Case Number 21085: Small Claims Court


Paramount // 1990 // 680 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // April 9th, 2011

The Charge

It divided a country. It created a nation.

The Case

What can be said about The Civil War that hasn't been already been said? Ken Burns' 1990 documentary changed the face of television in a way that's still being felt today. It's impossible to imagine the History Channel without it, and it's equally impossible to recall how, before it, historical documentaries were frequently dismissed as boring and pedantic. Now, of course, the notion of historical documentaries being as exciting and entertaining as any scripted show is commonplace, but before The Civil War, the notion of watching history on TV was the equivalent of eating oat bran. It was good for you, but that didn't mean you wanted to do it.

The Civil War changed all of that. Much has been made of Burns' audacity in tackling such a massive, controversial topic. What's far more impressive is the technique he uses in making it enthralling, considering all you're seeing are still photographs, talking heads, paintings, and film footage of empty battlefields and cemeteries. The trick is that Burns is using the visuals as accompaniment to the main stories, not as flash for its own sake, as most TV documentaries do. That's why, unlike his heirs at History, he never stoops to actors doing reenactments. Burns understands that this story is exciting enough, if told well with great writing and tasteful audio accompaniment. Thus, we're spared visual reenactments that are clumsy or manipulative, or pictures and footage that just spell everything out. The visuals are never distracting, but in their simplicity and elegance are far more evocative and arresting than they could have been in lesser hands.

It's in the writing, however, where Burns shows his true talents. His script, written with his brother Ric and historian Geoffrey Ward, doesn't just focus on battles and military strategy -- it encompasses every aspect of life during the war, from big cities to small towns, from hospitals to prison camps, from the economy to crime. It describes, in harrowing and unflinching detail, just how truly vile slavery was. More than anything, though, it humanizes the war by making it about the people who lived through it, fought in it, and tried to end it, from the soldiers and civilians to generals like William T. Sherman, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S Grant to, most important, Abraham Lincoln. Here Burns is aided by interviews with the late historical novelist Shelby Foote, who wrote three massive tomes on the war and provides what can only be described as color commentary. Together, they make the story as gripping as any dramatic series, which is a remarkable achievement since, as Burns points out, you already know exactly how the story ends. The effect is of history that's occurring as you're watching it. None of the documentaries that have followed in its wake, even the best efforts by History, have quite matched that impact.

So the question isn't over whether you should own The Civil War in your collection; clearly, you should. It's whether The Civil War: 150th Anniversary Commemorative Edition is worth getting if you already have the previous DVD release. The answer is: not really. The full-screen transfer and 5.1 surround mix on this version are identical to that on the previous 2002 release, with no new remastering or remixing. The show was painstakingly remastered and remixed for its initial release, so it looks and sounds as close to perfect as it ever could, but there's no more work that could have been done for this issue. The extras are mostly the same, with some changes. Still included are the pieces of Ken Burns' commentary over selected scenes, and they're still fascinating in some parts, redundant and sparse in others. Also ported over are the interviews with Foote, conservative commentators George Will and Shelby Steele, and musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, whose haunting song "Ashokan Farewell" provided the show's main theme. These are interesting to the degree that you have a high tolerance for Will and Steele, especially since they're both at their most pompous here. In addition, this reissue includes the text bios, quizzes, and maps from the 2002 release. Omitted here are the featurettes "A Conversation with Ken Burns," "Ken Burns: Making History," and "Behind the Scenes: Civil War Reconstruction." These are not great losses, but there's little reason for eliminating them, since this set has an entire extra disc devoted just to featurettes. The new featurettes created especially for this release will appeal to fans, but are not substantial enough to justify going out to buy this new version. The newly uncovered interviews with Foote (39:51), shot back in 1987 but hidden away until now, do contain some fascinating nuggets but are too slight to really be worth watching more than a few times. The only other new extra is an interview with Ken Burns, which, again, is of interest to fans but not all that different from previous interviews and commentaries he's given about the series. Appended to it is the previous interview he gave for the original 2002 set, and you'll see that the new interview doesn't really differ all that much. Also included in this edition is a twelve-page booklet with a new essay by Burns and some timelines and facts.

Ultimately, then, The Civil War remains a remarkable achievement in documentary filmmaking and a must-have for anyone interested in history or nonfiction television. This new DVD release, however, is just a shameless cash grab by Paramount to attempt to force fans who picked up the previous release (by Warner Bros.) to spend money on it again. The new extras don't justify the cost and the series itself doesn't look or sound any better. If you already have The Civil War on DVD, save your money. If you don't, buy whichever version you find cheaper.

The Verdict

The Civil War remains one of the greatest documentaries ever made, but Paramount is guilty of a shameless and unnecessary double-dip.

Review content copyright © 2011 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile
Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)

* English

Running Time: 680 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary
* Featurettes
* Text Extras
* Booklet

* IMDb