Skip to main content


Touring The Century With Bill Moyers

July 2024
6min read

EVERY TELEVISION documentary on the twenties seems to spend a lot of time on crazes, always including marathon dancing—those dispiriting contests in which heavylidded couples held one another up as they shuffled back and forth. Watching one such program with my parents many years ago, I innocently asked my mother what it had been like to take part. “What kind of girl do you think I was?” she answered, with what I remember as genuine outrage.

It was my first inkling that old film doesn’t tell the whole story. I have never stopped watching documentaries—the simple fact that there is authentic footage of Leo Tolstoy or Queen Victoria or San Francisco before the earthquake still seems miraculous to me. But I do now know that the use television usually makes of it is pretty bad: the same weary snippets of newsreel spliced together on the cheap, with narration either portentous or patronizing, and sometimes both at once.

There have been honorable exceptions: Victory at Sea was one; The Great War was another. Beginning January 18, public television presents a third. A Walk Through the Twentieth Century With Bill Moyers is an ambitious series of twenty programs, of which I have seen thirteen. All are worth watching; some are extraordinary.

One characteristic of our century is incoherence; it’s impossible to get a handle on. Moyers and his collaborators (including the historian Bernard A. Weisberger) have wisely rejected simple chronology in favor of programs that wrestle with ideas. Their subjects range from war to public relations, the Presidency to world’s fairs, and even the format differs from show to show. Some rely heavily on newsreels; two follow the stumbling advance of civil rights through the eyes of the actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis; still others are composed primarily of the recollections of men and women who made or reported history, or simply witnessed it.

Moyers himself provides the only continuity. The conventional wisdom is that ideas and intelligent conversation make bad TV; within the industry, human beings with something to say are dismissed as “talking heads.” Moyers knows better and has proved it time and again. His is an earnest presence—at forty-nine he still has something of the air of the Baptist divinity student he once was—but it is also intelligent, humane, and intensely curious. He seems genuinely affected by what he sees and hears, and more important, he possesses the mysterious power to pass along his amusement or astonishment or horror intact to the viewer.

There is no way to convey all the pleasures of this series in this space, and it seems churlish to list their (mostly minor) flaws. But a few generalizations suggest themselves.

Several programs make it plain that the camera’s eye is no more objective than our own. It sees what its masters want it to see. A program on newsreels (inevitably called “The Reel World of News") shows how a steady Saturday-night diet of fashion shows, touchdowns, and random disasters helped mask the reality of the Depression, but the point is most effectively made in “The Propaganda War,” an examination of German and American efforts to explain World War II to their people on film. Fritz Hippler, who supervised movie-making for the Nazis, is the repellent and fascinating subject of the first half of the hour. We first see the genial and dapper seventy-year-old sauntering along his street in Berchtesgaden in a blue blazer and pointing out the site where, to his great regret, the Allies obliterated Hitler’s mountainside retreat. Most of his films, with their marching legions and wet-eyed zealots, were meant to inspire the Fatherland and impress its neighbors with the futility of resistance, but he is best remembered for having made The Eternal Jew, a virulent epic intended to whip up anti-Semitism among the Germans (whom Joseph Goebbels thought insufficiently devoted to the cause, compared, for example, with the French). “With this fact I have to live all my life,” Hippler says with an uncharacteristically long face. Why does responsibility for this particular movie haunt him? Because it got him into a lot of trouble with denazification courts after the war.

His American counterpart was the Hollywood director Frank Capra, who made the Why We Fight series for the U.S. Army. It was his ingenious notion to turn Hippler’s own film against its makers: The same storm troopers march in Why We Fight, Hitler delivers the same shuddering harangues, but shrewd editing and narration render them by turns laughable and thuglike, not heroic. Capra is an honest man, and even this brush with propaganda evidently still bothers him forty years later; he brought photographs of the heaped dead of Dachau with him to his filmed interview, as if to demonstrate to Moyers and the rest of us (and perhaps even to himself) that it had been all right for him to enlist his skills in the struggle against such frightfulness.

The idea of Progress takes an awful pounding in these programs, as perhaps it should. It does sometimes seem that nothing in this century has quite worked out. In “The Arming of the Earth,” for instance, one of the most powerful shows, three devastating new weapons are introduced to the world—the machine gun, the submarine, and the bomber—each in the certainty that its mere existence would make war obsolete; instead, of course, they made it worse. Even world’s fairs, which once celebrated technological milestones and confidently promised more, now give equal time to every sort of nostalgia; in a memorable sequence from “Come to the Fairs,” filmed at last year’s Knoxville exposition, an enthusiastic cook offers visitors a taste of that old Tennessee mountain favorite, barbecued groundhog.

Americans were surest of their future at the century’s turn, and perhaps that is why we seem to be more derisive of this era than any other. In “TR and His Times” the historian David McCullough makes a plea for understanding that period on its own terms: “Progress was real,” he says. “Life for everyday people was improving daily. And if we could carry this progress— to the rest of the world, that seemed like a very noble thing to do.” Theodore Roosevelt himself “was a genius,” McCullough believes, and genius makes us uneasy; “one of the ways we react to it is to laugh at it.… ‘Good old Teddy, he’s a joke.’ ” One needn’t believe in TR’s literal genius to know that these points are well taken, but the rest of this oddly schizophrenic program seems calculated to contradict them; actors give arch readings of the words of Roosevelt and his contemporaries, who appear as animated cartoon characters so like those used on Monty Python that one expects a big pink foot to come down and squash them. This curious, trivializing program makes the rest seem all the better.

The idea of Progress takes an awful pounding.

It is the living witnesses to history who breathe life into this series:

  1. • Edward L. Bernays, the nonagenarian father of public relations, recalling an early and only marginally successful effort at presidential image-making: In order to make Calvin Coolidge seem more human, Bernays invited famous entertainers to lunch with him at the White House, among them Al Jolson and the beautiful Dolly Sisters. Next day the New York Times headline read: PRESIDENT NEARLY LAUGHS.
  2. • The black poet Sterling A. Brown, a stolid-looking man, suddenly weeping as he reads aloud “Old Lern,” his poem about a lynching, the memories its words stir still raw half a century after they were written.
  3. • Dennis Bosonni, a veteran newsreel cameraman, remembering how he dealt with the competition: “If somebody got funny,” he put chewing gum on their lens, then he’d “stick him in the jaw” with his tripod.
  4. • The late Sir Phillip Noel Baker recalls watching news film of the Nazi bombing of Warsaw with Winston Churchill in 1939: “His comment as the film ended was, ‘Bloody amateurs,’”

Moyers calls his programs “personal essays,” and it may not be surprising that the best of them is also the most intimate. In “Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas” he revisits the town where he was raised and without a trace of pedantry lets its citizens show us the play of history on one American place. He has assembled a colorful and articulate cast of friends and acquaintances: an elderly moonshiner who made a good thing of Prohibition; a school-teacher who did her best to make Shelley come alive for the sons and daughters of the Texas and Pacific Railroad men who worked the town yards; the aged mistress of a decaying plantation who can’t conceal her cackling glee at the memory of the cheap wages she used to mete out to the blacks who picked her cotton; the banker who remembers that in his boyhood “you could reach out and touch the past” because every weekend he went fishing with a grandfather who had fought in the Civil War. Even now that war is not so far away. The second Marshall, Texas, of the program’s title is the segregated side of town, about which Moyers admits he knew next to nothing as he grew up. He learns about life there from local blacks—and so do we. Among the most eloquent is Dr. James Farmer, the civil rights activist, who was born in Marshall and who explains quietly that it was memories of the indignities he suffered in silence as a boy in its segregated downtown that eventually drove him to establish CORE. When integration finally came in 1964, one white resident says, “We lost the Civil War. Up till then we had won.”

I’d be surprised if there were a more interesting documentary on public television this season, or one filled with more vivid and compelling human history.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.