BAR HARBOR, Maine — The 900 people packed into the stuffy Criterion Theatre cheered Wednesday night at the end of 55 minutes of excerpts from Ken Burns’ new film, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
The audience delighted in a segment showing bear cubs catching salmon beside their mothers, oohed and aahed at the aerial shots of their state’s park taken from a helicopter, and laughed in all the right places.
That is the kind of reception the film has received around the country, Burns said after the event.
“This is as good as it gets,” he said, posing for photos with the descendants of Charles W. Eliot, one of the men who created Acadia National Park.
The documentary filmmaker and his longtime producer, Dayton Duncan, both of Walpole, N.H., took a half-dozen questions before the crowd streamed out into the muggy night, so that the 200 people who were unable to get tickets for the sold-out session with Burns and Duncan could be let into the art deco-style theater for a second showing of the film clips.
Burns and Duncan spent Wednesday afternoon touring Maine’s only national park before heading to a private fundraiser at the Rockefeller estate, then to the theater to promote the film. It is set to air on public television, including the Maine Public Broadcasting Network on Sept. 27. The 12-hour, six-episode series tells the story of the national park system, which began in 1872 with the formation of Yellowstone National Park. The system now includes 58 parks and 333 national monuments and historic sites.
Filmed over six years, the program includes more than 50 interviews as well as footage from the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and, of course, Acadia. Duncan oversaw the filming on Mount Desert Island in 2004 and 2005. Burns shot 146 hours of film for the series, he said, and used about 1,800 of the still photographs and artwork of the 12,000 he considered. The multilayered sound track includes music of the eras profiled, modern folk music and sounds that match many of the activities shown in photographs.
The clips shown Wednesday included two segments from Episode 3 that tell the story of Acadia, the first park in the nation created from privately donated land. Segments also included the introduction in Episode 1; President Theodore Roosevelt’s trip to Yellowstone National Park, which sparked the creation of the park system, from Episode 2; a clip from the fourth episode titled “Ask a Ranger,” that humorously honors the work of park rangers; and an interview with Ranger Sheldon Johnson, the man Burns said is the Shelby Foote of this series.
Foote was a Civil War historian whose commentary — liberally sprinkled throughout Burns’ 1990 series “The Civil War” — made the soft-spoken Southerner an instant celebrity. In the last years of his life, Foote, a confirmed bachelor, received dozens of proposals of marriage and the quiet academic was sought after for interviews nearly as often as Burns was, according to previously published reports.
“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is structured similarly to Burns’ previous long-form films, “Baseball,” “Jazz” and “The Civil War.” Actor Peter Coyote narrates the series and actors, including John Lithgow, Tom Hanks and Sam Waterston, read the writings of the famous and the unknown, who played a part in the history of the parks.
The segments on Acadia include aerial shots of the park’s rocky coast, historic photos of Mount Desert Island from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and some of the famous paintings which lured the rich and famous to become “cottagers” for part of the year.
The film links the idea of the creation of the parks, owned by the people, to the themes of democracy outlined by the nation’s founders. Burns warned that despite the concern over the past two decades about heavily visited parks such as Acadia and Yellowstone being “loved to death,” recent attendance at some parks has leveled off.
The National Park system will turn 100 in 2016, an audience member pointed out when she asked Burns what he hoped for its future.
“We must figure out a way to renew our vigor for parks,” he said. “With ownership comes responsibility.”
The filmmaker said that more study guides, including one on Acadia, and educational materials have been created for this film than for any of his previous projects. Much of that material is linked to the series’ Web site.
Burns’ next projects include a “10th inning” update of “Baseball,” a look at the three Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor — and histories of Prohibition and the Dust Bowl, the filmmaker said in answer to a question.
For the next two months, however, Burns’ focus will be on “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” He said Wednesday that he is working with the Department of the Interior, which manages the park system, on a possible screening of the series at the White House.
“If Sasha and Malia [Obama] became junior rangers,” he said, “that would represent a sea change in attitude.”
Burns said the symbolism of the president’s young daughters, ages 8 and 11, respectively, taking part in a program offered at parks for children would send a message to Americans about the importance of sharing the national parks with the next generation.
“Liberty requires vigilance,” Burns told the audience. “Too many of our kids are addicted to a virtual world. If we don’t create a new generation with memories [of their visits to national parks], we’ll be losing the next generation.”
For more information on the series, visit www.pbs.org/nationalparks.