PBS // 2012 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // September 10th, 2012
How the unthinkable became unforgettable.
The Civil War was one of America's darkest, bloodiest moments. It took its toll not only the government, but also families, friends, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers. There wasn't a person who wasn't touched in someway by the tensions between the north and the south. The death toll -- ranging anywhere from 600,000-700,000, or more than two and a half percent of the population of the country -- was greater than any other war in American history.
The mortality rate ended up being an undiscovered country for the United States. Never before had we dealt with a landscape littered with bodies, which presented an enormous problem for both the Confederacy and the Union; for how would we process, ship, and bury the dead? There ws no infrastructure in place to handle the massive casualties. This meant disease ran rampart through the camps and into other parts of society. Viewers watching Death and the Civil War get a rare glimpse into the horror soldiers faced, including dysentery, oozing wounds, and painful deaths on the battlefield. Many soldiers had friends who could help document their lives to share with their families in the event of their demise. These are letters read from both sides -- soldiers whose fate was imminent, and family members whose hearts ached over their loss -- and they're wrenching to hear.
Make no mistake, Death and the Civil War is a very, very somber affair. The show takes a delicate, probing eye into the hundreds of thousands of deaths the war incurred. In the first battle of Manassas Junction, over 900 men were killed in only twelve hours, nearly half the death toll of the two-year long Mexican war. From there, the battles increase and bodies begin piling up: Shiloh, Pea Ridge, Antietam ("The bloodiest day in American history"). It's clear this is going to be a war which will end with hundreds of thousands of casualties.
PBS' Death and the Civil War is a professionally constructed and haunting piece of cinema. The film is littered with dozens of disturbing images of rotting and bloated corpses on the battlefield. It's a truly frightening and eerie sight. Director Ric Burns -- brother of famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (both of whom worked on the critically acclaimed documentary The Civil War) finds just the right notes to hit. Though the subject matter is morbidly grim, the film casts a spell over the viewer that doesn't let up for its entire two hour run time.
The interviews featured here feel exhaustive. Participants include historians J. David Hacker, Vincent Brown, and Mark S. Schantz; poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch; columnist George F. Will; and author Drew Gilpin Frost, whose book The Republic of Suffering was the basis for the documentary. All offer up contemplations on the war and what the deaths meant for America as a nation. There is much rumination on what it meant to die in battle and experience a traumatic death (including many soldier's fears about their bodies being left to rot and putrefy, miles from their loved ones and home). Often the narration talks about experiencing a "good death," where someone is with you as you die, familiar voices as you lay in your bed to drift away into whatever world awaits. "Bad deaths" are also explored, especially those under the rule of slavery (one in five black men who fought in the Civil War perished) and dying under the oppression of other men.
Stoic visuals aside, one of the most impressive feats of the film is the voice over talent. I was taken aback to learn that Oliver Platt (2012) gently narrates the film, while other great actors -- including James Cromwell (Babe), Keith David (They Live), Amy Madigan (Uncle Buck), and others -- do an admirable job of bringing to life the voices of the deceased. Listening to these haunting tales helps us feel a tremendous gentleness and respect for the dead.
Presented in standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is excellent, offering clear and attractive visuals which are hindered only by the use of historical source material (many photographs are nearly 150 years old). The Dolby 5.1 mix is also very good, with some active surrounds (mostly Brian Keane's somber film score) and a few background effects. It's nothing flashy, but gets the job done. Also included are English subtitles. There are no extras.
Ric Burns' Death and the Civil War is intriguing and pensive, but certainly not entertaining in the traditional sense; often feeling more like a school lesson. While the subject matter certainly held my attention, the experience is a tough sell for those who don't like sniffling into a hankie for two hours. I heartily recommend it to Civil War buffs and anyone interested in learning more about one of the greatest American tragedies.
Not Guilty. An excellently produced piece of history.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated