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"The Civil War" review: Ken Burns' epic masterpiece is haunting yet brilliant

The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns

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The Civil War

Burns, who directed and produced "The Civil War," also made "Baseball" and "The War."
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Directed by Ken Burns

Written by Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, and Ric Burns

Featuring: David McCullough, Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, Julie Harris, Jason Robards

The Civil War was the greatest event in American history – where paradoxically, in order to become one, we had to tear ourselves in two. – Ken Burns

In the fall of 1990, just as a U.S.-led international coalition was sending military forces to Saudi Arabia after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” premiered on America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Burns’ nine-part series aired on five consecutive nights from September 23 to 27 and, surprisingly, became one of the network’s most popular programs.

Burns, a documentary producer-director whose previous works included the Oscar-nominated “Brooklyn Bridge” (1984) and “The Statue of Liberty” (1986), decided to cover the Civil War in its entirety after reading Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, a historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg.

At first glance, Burns’ proposal seemed quixotic. The American Civil War lasted four years, claimed over 600,000 lives, and, as the series often reminds viewers, was fought in 10,000 places. The topic was too big, too complicated, too monumental for even a multi-part television documentary.

But Burns, his brother Ric, and co-writer Geoffrey C. Ward were undeterred. With a production crew that included cinematographer Buddy Squires, editors Paul Barnes, Bruce Shaw, and Tricia Reidy, and musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, they spent five years making “The Civil War.”

As Burns writes on PBS’ “The Civil War” website:

[T]he long and painstaking process had permitted me to refine a filmmaking style that we had been evolving for more than 10 years: the careful use of archival photographs, live modern cinematography, music, narration, and a chorus of first-person voices that together did more than merely recount a historical story. It was something that also became a kind of "emotional archaeology," trying to unearth the very heart of the American experience; listening to the ghosts and echoes of an almost inexpressibly wise past.

The Series

Burns' distinctive style blended 16,000 archival photographs and paintings, contemporary newspaper clippings, and personal stories from participants and eyewitnesses. To make still pictures come to life, Burns used camera pans and slow zooms and enhancing the visuals with music, sound effects, and voice-over narration. This technique became known as “the Ken Burns effect.” It is present in many of Burns’ other Florentine Films documentaries, including “Baseball,” “The War,” and “Prohibition.”

The Ken Burns Effect is enhanced by the choice of historians, writers, and political commentators who offer their insights about the Civil War. The most outstanding interview subject is the late Shelby Foote, who was a relatively unknown poet and sometime historian until the premiere of “The Civil War.” His Mississippi drawl, his lively eyes, and his sometimes poignant observations are definitely noteworthy.

What First-Time Viewers Can Expect

Along with Foote, viewers will hear from historian Barbara Fields, ex-Congressman James Symington, writer Ed Bearss, and other Civil War historians and ‘buffs.”

Mainly, however, they’ll be treated to readings from letters and diaries written by such diverse individuals as Mary Chesnut, the wife of an ex-Senator from Georgia, Gen. George B. McClellan, the ineffective Union general who would later run as a Presidential candidate in 1864, and George Templeton Strong, a shrewd New York observer who didn’t exactly like Lincoln but didn’t like the secessionists much, either.

“The Civil War” is narrated by historian David McCullough and features the voices of many Hollywood and Broadway actors, including:

Sam Waterston (Abraham Lincoln)

Julie Harris (Mary Chesnut)

Jason Robards (Ulysses S. Grant)

Morgan Freeman (Frederick Douglass)

Paul Roebling (Joshua L. Chamberlain, etc.)

Garrison Keillor (Walt Whitman, etc.)

George Black (Robert E. Lee)

Arthur Miller (William T. Sherman)

Chris Murney (Pvt. Elisha Hunt Rhodes)

Charley McDowell (Pvt. Sam Watkins)

Horton Foote (Jefferson Davis)

George Plimpton (George Templeton Strong)

Philip Bosco (Horace Greeley, etc )

Terry Courier (George McClellan)

Jody Powell (Stonewall Jackson, etc)

Studs Terkel (Benjamin F. Butler)

“The Civil War” is divided into nine episodes. The nine parts follow the story of the Civil War in chronological order, starting with a history of slavery in America and the social divide between North and South, and ending with Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and its aftermath in April of 1865.

The series' nine episodes are:

  • · Episode One: The Cause (1861)
  • · Episode Two: A Very Bloody Affair (1862)
  • · Episode Three: Forever Free (1862)
  • · Episode Four: Simply Murder (1863)
  • · Episode Five: The Universe of Battle (1863)
  • · Episode Six: The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1864)
  • · Episode Seven: Most Hallowed Ground (1864)
  • · Episode Eight: War is All Hell (1865)
  • · Episode Nine: The Better Angels of Our Nature (1865)

Each episode is divided into a series of short vignettes that, when seen as a whole, examine a specific theme or historical topic.

Narrator: The trickle of runaways coming into Northern lines now swelled to a flood. One ex-slave who had recently bought his freedom told a Union soldier "if I had known you gun men was a-coming, I'd have saved my money."

My Take:

Though I am not a diehard Civil War enthusiast, I was interested enough to watch Burns’ series when it originally aired nearly 25 years ago. At the time, I was unacquainted with the documentarian’s works and narrative style, so I was afraid it would be a dry recitation of grand strategy, politics, and accounts of the war’s famous (and infamous) figures.

Happily for millions of television viewers who otherwise avoid history books and documentaries, “The Civil War” turned out to be a riveting narrative about the cataclysm that Shelby Foote called “the crossroads of our being.”

“The Civil War” has been called a masterpiece of filmmaking and a showcase of historical narrative for television. In 1990, Newsweek magazine said that Burns’ epic series “[t]akes the nation’s most cataclysmic act of self-definition and brings it hauntingly and wondrously alive.”

The DVD

PBS Home Video has issued “The Civil War” on the DVD format three times since Florentine Films digitally remastered the series in 2002. Although there are some variations in packaging, mix of extra features, and subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired, all three editions are essentially similar. The specifications below are those for the 2011 150th Anniversary Commemorative Edition.

  • Format: Multiple Formats, AC-3, Box set, Color, Dolby, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 6
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS (DIRECT)
  • DVD Release Date: March 29, 2011
  • Run Time: 660 minutes

Special Features

From the Archive: Shelby Foote Interviews
Interview with Ken Burns
Additional Interviews: George Will, Stanley Crouch, Shelby Foote and Jay Ungar & Molly Mason
Commentary by Ken Burns
Biography Cards
Battlefield Maps
Civil War Challenge