This 12-year-old girl was killed in the May Offensive (Mini-Tet) in Saigon, 1968. The Saigon fire department had the job of collecting the dead from the streets during the Tet offensive. They had just placed this child, killed by U.S. helicopter fire, in the back of their truck, where her distraught brother found her. When The New York Times published this photograph, it implied there was no proof that she was killed by American firepower. Photo courtesy Philip Jones Griffith/Magnum Photos.

Trojan:  The series’ pitch line–‘There is no single truth in war’–is an understatement. The film brilliantly interweaves remarkably honest recollections from American and North and South Vietnamese combat veterans, medics and nurses, Gold Star families, POWs, conscientious objectors, deserters, anti-war activists, and civilian participants who served as aid workers, government staffers, spies and photojournalists. Did you meet and interview every one of those individuals as you were writing the script?

Ward:  Lynn Novick, the co-director and producer of the series, conducted the bulk of the interviews, both here and in Vietnam. My job was to plug them into the story we were trying to tell.

Trojan:  Did anyone stand out to you as pivotal to the series?

Ward:  I have a lot of favorites, but one stands out–John Musgrave, who went to the war as a gung-ho Marine and ended up marching in the streets to stop it, and was equally patriotic, early and late.

Trojan:   Other than photojournalists who worked the Vietnam beat as young men, the film does not feature talking head historians, pundits or politicians, which I found to be refreshing. You focus on subjects who actually had their boots on the ground, lived to tell about it and currently have no political ax to grind.

Horst Faas, Associated Press Chief of photo operations, with his Leica cameras around his neck, accompanied U.S. troops in War Zone C, Vietnam, circa 1967. Photo courtesy AP/Horst Faas.

Horst Faas, Associated Press Chief of photo operations, with his Leica cameras around his neck, accompanied U.S. troops in War Zone C, Vietnam, circa 1967. Photo courtesy AP/Horst Faas.

Ward:  Leaving out historians–and surviving statesmen–was a mutual decision. Since so many witnesses were alive and willing to talk–on all sides of the conflict–we wanted them to own the series. No ‘experts’ needed to apply–though we had an extraordinary panel of scholars whose counsel we took very seriously.

Trojan:  I was astounded and moved by the willingness of South and North Vietnamese veterans and civilians to share their honest and often painful recollections of the war that decimated their homeland and civilian population. Can you explain the difference in allegiance between the men and women who served in the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong soldiers? Were both groups committed to the Communist line?

Ward: Both saw themselves as Vietnamese patriots – as did their South Vietnamese opponents. The National Liberation Front forces–called the Viet Cong by the Americans–were southerners who claimed always to be acting on their own but were actually directed by the North Vietnamese, who also sent tens of thousands of regular troops southward to join the struggle.  We make it clear that the Vietnam War was a civil war as well as an international conflict.

A soldier in the 25th Infantry Division, Vietnam, circa 1969. A disproportionate number of African-Americans were drafted, shipped overseas and ended up as casualties during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy Charles O. Haughey.

A soldier in the 25th Infantry Division, Vietnam, circa 1969. A disproportionate number of African-Americans were drafted, shipped overseas and ended up as casualties during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy Charles O. Haughey.

Trojan:  I especially appreciated the backstories spotlighting the courageous sacrifices of Native-Americans, Japanese-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics and women during the Vietnam War, on the battlefield and stateside. Were you all on the same page about insuring that you covered all bases?

Ward:  I think we did a good job of conveying the diversity of our military, not because that was the politically correct thing to do, but because it was historically accurate.

Trojan:  Vietnam and anti-war footage was a stomach-churning condiment during dinnertime newscasts at the time. Often, the carnage was just too gruesome to swallow as we chowed down on our Swanson TV dinners. Revisiting that footage in your film series is tough; it makes staged action in docu-dramas look tame.  The photojournalists and TV newscasters who originally filmed and reported on that footage as they accompanied our troops into battle and dodged bullets and billy clubs on our burning streets and college campuses, were either incredibly brave or stupid. But we owe them a debt of gratitude for reporting and filming the truth.  Any reservations about how much of that footage to include?

Ward: Reading about warfare is one thing. Looking at it straight-on is another. Horror can overwhelm. We used the footage judiciously. For every bloody scene we included, there were scores more we might have chosen. It’s no accident that, after Vietnam, censorship was imposed on our adventures overseas. TV crews were not allowed to show as much combat during the Middle Eastern wars. Journalists are embedded in specific units rather than being allowed to roam more or less freely, as they did in Vietnam.

General William Westmoreland and President Lyndon B. Johnson, April 4, 1968. Photo courtesy Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Audiovisual Archives.

General William Westmoreland and President Lyndon B. Johnson, April 4, 1968. Photo courtesy Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Audiovisual Archives.

Trojan:  How did you and your team come by the audiotapes of conversations and phone calls between LBJ and McNamara, also Eisenhower and Nixon and Kissinger? They are riveting indictments of the White House players.

Ward:  A whole generation of scholars has labored to listen to those remarkable tapes, and we were lucky to be able to draw upon their gleanings. They do not provide a picture of forthright, resolute leadership, and it’s no accident that no president since Nixon has allowed such damning recordings to be made.

Trojan:  I was astonished to hear their conversations and the anti-Communist rhetoric that denigrated protesters and our Vietnamese allies. LBJ comes across as a whip smart but tortured President whose landmark domestic legislation was clouded by his failed foreign policy. It’s hard to believe that Nixon’s backstory could get any worse, but it does here. Secrets and lies seem to have been the order of the day.  Do you see any parallels with what’s going on in our country today?

Ward:  History doesn’t precisely repeat itself – or at least I don’t think it does. But it does chime. It was American overconfidence and ignorance about the rest of the world that got us into such trouble. I’m afraid those same weaknesses are alive and well in 2017.

Civilians huddle together after an attack by South Vietnamese forces, Dong Xoai, June 1965. Photo courtesy AP/Horst Fass.

Civilians huddle together after an attack by South Vietnamese forces, Dong Xoai, June 1965. Photo courtesy AP/Horst Fass.

Trojan:  One of the things that touched me is a remark from a Vietnamese veteran who remembers when he had an epiphany about American soldiers being human beings, because they never failed to risk life and limb to get to their wounded and dead comrades and transport them out of harm’s way. In contrast, several American vets recall the pressure they were under to grow the enemy body count, which explained why they quickly devolved from the ‘boy next door’ to killing machines who were forced to objectify the enemy and rationalize civilian collateral damage. How would you define the word ‘hero’ in the context of this frightful war?

Ward:  The Vietnam War produced a host of heroes on the battlefield, heroes who sacrificed themselves for the benefit of their fellow soldiers.  The war also yielded heroes who never heard a shot fired in anger but who were willing to sacrifice themselves in the interest of peace.

Released POW, Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm, is greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base, March 17, 1973. Photo courtesy AP Photo/Sal Veder.

Released POW, Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm, is greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base, March 17, 1973. Photo courtesy AP Photo/Sal Veder.

Trojan:  What is your most important take-away from The Vietnam War series?

Ward:  The most important take-away for me is simple: Do not go adventuring abroad without understanding your enemies — or your allies.

Trojan:  What about working on a ‘Ken Burns film’ makes you want to continue?

Ward:  Working with Ken and Lynn Novick for PBS continues to be a joy. I always know that we will do the very best we can to convey the complexity of history. Nothing we do will ever be dumbed down. Ω

How and when to view The Vietnam War series

The first five episodes of the 10-part series will air nightly on PBS stations nationwide beginning Sunday, September 17, through Thursday, September, 21, 2017.  The final five episodes will air nightly from Sunday, September 24, through Thursday, September 28, 2017. Each episode will debut at 8:00 p.m. ET, with a repeat broadcast immediately following the premiere. Beginning Tuesday, October 3, 2017, The Vietnam War series will re-air on a weekly basis through November 28, 2017, at 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)

On September 17, 2017, concurrent with the broadcast premiere, you will be able to stream the first five episodes on all station-branded PBS platforms, including  http://www.pbs.org  and PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. The final five episodes will be available for streaming beginning September 24, 2017.  There will be an option to stream in English, Spanish-language or Vietnamese-language. For DVD, Blu-ray and soundtrack CD  shopPBS.org –Judith Trojan

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American Masters Celebrates Bambi Artist Tyrus Wong

Despite suffering the indignities of racial profiling and discrimination, Chinese-American Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) persevered and created a distinguished body of work as a fine artist and designer. Photo courtesy of the Tyrus Wong family.

Despite suffering the indignities of racial profiling and discrimination, Chinese-American Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) persevered and created a distinguished body of work as a fine artist and designer. Photo courtesy of the Tyrus Wong family.

“Tyrus Wong’s story is a prime example of one of the many gaping holes in our society’s narrative on art, cinema and Western history,” said writer/producer/director Pamela Tom. “By telling his story, I wanted to shine a light on one of America’s unsung heroes, and raise awareness of the vital contributions he’s made to American culture.”

Ms. Tom’s exceptional new feature-length documentary, Tyrus, premieres tonight, Friday, September 8, 2017, on the PBS series, American Masters, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://pbs.org/americanmasters  and PBS OTT apps for streaming.)

BAMBI (visual development) by Tyrus Wong, 1942. Watercolor on paper. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

BAMBI (visual development) by Tyrus Wong, 1942. Watercolor on paper. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

It’s been 75 years since the debut of Disney’s beloved animated feature Bambi. Generations of moviegoers have enjoyed and shared their tear-soaked memories of this beautiful film. But few Bambi fans (with the exception of veteran Disney insiders and historians) can identify the artist tapped by Walt Disney to shape his studio’s adaptation of Felix Salten’s 1923 novel, Bambi, a Life in the Woods. Surprisingly, you may also have enjoyed this same artist’s Hallmark Christmas card designs (one of his cards sold over one million copies); eaten off ceramic plates embellished with his artwork; ordered dinner from his handmade menus; admired his WPA murals; or been mesmerized by his whimsical kites.

Tyrus Wong's Self Portrait, circa late 1920s. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

Tyrus Wong’s Self Portrait, circa late 1920s. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

In a career spanning a good portion of the 20th century and nearly a quarter of the 21st, Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) navigated a twisty road to fine-tune his talent as an artist. As a nine-year-old Chinese immigrant in 1919, he faced virulent anti-Asian bias the minute he stepped foot on Angel Island, the notorious immigrant processing station (1910-1940) in San Francisco Bay. There he endured a monthlong separation from his dad and grueling interrogation specifically designed to undermine Chinese immigrants and send them packing. Somehow, Tyrus passed the test.

Undaunted, he refused to be pigeonholed as a houseboy or laundry worker and began to fashion a life for himself in the West Coast Asian-American arts community. He first gained momentum as a young scholarship student at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Impoverished and hounded by the indignities of racial discrimination, he persisted and eventually landed jobs in Hollywood studio art departments. He built a solid 50-year marriage, raised three daughters and created a body of work that ultimately garnered the honors and exhibitions he so deserved. Although Tyrus pretty much had to wait until his 90’s to enjoy wider recognition, he lived to be 106!

Filmmaker Pamela Tom and Tyrus Wong in his studio. Photo: Ildiko Lazslo.

Filmmaker Pamela Tom and Tyrus Wong in his studio. Photo: Ildiko Lazslo.

In American Masters: Tyrus, filmmaker Pamela Tom showcases a generous selection of Tyrus Wong’s work in all formats, as well as vintage period footage, clips from his retrospectives and awards’ presentations and insightful commentary from Tyrus, his daughters and a host of articulate film and animation historians, critics, archivists and industry colleagues, including Oscar®-winning animator John Canemaker.

A longtime friend and former colleague of mine, John Canemaker is a full professor and executive director of Animation Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Kanbar Institute of Film & Television, a prolific author and lecturer on the subject of animation and one of the world’s foremost Disney scholars. He generously agreed to share his memories of Tyrus Wong with me.

Judith Trojan:  What impressed you the most about Tyrus?

John Canemaker:  I first met Tyrus Wong in 1994 when I interviewed him in his home in Sunland, California, for my book on Disney concept artists, Before the Animation Begins – The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists (Hyperion, 1996).  He was a mere youngster of 84 at the time.  I was equally in awe of his talent as an artist and his positive, cheerful, indomitable vitality and resilience. 

Trojan:   Pamela Tom’s film is truly an eye-opener in that it shines an important light on the shocking abuse faced by Chinese immigrants in 20th century America. It pulls no punches and is especially timely in light of the current administration’s anti-immigrant stance. Tyrus comes across as a gentle fellow who somehow managed to surmount the racist obstacles that threatened to derail his dream to support his family in America as a working artist.  How did he manage to secure a niche in Hollywood?

Tyrus Wong and John Canemaker. Photo courtesy John Canemaker.

Tyrus Wong and John Canemaker. Photo courtesy John Canemaker.

Canemaker:  I think it’s a case of ‘talent will out.’  Tyrus’s diverse artistic gifts could not be denied, nor could being in the right place at the right time. Throughout his life, he took full advantage of opportunities whenever they presented themselves. He made his own luck! Under his gentle exterior, he had a will of steel.

Trojan: From your perspective as a noted animation historian, Disney scholar and animator, what, in a nutshell, made him an unorthodox yet ultimately a perfect fit for Disney’s Bambi project?  How did Tyrus’s vision and unique skill set determine the overall look and feel of Bambi?

BAMBI (visual development) by Tyrus Wong, 1942. Watercolor on paper. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

BAMBI (visual development) by Tyrus Wong, 1942. Watercolor on paper. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

Canemaker: ‘I like the indefinite effect in the background,’ Walt Disney said of Wong’s ethereal, mysterious paintings and pastels.  Tyrus’s contribution to Bambi was unique in animated features of the period. He brought a mixture of Occidental and Asian influences, a fusion of contemplative compositional balance and limited details and restraint of traditional Chinese painting.

E.H. Gombrich once wrote that ‘The Chinese consider it childish to look for details in pictures and then compare them to the real world. They want, rather, to find in them the visible trace of the artist’s enthusiasm.’ In short, Tyrus Wong brought visual poetry to Bambi’s forest– simplicity of form, limited detailing, and vibrant color.

Trojan:  In Pamela Tom’s film, Tyrus says in an offhand manner that he never met Walt Disney. Why didn’t Wong work on additional Disney films?

BAMBI (visual development) by Tyrus Wong, 1942. Watercolor on paper. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

BAMBI (visual development) by Tyrus Wong, 1942. Watercolor on paper. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

Canemaker:  Tyrus Wong was hired at Disney in March 1938 and was released (laid off) on Sept. 12, 1941.  Bambi was released on August 21, 1942. He did not participate in the infamous May 1941 strike at the Disney studio.  So I speculate that he was laid off because his part of pre-production– conceptual art, establishing the look of the settings, color, etc.–was over.

Interestingly, over 50 years later, in the mid-1990’s, Joe Grant, a surviving Disney veteran artist from the old days, invited Wong to rejoin the studio and participate as an inspirational sketch artist on Mulan (1998), set in ancient China. Wong declined the invitation claiming his ‘style had changed so much.’

Tyrus Wong's pre-production illustration for Warner Brothers' THE WILD BUNCH (1969). Opaque watercolor and ink on board. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

Tyrus Wong’s pre-production illustration for Warner Brothers’ THE WILD BUNCH (1969). Opaque watercolor and ink on board. Photo: Tyrus Wong.

Trojan:  Pamela Tom’s film also takes a fascinating look at the opportunities available for artists in Hollywood studio Art Departments.  Tyrus’s storyboards for notable films at Warner Brothers and elsewhere are glorious. I especially like the transitions between his pre-production storyboards and the final filmed scenes that reproduce them. Tyrus seemed to enjoy that work.

Canemaker:  He loved westerns and worked on a number of films starring John Wayne. He was up to the creative challenge of designing conceptual artworks for various genres to guide the art direction of a film.  The storyboards especially helped directors decide on camera angles and when and where to cut from one scene to another.

Trojan:  From your perspective, where does Tyrus Wong fit in the pantheon of film and animation history?

Canemaker:  He was a great cinema art director, whose work on Bambi profoundly inspired, and will continue to inspire, generations of animation filmmakers.

Trojan:  Disney’s Pixar animators seemed awestruck when they approached Tyrus, which is quite touching.  It’s wonderful that he lived long enough to be named a ‘Disney Legend’ in 2001 and enjoy retrospectives of his work within the film and fine arts community.

Canemaker:  The Walt Disney Studio’s Animation Research Library has a grand collection of original Bambi art by Tyrus Wong, as does the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, a number of private art collectors, and, of course, Tyrus Wong’s family as well. Ω

Be sure to visit John Canemaker’s engaging blog, “John Canemaker’s Animated Eye” at http://animatedeye.johncanemaker.com/

Tyrus Wong holding one of his fanciful kites. Photo: Sara Jane Boyers.

Tyrus Wong holding one of his fanciful kites. Photo: Sara Jane Boyers.

American Masters: Tyrus is not only an inspiring celebration of artist Tyrus Wong and his body of work, but it also is an important reminder of the obstacles facing immigrants–past and present–as they attempt to study, work, raise a family and realize their dreams in America. The film will be an evergreen addition to school, library, university and museum programs focusing on the immigrant experience in America, Disney animation, ethnic art and mid-20th century film history.

American Masters: Tyrus premieres on PBS tonight, Friday, September 8, 2017, 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region. The film will also be available to stream beginning September 9, 2017,  via http://pbs.org/americanmasters  and PBS OTT apps.–Judith Trojan

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Diana–Her Story Premieres on PBS

Shining in her own light, Diana, Princess of Wales (1961 - 1997), circa 1995, blossomed into a savvy, independent young woman. Photo: Gemma Levine/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Shining in her own light, Diana, Princess of Wales (1961 – 1997), circa 1995, blossomed into a savvy, independent young woman. Photo: Gemma Levine/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Sometimes happy endings are hard to come by. Once upon a time, we pinned our hopes on 20-year-old Diana Frances Spencer and the future king of England, 32-year-old Charles, Prince of Wales. Their unlikely union certainly fulfilled our collective need for happy endings during the 1980s and ’90s… until it didn’t.

Twenty years have passed since Princess Diana’s tragic, untimely death in Paris on August 31, 1997, precipitating a deluge of celebratory films and articles honoring her memory.

“It was a fairy story that everybody  wanted to work,” admitted Diana, Princess of Wales, during a candid moment filmed by her speech coach, Peter Settelen, in 1992. Clips from Settelen’s revelatory videos comprise a substantial portion of Diana–Her Story premiering tonight, Tuesday, August 22, 2017, on PBS, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://www.pbs.org  for streaming and DVD availability.)

Lady Diana Frances Spencer, later Princess of Wales, age 2, at Park House, Sandringham, Norfolk. Photo courtesy Keystone/Getty Images.

The documentary, directed by Kevin Sim and executive produced by Charles Furneaux, utilizes clips from those candid videos to frame the timeline of Diana’s evolution from a happy, naive, “rebellious” teenager to a lonely, anxiety-ridden member of Britain’s royal family, who ultimately set her free to fulfill her destiny as the “people’s princess.”  It’s a lot to cover in 54 minutes, but the video clips are well worth your time if you loved and respected Princess Diana and her journey to self-realization.

Princess Diana apparently worked with Settelen in 1992 to improve her public speaking skills as her marriage to Prince Charles unraveled for all the world to see. The video clips reveal a still playful Diana who recalled her giddy excitement and disbelief when, at 18-1/2, she became the object of Prince Charles’ ardor. Despite his clumsy courtship, which she implied should have been a sign that they were incompatible, she fell madly in love.

Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker-Bowles at Ludlow Races where Prince Charles was competing in 1980. Photo courtesy Express Newspapers/Archive Photos.

“I desperately loved my husband, and wanted to share everything with him,” said Diana. Clips from their glorious wedding day, a media event like no other before or since, quickly fade from view in Diana–Her Story, as she and those close to her discuss her shame at being forced to coexist at public events with Camilla Parker-Bowles, whom everyone knew to be Charles’ mistress and great love.

“I think the biggest disease the world suffers from in this day and age is the disease of people feeling unloved,” said Diana in 1995. Isolated and marginalized within the royal family, Diana became an emotional wreck suffering from bulimia and crippled by anxiety.

Members of her support team resurface in this film. Her confidant James Colthurst, ballet teacher Anne Allan, private secretary Patrick Jephson, and personal protection officer Ken Wharfe underscore her compassion and kindness and recollect her determination, in the face of hopeless odds, to save her marriage.

“I had to cut my own path,” she said; and she finally did just that, eclipsing Prince Charles and those in his realm who disparaged her.

Diana, Princess of Wales was a survivor.  She carved a whole new life for herself, not as the future Queen of England, but as a fashion icon and, most especially, as an advocate for “unfashionable causes” supporting society’s outcasts with whom she so identified.  She focused much of her empathy and care on individuals afflicted with leprosy, AIDs and HIV.

One can only wonder how this honorable young woman would have continued to impact the world as she matured and expanded her charitable and political endeavors. Admirably, her sons carry on her charitable legacy. But we will forever miss all that she could have become… we will miss her happy ending.

Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, sitting on the diving board of Mohammed Al Fayed’s private yacht. Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Sygma via Getty Images.

Produced for PBS in association with Channel 4 in the UK, Diana–Her Story premieres tonight, Tuesday, August 22, 2017, on PBS, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://www.pbs.org for streaming and DVD availability.) Channel 4 will reportedly air a film with similar source material as well.–Judith Trojan

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PBS Rebroadcasts The Boys of ’36 on American Experience

Yes, I’m on vacation and I’m surrounded by water…the optimum venue from which to give you a shout-out about the rebroadcast of American Experience’s rousing documentary about Olympic rowers.  The Boys of ’36 reruns on PBS tonight, Tuesday, August 1, 2017, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for repeat broadcasts in your region.)

The Boys of ’36 is really an inspiring story,” says Mark Samels, WGBH Executive Producer for American Experience. “These remarkable young men–with nothing more than strength of character, hard work and determination–triumphed over unimaginable odds.”

Adapted from the New York Times #1 bestseller, The Boys in the Boat (Penguin/Random House), by Daniel James Brown, the documentary recounts the individual economic, physical and psychological obstacles faced by nine working-class young rowers from the University of Washington as they prepared to compete for a Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Author Daniel James Brown, period and sports historians, and the children of several of the rowers discuss the Depression-era hardships faced by these sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers who not only went on to beat the favored U.S. Ivy League rowing teams but Hitler’s elite German rowers as well…with the ever-present Hitler and his minions hovering nearby.

The University of Washington's varsity crew team at the Poughkeepsie Regatta Races in June 1936. Photo courtesy of Corbis.

The University of Washington’s varsity crew team at the Poughkeepsie Regatta Races in June 1936. Photo courtesy of Corbis.

With succinct voice-over narration delivered by actor Oliver Platt in Ken Burns’-cadence, The Boys of ’36 includes wonderful vintage sports footage of the individual team members, their competitions leading up to the Olympic Games and their Gold Medal victory in Nazi Germany circa 1936.

Kudos to Margaret Grossi, the director and producer of this uplifting, sharply focused hour-long documentary, and to the film’s co-producer, NBC-News Olympic Games analyst Mary Carillo.

If you need a shot of hope and some positive reinforcement during our current mind-numbing chapter of U.S. history, I suggest you catch the rebroadcast of American Experience: The Boys of ’36 on PBS tonight, Tuesday, August 1, 2017, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for repeat broadcasts in your region.) You can read my original review at http://JudithTrojan.com/2016/08/02 –Judith Trojan

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Presenting Princess Shaw Makes Its Broadcast Debut on PBS

Singer/songwriter Samantha Montgomery's leap from anonymity to YouTube sensation is recalled in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW. Photo: Ido Haar. Courtesy Atzmor Productions.

Singer/songwriter Samantha Montgomery’s leap from anonymity to YouTube sensation is recalled in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW. Photo: Ido Haar. Courtesy Atzmor Productions.

“There are so many people with so much talent, original thinking and unique voices. Most of them weren’t born with the ‘right cards in their hand’…What are the chances that we will hear about them?”–filmmaker Ido Haar.

Israeli director Ido Haar  made sure that one of those “unique voices” had her chance by heralding her story and, most especially, her voice in his latest film, Presenting Princess Shaw. The feature-length documentary, which gave its star–and the Israeli artist who discovered her–welcome exposure on the festival circuit and in theatrical release last year, makes its broadcast debut on the PBS series POV tonight, Monday, July 17, 2017, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET.  (Check listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

With her cherry red hair, braces and engaging spirit, Samantha “Princess Shaw” Montgomery brought a little song and dance into the lives of the elderly residents under her care in a New Orleans nursing home. She also shared her considerable vocal and songwriting talents, personal heartache and career aspirations with followers of her YouTube channel.  She invited them along as she performed during open mic nights in dismal local clubs and derailed yet another audition for NBC’s “The Voice.”  Despite the roadblocks and loneliness, she never seemed to lose her hope or enthusiasm for the next adventure around the corner or the upcoming gig that could put her career aspirations over the top.

Israeli video artist/composer/musician Ophir “Kutiman” Kutiel became Princess Shaw’s unlikely benefactor. Photo: Ido Haar. Courtesy Atzmor Productions.

Meanwhile, 7,000 miles away, on a kibbutz in Israel, musical prodigy Ophir “Kutiman” Kutiel was making a name for himself in international music and art circles with audacious audiovisual mixtapes or musical mash-ups he created from audio and video snippets culled from amateur performances on YouTube.  By turning “sampling” into multimedia art, Kutiman’s talent is uniquely driven by the Internet and social media.  His work has been exhibited and performed at venues like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and on stage at Israel’s National Theater, garnering such kudos as “the future of music” and “the Internet’s new frontier.” You can check out his work at  http://www.youtube.com/kutiman

Kutiman discovered Princess Shaw’s singular voice, confessional songs and personal revelations on YouTube.  He was captivated… and you will be too as you experience clips of her haunting songs in Presenting Princess Shaw, sung a cappella with a voice reminiscent of Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys, and are privy to the memory fragments that litter her back story with broken relationships, poverty and a childhood darkened by physical and sexual abuse.  

Happy endings prevail as Samantha "Princess Shaw" Montgomery and Kutiman meet and collaborate in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Happy endings prevail as Samantha “Princess Shaw” Montgomery and Kutiman meet and collaborate in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

The film climaxes with her discovery that Kutiman has featured clips from one of her YouTube solos as a centerpiece in one of his own compositions and posted it on the Internet. With heart in hand, she travels to Israel to meet Kutiman and perform on stage at Israel’s National Theater as his video composition unfolds on screens behind her.

Although there are questions left unanswered in Presenting Princess Shaw about her career prospects going forward and Kutiman’s back story and degree of personal and financial involvement with Princess Shaw and other amateur performers, past and present, the film showcases two unique talents in a style that befits them–open-ended, eclectic and, above all, celebratory–as their voices, hearts and skill sets unite across cultures.

“When an extraordinary artist recognizes another from across the world, and their talents come together,” concludes director Ido Haar, “it brings the idea of collaboration and creativity to a whole new level.”  And let’s face it, were it not for the Internet and social media, this story would probably not have a beginning, middle or… such an uplifting ending.

Presenting Princess Shaw makes its broadcast debut on the PBS series POV tonight, Monday, July 17, 2017, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET.  (Check listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, as well as On Demand and DVD availability and  http://www.pbs.org/pov/princessshaw/  for streaming updates.) –Judith Trojan 

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Watch and Remember The Words That Built America

Congress adopts The Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, PA, on July 4, 1776.

Congress adopts The Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, PA, on July 4, 1776.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. “— from The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, July 4, 1776.

Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, July 4, 2017, and enjoy the fruits of our nation’s bounty and the freedom to do so, I encourage you to set aside 45 minutes to watch Alexandra Pelosi’s timely The Words That Built America, debuting tonight on HBO and various other HBO and free streaming and on-demand channels (see below). In a political climate that seems to be playing fast and loose with the charters drafted by our founding fathers, it’s imperative for all of us to become reacquainted with the documents crafted by these brilliant visionaries more than two hundred years ago. The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and The Bill of Rights remain the world’s longest surviving written charters of government and have been used as democratic templates internationally as well.

Alexandra Pelosi, producer/director of THE WORDS THAT BUILT AMERICA. Photo: Janet Van Ham. Courtesy HBO.

Alexandra Pelosi, producer/director of THE WORDS THAT BUILT AMERICA. Photo: Janet Van Ham. Courtesy HBO.

Emmy® Award-winning producer/director Alexandra Pelosi makes the process easy for us. She corralled more than 100 prominent Americans from all sides of the political aisle and encouraged them to face her camera and read unabridged passages from those three documents. Featured are U.S. presidents, vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries, governors, U.S. senators and representatives, as well as notable celebrities and middle school students from the United Nations International School.  As each individual reads his or her assigned passage from the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David (John Adams) McCullough narrates and interjects historical context and timelines.

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence

The Words That Built America debuts on HBO tonight, Tuesday, July 4, 2017, 7:00 – 7:45 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW and HBO Go, and through streaming partners.) The film will also be accessible to non-HBO subscribers, who will be able to view the full program on HBO.com and the HBO YouTube channel, and through participating TV and streaming partners’ platforms and free on-demand channels.

In addition, a companion curriculum is being developed to support educators in the classroom; and the film will be donated to the National Constitution Center  in Philadelphia for its use in ongoing educational programming.

There is no better day than today to revisit and celebrate the powerful documents that gave birth to the United States of America more than two centuries ago.  And, going forward, The Words That Built America and its supplementary components will be evergreen educational tools for young people and adults in school, library and college programs focusing on U.S. History and American Government.  Now and forever, educated voters are among our nation’s most valuable assets.

The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution

Happy 241st birthday, USA!–Judith Trojan

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Transgender Teen Speaks Out as a Real Boy on PBS

Transgender teen Bennett explores his transition in REAL BOY debuting on the PBS series, INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

Transgender teen Bennett explores his transition in REAL BOY debuting on the PBS series, INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

“I am literally a boy with the wrong body parts,” remarks 19-year-old Bennett in the hour-long documentary, Real Boy. Feeling comfortable in one’s skin is never easy, especially during adolescence. But for someone like Bennett aka Ben aka Rachael, the roadblocks are especially daunting… and lonely.

In Real Boy, filmmaker Shaleece Haas gives transgender teen Bennett the space to reflect on the obstacles he’s faced as he affirms his rightful gender. We also meet his mom, Suzy, whose journey to accept her former daughter’s gender reorientation surgery and young adult male identity is equally challenging… and lonely. Real Boy debuts on the PBS series Independent Lens tonight, Monday, June 19, 2017, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings to confirm air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and see below for online streaming info.)

Real Boy is framed by the family’s home movies, circa 1999, when sweet little Rachael appears on camera cheerfully enjoying playful antics with her mom, dad and sister. In footage shot by Ms. Haas over a four-year period, Rachael–the daughter, sister and tomboy who was applauded for her childhood eccentricities–has morphed into Bennett, who at age 19, is self-injecting testosterone shots and struggling to find his voice as a musician, a son, a brother and, most especially, as a young man.

Bennett, then Rachael, with his mom, Suzy. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

As he navigates this rocky road, his mother strives to understand the intricacies of her child’s transition and provide the unconditional love and support that he needs. It’s not easy for her to contemplate the bodily changes that will result from his surgery, which is made clear when she muses that she too would rather have a new body… so she can look like Charlize Theron.

Bennett recalls how his incompatibility with all things female reached a breaking point at puberty, leading him to experiment with substance abuse, theft and a life-threatening pattern of cutting. Facing disbelief and rejection at home, he connected with other trans teens on the Internet and forged a supportive relationship with transgender musician Joe Stevens. Although he’s acknowledged as a loving, life-saving presence in Bennett’s life, Joe faces dramatic substance abuse problems of his own which are introduced and abruptly glossed over.

Bennett Skypes with his best friend, Dylan, as they anticipate their surgeries, as seen in REAL BOY on INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

Bennett Skypes with his best friend, Dylan, as they anticipate their surgeries, as seen in REAL BOY on INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

As Bennett and his best friend, Dylan, also transgender, move to their new apartment, begin college life and face their first surgeries together out-of-state, their moms bond. Dylan’s mother encourages Suzy to accept and embrace Bennett’s transition.

Happily for her son, Suzy shows up at his hospital bedside and fulfills her care-giving responsibilities as his mom. However, his dad and sister fail to make an appearance, and their continuing rejection is given little more than a painful nod: “I just want to be loved by my family… it’s complicated for them,” says Bennett. Regretfully so; but as he yearns for their love and acceptance, he never seems to grasp, and the film fails to acknowledge, how the complex process of grief and grieving for Rachael has upended his mom, dad, sister, extended family and childhood friends.

In REAL BOY, trans teen Bennett shows his first chin hair to his friend, Joe Stevens, a celebrated transgender musician. Photo courtesy Shaleece Haas.

There are other missed opportunities here as well. How did Rachael/Bennett fare in school, and when did it become apparent to her family and peers that Rachael was not simply a tomboy. And what about dating? There is passing mention of a dangerous cutting incident that sounds like it might have served as a transformative epiphany. The healing aspects of Bennett’s obvious talent as a singer/guitarist/songwriter are underplayed, and the relevent back stories of his mom and dad and Bennett’s mentor, musician Joe Stevens, are unfortunately never fully explored.

Those quibbles aside, Real Boy honors and respects Bennett’s voice and, for that, it should be a welcome and comforting addition to programs for other adolescents in the process of questioning their own gender identities and transitioning, as well as for family members and the friends who love them.

Real Boy debuts on the PBS series, Independent Lens tonight, Monday, June 19, 2017, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings to confirm air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The film will also be available for online streaming beginning June 20, 2017, at http://pbs.org/independentlens  –Judith Trojan

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