Ken Burns Has Prohibition, PBS Film Examining America’s “Great Experiment,” the 18th Amendment Outlawing Alcohol


By Frank Barron

At PBS’s “Prohibition” session, filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick discuss America’s “Great Experiment” with featured author Daniel Okrent (center).

It seems to be among our inalienable rights, like the pursuit of happiness, to enjoy a good cold brew, some wine or other potent potables— in moderation, of course. But there was a time in the history of the United States when that simple pleasure was illegal. And a new documentary by the acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns will examine the true story of America’s “Great Experiment,” the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing alcohol.

There were far-reaching consequences to Prohibition, explained Burns at the recent television press tour. Researching the topic, Burns discovered it was a time that “involved smear campaigns during presidential elections, congressional mandates and a whole group of people who felt they’d lost control of their country and wanted to take it back.” The era actually reflects the contemporary political scene more than just a little bit.

Burns and his longtime collaborator, filmmaker Lynn Novick, have brought back the era of bathtub gin, bootleggers, and speakeasies in the three-part Prohibition series, airing Oct. 2, 3 and 4 on PBS. Narrated by Peter Coyote, the production from Florentine Films and WETA tells the true story of the rise, rule and fall of the 18th Amendment, which was one of America’s most notorious civic failures, an object lesson in the challenge of legislating human behavior.

“Alcoholism has been a devastating human problem for hundreds of years, but prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcohol did not solve it,” said Burns. “The entire history of the Constitution had been about extending liberties and freedom, until Prohibition. Its impact on our society was profound and widespread.” It went into effect January 1919, and lasted for 13 years (repealed December 1933), during which America was split by a fierce cultural divide between “wets” and “drys.” It turned law-abiding citizens into criminals and made a mockery of the justice system.

Novick said, “We know now, of course, that Prohibition didn’t work. At the time, it really did seem like a good idea to a lot of people who saw the Constitution as the moral foundation of American society. But the unintended consequences are stunning to contemplate, and make Prohibition an utterly relevant, cautionary tale about the dangers of believing there can ever be a quick fix for complex social problems.”

Burns likes to examine complex subject in his documentaries, which read like a “who’s who” of the best television programs ever made. He did the much-awarded Civil War series, the highly regarded Baseball miniseries, plus its sequel, The Tenth Inning, a series on the National Parks, ad infinitum. And he promises there’s much more to come.

“We’re working on a documentary on the Dust Bowl; the history of the Roosevelt family and The Great Depression, all dealing with the 1920s. And I have plans for projects that will extend to 2019, all currently in some form of pre-production and development, along with fund-raising efforts.”

For the past dozen years or so, Burns has been working with producer-director Lynn Novick, who is based in New York. Burns has his Florentine Films company in New Hampshire. Despite the distance between the two, “we don’t have to be in the same physical place,” the producers state. “We use modern communications.”

To keep his shows interesting, Burns utilizes Hollywood actors to do the voice over the documentaries. “I use Peter Coyote a lot, as well as Keith David, and other actors. They are capable, can handle the dialogue and are accessible.” Prohibition has the voice talents of Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Paul Giamatti, Oliver Platt and others, along with music by Wynton Marsalis, who did the outstanding Jazz series for Burns.

The cinematographer on almost all of Burns’ films is Buddy Squires. Burns and Squires have known each other since their college days.

“He and I always seem to agree on exactly what we want to shoot, and how we want to film. We get along real great. On all our shows where we have to travel, Buddy and I go to the actual locations, such as for the Lewis and Clark expedition, and other shows we’ve filmed on historical locations.”

Burns, at 58, is unquestionably the most acclaimed documentary filmmaker in the history of television. He has been making films since he graduated tiny Hampshire College in 1971.

“It was an experimental college in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I had a mentor, Jerome Liebling, who sadly, recently passed away. He was a fiercely great teacher and photographer of extraordinary images,” Burns said, paying tribute to the man who shaped his vision of documentary filmmaking.

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