Our review of The Civil War: 150th Anniversary Commemorative Edition, published April 9th, 2011, is also available.
It divided a country. It created a nation.
Today's Date is Nov. 11, 2002. It is Veteran's Day.
Terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center 425 days ago…
The Vietnam War ended 29 years, 288 days ago…
The Korean War ended 49 years, 107 days ago…
World War Two ended 57 years, 70 days ago…
World War One ended 83 years, 106 days ago…
The Civil War ended 137 years, 217 days ago…
We are a nation of historical revisionists. Failing to look beyond or before whatever currently is within our sites, be it political or social or scandal, we remove the significant moments in our past from the collective unconscious in an attempt to rework acts and actions into acceptable, digestible fragments. Too much, and our need to escape and retreat manifests itself in labored moans. We have never complained of too little. It wasn't so long ago that blacks could not vote or even drink from the same water fountain as a white person. For a nation that prides itself on untold levels of enlightenment and tolerance, it must be hard to look back a mere 38 years to a time when Congress had to mandate equality. It is not that we are shortsighted. Frankly, we see too far into the future, planning on the resolution and its resulting stability before the first shoe has dropped. Certainly we will fight. We will win our small victories, but then forget the sacrifices made to achieve them as we bathe our wounds in overly generous civil liberties and a materialistic capitalist balm that only shallowly soothes us. If we could just recall what came before us in a light more honest than homily, we could perhaps begin to see our foolishness for our fears. Ken Burns' The Civil War, the landmark PBS documentary presentation from 1990, is one such brilliant, enlightened torch. It should be mandatory viewing for every citizen of the United States, from the self-centered to the self-sacrificing, for it truly speaks of who we are today.
Facts of the Case
Ken Burns' The Civil War is a documentary unlike any other. Made up of nine episodes, it breaks down the war into years, seminal events and thematic constructs. Specifically, the material found here is divided in the following manner:
Episode 1: The Cause—In which the struggle is outlined: politically, socially and morally. We are introduced to the major figures that will play a part throughout the war: Lincoln, Douglas, Grant, and Lee. We also start the story of two privates in separate armies: Elijah Hunt Rhodes of the North and Sam Watkins of the South. They will provide a personal prospective to the grand events about to occur.
Episode 2: A Very Bloody Affair 1861—In which the first battles of the war are fought. On land, Union Generals McClellan, Burnside, and Grant all face the South for the first time. Only Grant, at Shiloh, is successful. At sea, the Ironclads introduce a new form of seafaring weaponry that changes the concept of naval warfare forever.
Episode 3: Forever Free 1862—In which we see Lincoln agonize over the decision to emancipate the slaves. While General McClellan continues his puzzling strategy of fight and wait, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee win decisive battles. At Antietam Creek, the North finally wins a decisive victory, allowing Lincoln the political and military luxury of issuing the famous Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863.
Episode 4: Simply Murder 1863—In which several of the bloodiest and harshest battles of the war are chronicled. Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Vicksburg. In the South, life has become unbearably desperate, while in the North Lincoln's decision to emancipate is met with confusion and distrust. Soldiers grow weary as the campaigns of Lee and Grant continue on.
Episode 5: Universe of Battle 1863—In which we visit the crucial turning point in the war: Gettysburg. It is the worst loss of life, and the first major military miscalculation by Lee to date. The battles move on to Chattanooga and Chickamauga. Free blacks are allowed to join the army, and a draft causes rebellion in New York City. As the year closes, Lincoln arrives at Gettysburg to make some cursory comments at the dedication of the war cemetery. His "address," less than two minutes long, would change history.
Episode 6: Valley of the Shadow of Death 1864—In which the great stalemate between Grant and Lee occurs at Petersburg. It will continue for months. Meanwhile, Sherman marches to outside of Atlanta. His campaign too is stalled. All the while, Lincoln faces an uphill battle for reelection. And his opponent? General McClellan, the officer whose inaction almost single-handedly prolonged the war for the North.
Episode 7: Most Hallowed Ground 1864—In which we see the tide begin to turn for the North. Sherman finally takes Atlanta, and having decimated everything in his path, burns it to the ground. He begins his famous march to the sea. Grant too finds a way to end the impasse with Lee's army. These last-minute victories help Lincoln rally the North and win reelection.
Episode 8: War is All Hell 1865—In which Sherman's March to the Sea is successful. He lays a wide path of death and destruction, which cripples the Southern forces. Grant pushes his advances and soon the last of the Confederate strongholds fall. With nowhere else to turn, Lee and his men are given no other option than surrender. On a cool, quiet morning, Robert E. Lee arrives at Appomattox Courthouse. Grant accepts the South's surrender.
Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature—In which we see the bitter result of four long years of fighting. John Wilkes Booth, a disgruntled southern actor, assassinates Lincoln in cold blood during a night at the theater in Washington. Confederate President Jefferson Davis is captured and jailed. Lee and Grant pursue careers outside the military. And a fragile union is reborn from the blood and death of so many of its same citizens.
There is a huge scar across America. Its twisted and grotesque trail can be followed from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Rocky Mountains. It carves into the Shenandoah Mountains, and works its way down deep through Tennessee and Georgia. Through Pennsylvania farms and Mississippi ports it tenuously bonds people and places together, forming a forgotten no man's land, a place were sacrifice and pain met chivalry and unmatched bravery in the battle for a cause, for an ideology, and a nation. It's healed over after more than a century, but the wound still seems fresh, still feels vital. Buried within its gnarled history is the struggle for states' rights, the equality and equity of human worth, and the prospect of unity. To this day, the country still feels the lesion tugging at its very core, shooting molten rivers of agony, not only down through its layers, but back in time as well. Back to when a group of men risked life and liberty for a chance at self-determination and democracy. The United States of America still limps from this disfigurement, this torn and re-grown fissure that the blood and bodies of men filled in, and time and tolerance have scabbed over. This Civil War defined this country. The Civil War defined this people.
Of all the stories that cry out for a just and honorable cinematic retelling, the Civil War has to be right at the top of the list. Sure, the Revolutionary War, with its king vs. country conflict, asks for a treatment more majestic than The Patriot, more uplifting than the staid Revolution. The growth of sports, like baseball or football, into an integral part of the American and human psyche cry demand movies more sweeping than Eight Men Out, less loud and ludicrous than any number of athletic hero biographies or cursory, "feel good" journeys into competitive daydreams. But the Civil War is the moment, the precise point in the history of this young republic, when freedom was tested to its fullest. When the boundaries of rights and the centralization of federal power were exercised and repelled. And it is also because of its importance, its drama, and its scope that a fictional portrayal has yet to strike the proper chord. Sure, Glory can be seen as a step in the right direction, but it's too narrow in its view, occasionally too sanctimonious in its tone. Television fare like TNT's Gettysburg or Andersonville tell compelling, if again incomplete tales. And casting can be the final flaw, asking contemporary men with little connection to the mindset or mentality of the time and the tenure of the war to imagine and pretend. The Civil War is so pivotal, so crucial to understanding America as a nation, that it begs for some manner grand, in-depth treatment.
In 1990, on Public Broadcasting Stations around the country, a definitive depiction of the war between the North and South was finally unveiled. There was a decent amount of fanfare and expectations were high. The notion of a documentary cooled the spark for some, since many members of a postmodern audience do not buy into the notion that truth is stranger and more compelling than fiction. For others it had all the hallmarks of another night of stoic, staid education: the use of the televisual medium as a glorified college professor. And there were those who felt the length intimidating. Several nights and hours of the same, torpid information pouring out of tired talking teacher types did not suggest deep emotional or entertainment value. But as the mournful, elegiac music began to gently move through the air, and voices, distinct and intense, began to tell their tale, in their own words, something incredible happened. Over nine evenings and eleven hours, a nation was transfixed as its untapped inherent memory was challenged and reshaped by the story told on the screen. The saga of how "One Nation, Under God" decided to test the very limits of each word in that aphorism and the very meaning of its Constitutional integrity became a national phenomenon.
And with good reason. Ken Burns' The Civil War is a work of such historic magnificence, such staggering beauty and monumental importance that why it is not mandatory viewing for every child in every school in the fifty states is baffling. Deceptively simple in its approach, unbelievably detailed in its execution it is nearly a perfect documentary. It is truly a seminal work and a film of emotional, dramatic storytelling. Any praise that can be foisted upon it is too little, any criticism overly trivial. You will never in your experience see a presentation on war and remembrance as stirring, intricate and involving as this. Deconstructing the struggle, the nation, and its people into well-observed flashes and faultlessly capturing crucial points in time, it rivets the viewer from its first moments and enchants them into a satisfied and hypnotic trance. Each episode creates a story arch, a mini-dramatic entity wonderfully self contained and filled with exceptional lessons and motion picture enjoyment. But it's when they are added to each other that Burns creates his ultimate magic. Over the course of eleven intense, sometimes heartbreaking hours, he manages to make it all clear. He achieves understanding, and sympathy, for a great time of torment and tension within our social fabric.
The difficulty in education is never linked to information. It is always tied to entertainment. The chief complaint offered (as if it is always defendable, and not just laughable or pitiful) is that adult or child alike could not stomach a lesson in history or some other area of learning if it is too dull and boring. If something doesn't coerce, does not fire off the imagination or the amusement factors within people, they will tune out as the tutorial drones on. Tediousness does not find a home in The Civil War. This is a documentary (again, another damned form of cinematic sermonizing to most people) that plays like the best drama, intrigues like the most intense action thriller and forges memorable, indelible characters into the viewer's consciousness, like a finely-tuned novel. But not only does it engross, it edifies. Even those people with more than a cursory knowledge of the events that lead up to, during, and after the war will find hidden treasure here within the solid storytelling foundation of The Civil War. More than just some perfunctory restating of the battles and their participants, it places you in the middle of the life and times of both the North and the South. It explains through the use of real people, in their own written words, what it was like to live in a country divided against itself.
Part of the genius in Burns' presentation is the manner in which the story is told. He begins with narration, setting up locations and providing linking exposition. Then he adds several "talking heads," individual scholars and writers whose knowledge of the war and its significant players adding colorful anecdotal splendor. There are no crusty recreations, no attempt at making history "come to life." Instead, history is allowed to speak for and through itself, offering a take and a view of the conflict like no other. The Civil War was sometimes called the first photojournalistic war, since the camera and photographic processes had recently been invented and refined. The Civil War helps us to understand this through the use of hundreds of personal, as well as archival pictures, allowing us an unprecedented peek at all facets of the conflict: everything from Lincoln, post-Gettysburg address to a pile of severed limbs on an army surgeon's table. They are startling in their detail, in their quality and in their imagery. Nothing replaces real events captured in real time. The Civil War understands that, and exploits it to superb ends.
But it also does something else with this focus on records and recollections. By marrying the photos to the words actually formulated by these individuals (and recreated in stunning voiceover performances by Hollywood actors, historical scholars, and present day political figures), they become real people of incredible character and intricate personalities. There are heroes and villains here, but not in the manner you imagine. Sure, some of the Southern warlords seem fanatical (Stonewall Jackson) or downright demented (Jeb Stuart), but there is a graceful gentry in Lee, and misplaced devotion in Confederate President Jefferson Davis. What's more intriguing is the North, with its miscast collection of cowards, buffoons, and bumblers. Would it surprise you to learn of the unbelievable incompetence and egotism of General McClellan, the North's #1 military mind, his actions so wanting they borderline treason? Or how about the slash and burn bravado of W.T. Sherman, successfully beating back the enemy by wiping everything they know and need off the face of the southern earth? For every determined, devoted fighter to the cause on the rebel side, the Yankees had lazy, foolish blowhards helping to undermine their position and possibilities of winning, even with the North's near 4-to-1 troop advantage.
The best example of how this technique is used occurs with the individual stories of two minor soldiers in the war, a private from Rhode Island (Elijah Hunt Rhodes) and another from Tennessee (Sam Watkins). Using memoirs, letters, and numerous time tracing photographs, we watch them develop, along with the war, to see and record snapshots of history that only participants could recount. They link the divergent and differing versions of events, presenting facts and feelings in a calm perspective only occasionally pierced by grief or gratitude. They are a constant throughout The Civil War, and they stand as a testament to the brilliance of what Burns wants to accomplish here. More than anything else, the Civil War is a story of people, or what citizens and slaves, politicians, and professional military men thought and fought about. Sure, slavery is an important issue, but it is not the only one. Yes, emancipation was crucial to refocusing the North's efforts, but it seems at times that no amount of manufacturing or military might would be able to overcome the stultifying stupidity of the Union officers. It is only through the accounts of Rhodes and Watkins that the war is given a face, a true personality of anguish and duty. They walk us through the crucial events of the war, and the impact they would have on the armies, and the nation.
It's these fascinating ideas (the tenuousness of the North's position, Grant's ultimate impact on the War itself, the conflict as seen through the eyes of the grunt—North or South) that permeate and personify The Civil War and make it come alive. While living in a nation that is, for over 130 years, united and one, the story makes that certainty seem unlikely, or even downright lucky. So much of the why and how of battles are detailed we begin to second-guess and question the strategies applied. When small brigades of several hundred beat back the northern military machine of several thousand, a new, different light is cast on the conflict, and this animates the tale. But honestly, this is a story that truly needs no embellishment. As said profoundly and often within the film, this is the turning point for the young nation of states. It was the moment in its history when it went from "the United States are" to "the United States is." And it is also a turning point for any viewer, either seeing it for a first, or twenty-first time. So often we are told that history never repeats, or that the past is just that, something that happened long ago and oh so far away. But Burns makes it very clear that this is a story of now, a tale of what the US stands for, what it fought for, and what it is still hoping to achieve to this day. It is the saga of unification, not just territorially, but consciously as well.
The Civil War is indeed a singular achievement. It inspires the imagination and signals emotion buried deep and bittersweet within each citizen of this great country. Its craft is only matched by its compassion and complexity, refusing to sell such an important and sweeping saga short. In an included interview George Will states that the Civil War is America's Iliad, and in Ken Burns, the epic poem finds its Homer. This makes this monumental movie sound weighty and tired, like a trip to College Classics class. Nothing could be more incorrect. This is a film that will move you in its beauty and its despair, that will teach you as it tests, asking what your sacrifice would be in the face of resentful ideologies and near feudal systems of existence. It will remind you of the path that so many fell down upon so that today we can walk free and fair amongst our fellow citizens. It will feed your soul as it immerses your intellect and sweetens the sour notes of cynicism and partisan politics. Burns has made many grand films, both before and after this epic work. But none will stand the test of time, nor should they brave the fleeting eons more fiercely than this document of our bifurcated nation. While not complete by any stretch of imagination or information, it is the best document of that struggle ever committed to film.
We dip our feet into the rivers of war cautiously. Our military acumen is so finely tuned as the 21st Century leaves the lineage port that technical merits seem to outweigh moralistic ones. And for many, the same ideals apply to DVD. No matter how important the subject, or stellar the entertainment value, if the digital medium brings nothing new to the presentation, there is no need to wage a battle to obtain it. However, fans and potential owners of this title need not worry. Ken Burns, along with his production team and PBS, has remastered The Civil War into a sparkling, if somewhat derivative package. Now, this is not to say that the DVD is not something special. It truly is. But there is no effort to go beyond the material here. This is a film told in photos, and yet there is not a single gallery included. This is a tale told with music and sound, and yet we are only treated to an eight-minute interview with the musicians who worked hours and days on this delicate aural balance between the mournful and the historic. Shelby Foote is the featured speaker in the series, adding witty and warm insights that truly make the story come alive, and yet no mention of his works, both as a writer of fiction or definitive Civil War narratives is made.
Still, these are petty complaints, ones derived from just how special a motion picture experience this is. The Civil War is presented in a newly remastered full screen transfer that has a couple of slight issues, but still looks head and shoulders above the previous incarnations (or fuzzy, distorted VCR recordings). Those of your screaming for an OAR transfer can quiet the complaints. The Civil War was made for television and full screen in the original ratio. As for that image, the problems are as follows. During the night scenes, especially when the focus in on a full or partial moon, there is definite pixelization in the blacks of the night sky. You can see the telltale boxes just beyond the border of the luminescent halo. It does not happen all the time, or last for very long, but it is as if the ebony sky causes the image to readjust, and redefine itself. This is not nearly as intrusive as a strange, ghosting effect that occurs in the middle of the screen. Tested on two machines, the DVD seems to give off a backlit glow that pulsates with a projected rhythm. Occasionally, as scenes fade to black, or fade up to photos, you can see the ethereal strobe. A featurette on the film describes the scanning technology used to transfer the film to digital information. This is either the result of that process, or some issue in the manufacturing of the disc. It is not overwhelming, just puzzling.
But there is nothing puzzling about the sound. Originally offered in simple stereo, Burns and his team created a dense layer of sound effects, music, and narration meant to create an immersive, pre Surround ideal. Thanks to advances twelve years later, The Civil War is presented in complete and unbelievably realistic Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo Surround. This is one of the best surround tracks ever, as it means to create a feeling of being on the battlefield or in the crowd, and it succeeds marvelously. As the voices flow from the front center, birds fly overhead, guns fire from the left and right and the mighty roar and rumble of artillery shake the subwoofer. What Burns hoped to achieve in 1990 is fully realized here. And it adds so much to the experience. During Lincoln's assassination, we get to hear the play, the audience, the surrounding city…and the footfalls of evil vengeance as they shuffle behind the President in his box. You will be lost in the volley of weaponry at Gettysburg, feel the surge of the sea during the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, and understand and appreciate the art of sound design as a critical feature to your enjoyment of this fabulous life lesson.
What extras there are here, though, are captivating. First, there are over 57 accessible biography sketches on the five-disc set, presenting all the major characters and participants of the war with clarity and occasional humor. We are also treated to over twenty interactive maps of the battles presented. They allow you to monitor troop movements, and whenever you want, you can click on the camera icon to see the sequence in the documentary, which covers the material you are looking at. We are also treated to a series of Civil War "trivia" questions, which act as examinations for what little you know previously, and how much you learn after watching this film. There are some additional interviews presented, with only Shelby Foote being representative from the voices in the film. His comments are very telling, and very Southern. He does not particularly agree with the "slavery as sole reason" slant the film takes toward the middle and end of its story, feeling that there were more issues involved. Writer George Will (as stated before) and Stanley Crouch offering their own take on the production, Crouch being far more passionate than Will. Of course, we speak to Burns, whose discussions on the making, marketing and impact of the film will be scattered throughout. And there is that perfunctory talk with the musicians.
As for featurettes, there are three, and only one is all that special. Behind the Scenes: The Civil War Reconstruction tells a rather tech oriented tale of the polishing and presenting of this new digital version. Everything from the scanning technology to scratch removal is discussed. Next there is a telling ten-minute interview with Burns that touches on his life, his inspiration, and the aspirations for The Civil War and his other works. He comes across as passionate and prepared. There is hardly a misstep or a missed opportunity in his answers. You will hear several of the same phrases over and over again, but it must be difficult, so many years removed, to come up with new things to say when you are being asked the same questions repeatedly. Finally, there is a short feature on how films like The Civil War, or others of Burns' works, are made. It shows his distinctive style and attention to detail, but it is not some great "follow me as I make history" narrative. As a matter of fact, there is a rote quality to it, so matter of fact as to be flaccid. Odd that for a man who strives to dismiss the tired and the trite from his movies would allow a presentation of his methods to be so stale.
Lastly, there is a commentary by Burns. The good thing is that it is presented only in segments, meaning that he does not talk over the entire eleven hours of film, but instead picks and chooses what he wished to comments on. This material is also easily accessible from special commentary menus. Even better, when Burns is done, a voice comes on a few moments later to indicate the commentary for said section is over, and that you can now access the rest of the tracks or revert back to the normal soundtrack. But there is some bad news here. After a flying start, Burns forgets the "narrative" aspects of commentary, and presumes "comments" are just good enough. So he will tell you something like "and now the battle for Antietam" and then the battle commences. Long, long pauses in the track. Then, just when it seems the disembodied voice will tell us to go back to the commentary menu, Burns will chime it "and here are the dead and wounded," followed by more long pauses. Occasionally, he does widen the scope and the breadth of his vision, and that personal dedication and fervor show through. But there is nothing truly remarkable about his commentary. Fortunately, his film more than makes up for that.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is only one negative aspect to Ken Burns' The Civil War. It is too short. Occasionally, as it weaves its enchantment, you can feel where side issues and concurrent stories are being shortchanged for the sake of the bigger picture. In a presentation that is so detailed, so engrossing, and so educational, to not step back and insert even more material seems like a fatal flaw. True, those who came to love the show when it originally aired would cry foul, and rightfully so. Each episode is a tight narrative in and of itself. The wanton adding of material would destroy their delicate rhythm. So why not expand the five-disc presentation. Let Burns and his crew create another supplemental disc outlining the hospital system, the northern anti-war movement, or the economic desperation of the South during these four torturous years. Burns admits that this is not a completist work, and that many great tales and telling battles had to be forgotten because of lack of money, lack of research, lack of time, or all three. And that's a shame. The way his film brings the subject to life, more would only be better.
Also, why does this set have to retail for nearly $100? Your average filmgoer, the person who most needs to see wonderful works of historical fact like this will find the price tag preemptive in the purchase process. And again, this is a shame. This story belongs to us, as Americans. It does not belong to some corporate or manufacturing plant. Other titles of substantially less significance, with the same number of discs or even more, go for much fewer dollars. It's a crime that it costs so much. But it will indeed be money well spent if so indulged.
Scholar Barbara Fields says something toward the end of the final episode in The Civil War that resonates louder than any battle cry or with more impact that any mortar shell. She notes that with the surrender by Lee, and the death of Lincoln, the bloody struggle for secession and states rights had ended. Slaves were free, but far from equal, and the South bore a bitter resentment that manifested itself in the Ku Klux Klan and years of segregation and prejudice. She hints that, when Lee surrendered to Grant, the war proper was over, the military fighting and the strategizing. But for the rest of America, the war was just beginning, and it continues to this very day. America in 2002 is still fighting a crusade of separatism, between the haves and the have nots, the minority and the majority. And it is the great lesson of Ken Burns' remarkable The Civil War that, something with so much historical and emotional power can still have a resounding chord to strike today. Burns loves to quote William Faulkner who said "History is not 'was.' History 'is.'" Indeed, this film and its far-reaching message tells us that the greatest battle, that for true equality has yet to be won. And as much as we try to rewrite it or just forget it, it will not let us. The Civil War is indeed who we still are.
The Civil War is a brilliant, disturbing and seminal work of documentary and drama. Any charges against it are erroneous and slanderous. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Ken Burns on Selected Episodes
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