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Case Number 21272: Small Claims Court

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American Experience: Lee And Grant, Generals Of The Civil War

Ulysses S. Grant
2002 // 220 Minutes // Not Rated
Robert E. Lee
2011 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by PBS
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // May 4th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Roman Martel is a reviewer at war with his couch and himself.

The Charge

What happens when you cram two civil war generals into one box set? I don't know, but I'm guessing it isn't going to be pretty.

The Case

The PBS series The American Experience has decided to tackle the Civl War head on with two documentaries about the two most famous generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Sounds like a grudge match made in heaven for all you Civl War buffs out there, but lets see if this set delivers.

Ulysses S. Grant: Warrior President is a two part series that covers everything you ever wanted to know about the man. Each part runs about two hours, so the series covers a lot of ground with plenty of detail to support main events.

ulysses s. grant

The first part chronicles Grant's life from childhood up to the assassination of President Lincoln. It shows us how his family life, education at West Point and participation in the Mexican-American War helped forge him into a formidable general. Once we hit the Civil War, his key battles and campaigns are explored in some detail, giving us not only a clear idea of how he battled, but also of the events and consequences of his actions. The documentary is frank about his reputation as a drunkard and as a man who cared little for the costs of war. But it also does its best to use the context of the situations to explain those faults. Part One ends with Grant being the hero of the American Civil War and his future on the rise.

Part Two delves into his embroilment in politics and his presidency. Grant has often been called one of the worst Presidents of the United States, and while the documentary does cover his failures as well as his triumphs in office, it also attempts to provide background into why he made his more costly decisions. His straightforward view of life worked well with soldiers and during war time, but it was a liability when working in politics. Grant's fortunes rise and fall, and the documentary continues to the end of his life, as the former President wrote his memoirs while dying of throat cancer.

This two part series presents the man's life using interviews with historians and biographers, recreations, location filming, archival photos and newspaper clippings. We also get to see some classic political cartoons made during Grant's presidency, which are a real hoot. While the run time is intimidating, the information is thorough and presented so well that the time just flies. Grant does come across as a man who did his best during one of the most difficult times in American history. While it attempts to show a balanced view, it ends up very positive for him. Those looking for something a little more damning will be disappointed.

president grant

This production was made in 2002 and appears to be a repackage of the disc released in 2005. The image is letterboxed, so that may be a problem for some viewers. But the image is nice and clear. The stereo sound is functional. You also get an interview with the producers, as well as additional interviews with some of the experts from the documentary discussing Grant's character.

The documentary on Robert E. Lee has the subtitle "At War with His Country and Himself." It's an interesting concept.

The documentary begins with Lee's education at West Point. It establishes him a a man dedicated to the United States military and the discipline that went along with it. This education served as the foundation for the rest of his life, where his duty and honor were always at the forefront.

We spend some time with his home life, his marriage to Mary Custis and his heroics during the Mexican American war. But the meat of the documentary falls on his career as the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. It follows Lee along his most famous battles and defeats. It does provide a fairly balanced portrait of the man. His honor and devotion to his duty are of the highest quality. His temper and elitist outlook are also discussed. All of these elements forged him into a formidable general.

The documentary uses a combination of interviews, archival photos, drawings, and location shooting to bring the story to life. There aren't any recreations or reenactments per se, but there are what appear to be drawings of the battles combined with the Hans Zimmer inspired score. Letters written by Lee are spoken by actor Chris Sarandon, and he does a fine job.

robert e. lee

The issues that I had with the similar Jefferson documentary I reviewed appear here. We do get to hear from Lee, but not nearly enough. Some of his views are paraphrased from time to time, and I feel it would have been more effective to hear his words. The documentary also throws around dates and events without much explanation. It assumes that you are already familiar enough with the American Civil War to not need the background. With only 90 minutes of screen time, parts of Lee's life seem rushed through.

Also the element of the subtitle is never fully addressed. Lee never seemed to be at war with himself. He had some tough decisions to make, but once he made them he remained focused on his goals. His resignation from the United States Army prior to joining the Confederate military seemed to be his biggest internal conflict.

The end result is a bit of a wash. I did learn some things about Lee I never knew, but I didn't feel enough depth was given to his skills nor was there a clear understanding of how he fit into the political machine of the Confederacy. After watching the epic documentary on Grant, it seems like they shortchanged the Southern side.

This production was made in 2011 and provides a solid anamorphic 16:9 image. Some of the location shots look beautiful. The 5.1 is balanced well. There are no extras, which is always a shame on documentaries like this.

If you already own the documentary on Grant, there are no upgrades to recommend this newer version. But if you're looking for a passable documentary on Lee, this will work out fine. You get two documentaries for a good price, so I think it's a excellent buy for those interested in the subject or teachers looking for visual material on the war.

The Verdict

Not Guilty.

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• Documentary
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• War

Scales of Justice, Ulysses S. Grant

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, Ulysses S. Grant

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 220 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Ulysses S. Grant

• Interviews

Scales of Justice, Robert E. Lee

Judgment: 78

Perp Profile, Robert E. Lee

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Robert E. Lee

• None

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