First, a documentary about the Civil War, where we learned there was nothing civil about it. Then came a deep look into two American art forms--baseball and jazz. Now Ken Burns is on to Samuel Clemens. And if there is one American writer who can do justice to the thorough examination of Mr. Burns's lens, it's Mark Twain. Nearly three years in the making, this effort illuminates the foremost public figure in 19th-century America with archival photographs, interviews with Twain scholars, and Twain's own words. An extraordinary life told in an extraordinary way. Color and b&w. Nearly 4 hours on 2 cassettes or 1 DVD.
Given the legendary life of its subject, it's not surprising that Mark Twain is perhaps the most entertaining documentary Ken Burns has made. The creator of The Civil War and Jazz achieves reverent harmony with the magnificent story of Missouri-born author Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), encompassing legend and fact with an exhilarating sense of adventure. Hailed by Hemingway as the originator of American literature, Twain (a nom de plume taken from a riverboat pilot's term for "safe waters") viewed himself as the American. Burns's film backs that claim as it follows Clemens's literary odyssey around the globe, from unrivaled acclaim as a writer to near destitution and the devastating deaths of his wife and three children. As usual, eloquent writers and scholars (including longtime Twain performer Hal Holbrook) provide a wondrous flow of anecdotes and observations, recounting Twain's remarkable humor while acknowledging a darker side that felt anger toward an indifferent god. Like all of Burns's films, Mark Twain is must-see viewing. --Jeff Shannon