FIRST CAME THE BRIDGE . . . : STATUE OF LIBERTY FILM TO BE SEEN ON PUBLIC TV
For film maker Ken Burns, the night he spent with the lady with the torch was a night of cinematic bliss.
Burns has this thing for edifices. He earned an Academy Award nomination for his 1981 television documentary on the Brooklyn Bridge. This October, his film on the Statue of Liberty will be broadcast on public television.
“I want to kick off the year of celebration before the whole flood of schmaltzy stuff comes in,” he said.
After nearly 100 years on a pedestal, the Statue of Liberty is undergoing some cosmetic lifting and tucking to restore a creaky structure. While others are cashing in on the statue’s restoration and 1986 unveiling with sweepstakes and souvenir mugs, Burns is opting for a more lasting testament.
“I feel like a Jimmy Stewart character, but too often people take the ‘Liberty’ slogan and skim off the top,” Burns said. “With all the centennial celebrations, there’s a danger we’ll forget the real meaning of the Statue of Liberty and milk it for false meaning. I’m afraid that the event will overshadow what Liberty really means. So after all the T-shirts are sold and the pennants are put away, I hope this film still will be around.”
The film includes a section on how the Statue of Liberty has been used in commercials, including an underarm deodorant ad. The documentary is financed by the Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., whose corporate symbol is Miss Liberty.
Burns looked under the rug of history for the stories behind France’s most famous gift to America, interviewed a melting pot of Americans to determine what liberty meant, and spent a night with Liberty while the cameras were rolling.
“It was the best night of my life,” said Burns, the film’s producer. “I camped out in a sleeping bag and had whiskey, barbecue chicken and David’s Cookies.” Burns was effusive about one memorable shot, which showed the Statue, before the scaffolding went up, sharing the frame with boats, jets and sea gulls.
That scene reflects how the Statue of Liberty is a one-woman welcoming committee and a major tourist attraction, but Burns hopes the interview segments about liberty will show how the Statue has become much more.
Czechoslovakian director Milos Forman said liberty “is the most civilized and least of evils.” Author James Baldwin and former congresswoman Barbara Jordan, both black Americans, said that liberty needs constant correcting and vigilance.
The documentary also will focus on the making of the Statue of Liberty, using narration by actors Jeremy Irons and Derek Jacobi to express some historical perspectives. The Times of London, for instance, scoffed a century ago, “We wonder why liberty should be sent from France, which has too little, to America, which has too much.”
French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi created the statue as a monument to liberty. Ironically, Bartholdi “wasn’t even sure he liked Americans,” Burns said. “He wrote home that everything was so big in America, even the peas. He said the country was lacking in charm and taste.”
When Bartholdi’s original engineer died, he hired an up-and-coming builder named Gustave Eiffel, who later designed the Eiffel Tower.
The statue was built in France and reassembled in New York. The whole project took 15 years from conception to the 1886 dedication, a ceremony that was attended by President Grover Cleveland, who, two years earlier as governor of New York, vetoed funds for the statue’s pedestal.
It was newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer who raised money for the pedestal, promising to print the name of everybody who contributed. Burns said that Pulitzer, who published a New York tabloid, was really “a half-blind neurotic who couldn’t abide the noise that New Yorkers made. So he eventually moved to a yacht in the harbor.”
Burns said some clergymen objected to the statue, expressing concern over erecting a pagan goddess. He said only two women were invited to the opening ceremonies, prompting demonstrations from suffragists.
Dissent, noted Burns, is part of the freedom that Liberty represents.
“It was the first time a country had given a gift to the ideals of another country,” Burns said. “It also was remarkable that the statue was of a woman talking of peace, not a warrior or a soldier. Most other statues had a guy on a horse with a sword in his hand.”