'American Experience': Ric Burns Tells a Whale of a Tale

American_Experience_Ric_Burns_Whaling 5-10-2010 8-07-13 AM.jpgThe quest for energy drives much of human history.

Whether it's gathering firewood, cutting peat, digging for coal or drilling for oil, humans risk life and limb to cook, stay warm and keep the lights on.


But none of these pursuits is perhaps as dramatic and as surprisingly romantic as the centuries-long whale hunt, in which men set forth in small wooden boats to take on leviathans in search of the precious oil that could be rendered from their blubber or harvested from the heads of sperm whales.


Monday, May 10, on PBS (check local listings), "American Experience" presents "Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World," in which filmmaker Ric Burns examines three centuries of American whaling, which changed towns, lives, art, literature - including one of the greatest works in the English language, "Moby-Dick" - and the world economy.


Of course, it also had a deadly effect on whales, which would be the primary concern of people today.


"The contemporary deep empathy for whales," Burns says, "is kind of a silent partner in the film. The one thing you don't have to talk about in the film is how deep the feelings are. It's there; all of us feel it.


"I thought, early on, we would have to bring the story further into the 20th century and understand the emergence of an active save-the-whales movement, but that's completely unnecessary. There's not a person today who considers the 200, 300-year history of whaling who would ever want to go back and do that again."


Instead, Burns takes an objective look at the industry, which literally helped fuel economic growth leading up to the Industrial Revolution.


"Whale oil was petroleum before petroleum in every respect," Burns says. "It lit the streetlights of London and Paris . It was absolutely the middle-class illuminant of choice. It burned brighter and whiter. It was a remarkable product that really did a better job at what it did than anything else comparable."