"I am not an American. I am the American."—Samuel Clemens
The life of celebrated American author Mark Twain is littered with everything from untouchable success to devastating heartbreak. I can't think of anyone more adept at producing a documentary about Twain's life than acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. Burns has covered all kinds of Americana, from the nation's favorite pastime in Baseball to the deep and rich history of the music known as Jazz. In Mark Twain, Burns recounts the author's life story in a way that is refreshingly un-Hollywood. Traced through letters and correspondence with family and friends, the author's own words from his novels and writings, and interviews from scholars, writers and admirers, Mark Twain is an exhaustive documentary about a man who is often affiliated with the embodiment of America.
Facts of the Case
From Mark Twain:
"Samuel Clemens rose from a hardscrabble boyhood in the backwoods of Missouri to become, as Mark Twain, America's best-known and best-loved author. Considered in his time as the funniest man on earth, Twain was also an unflinching critic of human nature who used his humor to attack hypocrisy, greed and racism. He created some of the world's most memorable characters as well as its most quoted sayings. And, in his often-misunderstood novel 'Huckleberry Finn,' he brought fourth a masterpiece that Ernest Hemingway called the true beginning of American literature.
This remarkable film tells the story of Twain's extraordinary life—full of rollicking adventure, stupendous success and crushing defeat, hilarious comedy and almost unbearable tragedy. With fascinating interview of Hal Holbrook, Arthur Miller, William Styron and many others, the story is told primarily thought the words of Twain himself, so viewers of all ages can be personally introduced to this compelling yet contradictory genius, who said with some justification, "I am not AN American, I am THE American."
For those who were forced to read "The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn" as children, now is the time to dust off your books and rediscover the magical writings of author Mark Twain. Ken Burns has given you a head start with this expansive and informative documentary on Twain, his life, and his writings. I can't say that I knew much about Twain before I started this film. I, like many others, was forced to read "Huckleberry Finn" when I was in high school. I remember little about the novel, except for Huck and his runaway slave friend Jim floating down the Mississippi River in search of a better life. I didn't know what Twain's meaning was behind the book, nor what Twain's other accomplishments in his life were.
Ken Burn's Mark Twain is an intimate peek into the life of Mr. Twain. Starting with his humble beginnings in his boyhood home of Hannibal with his slave owning father, Twain (then known as Samuel Clemens) lived a full life that included traveling the world, writing acclaimed novels and stories, marrying the love of his life, fathering four children (one dying from disease after only 19 months), hobnobbing with celebrities and politicians, and becoming the embodiment of everything that personifies the great nation of America. Along the way are interviews of Twain scholars, actor Hal Holbrook (who played Twain in a play based on his life), and playwright Arthur Miller, each expressing how Twain has impacted their life and work.
What amazed me about this film was how swift and well paced it felt. Clocking in at well over three and a half hours, you'd think it might bog down; on the contrary, Burns and his team keep things moving by piling on more facts and anecdotes about Twain as the film progresses. Aside of being informative it's also emotional—Twain was a man who collided with hardships of every kind. Death seems to follow him like a shadow, always appearing just when Twain thought his life was in order. Twain was a complicated man who often criticized the wealthy, yet he enjoyed and even pursued money by any means possible (including inventing, lecturing, and writing). The film delves into the man and his myth—most people, I assume, might have a somewhat one-dimensional idea of who Mark Twain was. Here we find out about his vices (including liquor and cigars), and his faults, including a sometimes hot-blooded temperament (Twain once threw out every shirt he owned from a second story window because one shirt was missing a button). Twain would go on to write a multitude of classic books, including "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" and "Following The Equator," a novel about his travels abroad.
But Twain was also a man who wanted to set things right, even if it was only through his writings. Even while making a comfortable living, Twain was moved by the hardships of the African Americans and their entrapment, and eventual freedom, in slavery. In fact, "Huckleberry Finn" was written as a hard look at slavery by Twain's keen eye. Twain was the comic of his day, though his humor lay in a deeper well of sometimes bitterness and anger at the country he so loved and hated, all in the same breath.
Mark Twain is narrated wonderfully by actor Keith David (There's Something About Mary, They Live) and features the voice talents of Kevin Conway as Mark Twain, plus Blythe Danner, Cynthia Nixon, Phillip Bosco, Tim Clark, and Amy Madigan. All of these actors do a great job with their parts, especially Conway as a very gravelly voiced Twain. The scope of Mark Twain must have been breathtaking for Burns (though not half as expansive as Burns' much longer Baseball or Jazz films). It's to Burns' credit that he is able to make this not only a moving documentary, but one that actually makes you want for more after the end credits start rolling. The good news is that there is more—sitting in the pages of the books and writings of Mark Twain. That's the best extra feature anyone could ever hope to find.
Mark Twain is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and spread out between two sides of one single DVD. Comprised of old photographs, some very ancient film, and interviews with scholars and admirers, this print of Mark Twain looks as good as can be expected. Most all of the photos shown in the film are older then time itself, and as such give the film a very old and rustic look. Overall, the colors are well rendered and the image is very pleasing to the eye.
The audio for Mark Twain is presented in Dolby Surround in English. This soundtrack comes mainly from the center speaker, with some side speaker utilization when the wonderful soundtrack kicks in (the music is both sparse and jangled, a mix of haunting piano work and backwoods guitar picking). This feels like a mono soundtrack, though in the confines of the film it works just fine. No alternate soundtracks or subtitles are available on this disc.
Surprisingly, Mark Twain contains a very substantial amount of extra features. The first is "The Making Of Mark Twain" which features interviews with director Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan. This short documentary includes both Burns and Duncan talking about why they decided to make Mark Twain, what their inspirations were, and what the challenges were in making the movie. The features also include some interesting behind-the-scenes photos and images.
"A Conversation With Ken Burns" is just that, a discussion with Burns about some of his films, including Jazz and Baseball. Burns appears to be a very down-to-earth and an intelligent man who discusses not only his films but also what has shaped him as a filmmaker and person (among other things, his mother's death from cancer when he was a child). On another note, Burns looks like the type of an amiable next-door neighbor who loves football and drinks Bud Light.
"Mark Twain Quotes and Photographs" is a collection of quotes and sayings repeated by actor Kevin Conway over some old archival film and photos from yesteryear. "Ken Burns: Making History" is yet another look at Burns working behind-the-camera, as well as some footage featuring his crew during the editing, filming and recording process.
Finally there are some insightful interview outtakes featuring Hal Holbrook, Arthur Miller, Russell Banks, and a batch of Twain scholars. Each of these interview outtakes are presented in a very rough form and are split up into four separate sections. All of these outtakes should help to give even more insight into what scholars think of Twain, both the man and the legend.
An icon of America, Mark Twain was a true original who possibly did more for American literature than any other writer in history. As an entertaining documentary, this film is excellent—as an educational and emotional story, Mark Twain is priceless. This is a great piece of filmmaking (the first I've ever seen of Ken Burns, though certainly not the last), and is well worth at the very least a rental from Blockbuster (if they even carry it).
This is a very moving and intriguing documentary on an extraordinary individual. Highly recommended.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "The Making Of Mark Twain" with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan
Review content copyright © 2002 Patrick Naugle; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.