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Mark Twain: A Film By Ken Burns

Keith David , Kevin Conway , Ken Burns    NR (Not Rated)   DVD
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
List Price: CDN$ 31.99
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Considered the funniest man of his time, Mark Twain was a critic of human nature who used his humor to attack hypocrisy, greed, and racism. As America’s best-loved author, he created some of its most memorable characters and quoted sayings. Director Ken Burns digs beneath the legend to discover the true Twain and reveals his extraordinary life, filled with adventure and literary pursuit, incredible success and defeat, comedy, and tragedy.


Given the legendary life of its subject, it's not surprising that Mark Twain is perhaps the most entertaining documentary Ken Burns has made. The creator of The Civil War and Jazz achieves reverent harmony with the magnificent story of Missouri-born author Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), encompassing legend and fact with an exhilarating sense of adventure. Hailed by Hemingway as the originator of American literature, Twain (a nom de plume taken from a riverboat pilot's term for "safe waters") viewed himself as the American. Burns's film backs that claim as it follows Clemens's literary odyssey around the globe, from unrivaled acclaim as a writer to near destitution and the devastating deaths of his wife and three children. As usual, eloquent writers and scholars (including longtime Twain performer Hal Holbrook) provide a wondrous flow of anecdotes and observations, recounting Twain's remarkable humor while acknowledging a darker side that felt anger toward an indifferent god. Like all of Burns's films, Mark Twain is must-see viewing. --Jeff Shannon --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unqualified Praise for Mark Twain. Dec 27 2003
This has to be one of the best documentaries on a literary figure that has ever been made. In the hands of Ken Burns, the richness and subtlety, the humour and tragedy, the successes and dismal failures and a true sustained analysis of the life of Samuel Clemens all combines to give us a personal and intellectual understanding of this towering literary icon of the 19th century. Twain was many things - a riverboat pilot, printer, journalist, miner, speculator, failed business man, and satirist, but most of all a novelist, a grand storyteller that spoke to royalty, presidents as well as the common people. Ernest Hemingway once said that American literature began with the publication of Huckleberry Finn. Twain chose to write this book in the language of the vernacular, while other writers maintained an allegiance to English prose, Huck Finn's voice rose above conformity, informing the American public that the black American was not just a commodity, an object of scorn and prejudice, but a human being. This book not only changed our views on literature but our humanity as well. This film does not skim over the surface of Twain's life and work, but digs deeper into his motivations and inspirations in the context of his environment.
~Mark Twain~ took almost three years to produce, which includes hundreds of photographs, actual film footage of the man at home, informed interviews with Twain scholars and writers that give us keen insights into his life and work. What this film shows is that not only is his literature extraordinary, but his life as well. And this life is told mainly through the words of the man himself. Twain lived a dual persona, the man and the celebrity.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent introduction for those new to Twain Jan. 21 2004
If you've never read a biography of Twain, this is an excellent introduction to his life. It covers all the high points and is replete with quotes, shots of living quarters, cities where he lived, and family photos, as well as a few shots and video clipes of Twain himself. The narration is pleasing; the voice acting for Twain is superb, and the audio commentary by Twain biographers is clear and helpful.
If you're already familiar with Twain's life story, the DVD is not going to reveal anything new to you, and you will likely find it frustratingly scant on details. You don't learn, for example, much about Twain's approach to writing, his inability to accurately estimate how popular his works would be, his continuing schemes for sequels, or much detail at all about the printing machine that bankrupted him. Instead, the DVD mostly follows the major points of his life - where he lived, what he published, family details.
The best bits for someone already familiar with Twain's life are the video clips interspersed throughout the DVD. It was a great joy for me to see Twain's famous shambling gate, as well as his cigar smoking.
In any case, highly recommended to anyone, novice or expert.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Mark Twain and Ken Burns are both geniuses! May 3 2003
Around the turn of the last century, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was considered to be one of the funniest men in the world, and one of the greatest American writers and storytellers of his day. He achieved the status of a very rich man - only to lose it investing foolishly in some of the new inventions of the burgeoning industrial age.
His first great novel, Tom Sawyer, was an autobiographical tale of his life growing up on the banks of the Mississippi. The sequel and his most endearing work, Huckleberry Finn, written many years later, used the innocence of a ragged Southern boy traveling down the river with his friend, Nigger Joe, as a subtle indictment of slavery; Twain's motivation stemming from his disgust (as a Southerner) for the failure of emancipation several decades after the conclusion of the Civil War. In his later life, while still retaining his humor, Mark Twain became an outspoken opponent of racism, anti-Semitism, and American Imperialism (under Teddy Roosevelt) and an early advocate of women's suffrage.
Mark Twain was the first to use the way ordinary Americans spoke - to create great literature. His earliest career was as a riverboat pilot. His penname, Mark Twain, in fact, means "twelve feet," and when called out while steaming, signals the transition from dangerously shallow waters into those that are safe.
The movie is filled with great triumphs - and great sorrow. Watching the film caused me to careen uncontrollably between laughing and crying as though I were a drunkard. Anyone who loves writing (or reading) or spinning a few yarns of their own will come away knowing that Mark Twain - and Ken Burns, who lovingly restores him for us - are both geniuses!
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Mark Twain is arguably the most influential American writer ever. He certainly is among the best-known authors who catered to the layman as well as to the scholar. But there is so much more to Twain's life than just the now-household names of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Twain was a complex man, and this documentary examines his very interesting life.
Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, lived a very eventful life. Aside from his fiction, which is very, very well done, Twain was also a very able travel writer. He wrote many of his books about his hometown or about his beloved river, the Mississippi, but he also wrote about far away and exotic places. This film examines all of Twain's work, and, more importatly, the life he lived while he was producing it.
I absolutely loved Burns's documentary on the Civil War, but I thought the one of Jefferson was only average. This one, though, fully lived up to my expectations and more. The many photographs of Twain, the witty quotes of his beautiful writing style, and the vivid descriptions of his life and passion make this a documentary you won't want to miss.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars In-Depth
This profile at times unnecessarily dotes upon the man or specific works long after the points have been made. Read more
Published 11 months ago by S.H.
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoy history while you're watching
It's very clear that this "musical biography" has been extremely well researched. Famous people often have multiple biographies, but very few have them turned into... Read more
Published on April 22 2004 by Gary Saxer
5.0 out of 5 stars It can't be better!!
Before I watched this DVD, I thought I was going to learn some biographical facts about Mark Twain with images, but I got a lot more. Mr. Read more
Published on Feb. 1 2004 by Stan Woo
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Informative documentary!
Mark Twain was the quintessential American writer and Ken Burns' documentary about Twain is simply marvelous! Read more
Published on Dec 15 2003 by Antwerp bookhog
1.0 out of 5 stars Star-crossed disappointment. Not recommended
Ken Burns' familiar formula: the use of historic music, insights from historians, interesting narrative, and old pictures. All combine to set the stage for deception. Read more
Published on Nov. 12 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Ken Burns continues his perfection
If you have ever seen any of Ken Burns' documentaries (Civil War, Baseball, Jazz), you know that he has truly become the most revered directors of our time. Read more
Published on Aug. 23 2003 by Kevin C. Siqveland
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful!
Ken Burns does a superb job (as always!) in portraying Mr. Twain as a person, and not an American Icon. Another triumph for Ken Burns.
Published on April 3 2003 by Douglas M. Debarry Jr.
5.0 out of 5 stars must-see viewing!
I saw this on PBS, missing the first part. What I did see was absolutely stunning. I'm ordering from Amazon to see the whole thing and to loan to friends. Read more
Published on Nov. 30 2002 by PRCN90S
5.0 out of 5 stars Great piece of work on "The American"
One of the best documentaries ever made on Mark Twain with large number of actual pictures, video clippings and comments by various authors. Read more
Published on Sept. 15 2002 by Ghamesh Nirav
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