Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, is the most popular thing they’ve ever shown on PBS. More popular than a Peter, Paul, and Mary reunion concert? Yes, even more popular than that. They have released the nine-part series on DVD to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War itself. That makes no sense, but no matter, it gives you the opportunity to smarten up your brain without being put to sleep. This is good stuff.
A good Civil War documentary is tough to pull off for two reasons. First, pretty much everyone knows the North wins, so there isn’t a lot of tension about how things are going to turn out. Second, the invention of the HD handheld camera was still three or four years away, so all we have are faded pictures to look at. How boring is that? Pretty boring, let me tell you. In 1990, Ken Burns, a young filmmaker with a really, really bad haircut, licked both those problems. The result was compelling, interesting, enlightening documentary covering nearly all the key issues, people, events, and places of one of the defining events in American history.
Burns ignores the usual “talking heads” supplemented with the odd photo technique well known to other documentary filmmakers taking on older subjects. He also, thank God, decides against reenactments, which always look like crappy and fake and like a big pile of fake crap. They don’t look good is what I’m saying. Instead, he shoots pictures taken on the scene of battles, or of famous and not-so-famous participants, and combines them with realistic sound effects, narration, and music to turn them into something more interesting and watchable than just a picture with a voiceover by a historian.
There is general narration by the comforting voice of David McCullough; he just sounds like he’s telling you the truth, doesn’t he? The real treat, though, is the occasional interview with historian Shelby Foote. He screams credibility for some reason, and presents not just basic facts but interesting and colorful anecdotes. You come to trust him as someone watching along with you (even though he was interviewed well before the whole film was finished) and just commenting as things strike his fancy. A real knowledgeable friend who thankfully isn't annoying for all his knowledge.
The only real slip-up by Burns is the use of fairly recognizable voices to read letters and journals by Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Davis, common soldiers, and citizens who were writing before, during, and after the war. The contemporaneous writing being read is a nice addition to the overall impact of the film, but using a recognizable voice means you are constantly saying things like, “Isn’t that Jason Robards?” or “There’s Morgan Freeman!” Some of the lesser-known people are voiced by unknowns, but it’s kind of off-putting at times to hear an overly familiar voice.
That’s a quibble, though. Burns made the scope of this series huge, and despite his somewhat slanted take on the reasons for the war (he’s all slavery, all the time) he gives you a fairly evenhanded and definitive account. There really isn’t any reason to watch another documentary about the conflict. Filming the pictures in a more active way keeps the visual interest while you watch 11 hours of history where the only “action” is a Memphis historian looking away from the camera with an impish grin.
The Civil War is a great documentary, and one of those times when the old liberal out-of-touch farts at PBS got it right. As they get stripped of their funding, send a few bucks their way by picking up this set.
This set of six DVDs is a nice way to have the such a comprehensive look at the Civil War, but I can’t help but wonder if the producers had ever before seen a DVD set, and what is usually provided with them. I mean, it’s obvious that for something that was produced between 1985-1990 for public television, there aren’t going to be tons of behind-the-scenes clips. But even taking that into account, they haven't done a very good job putting together extras.
A commentary track by Ken Burns is advertised for each of the nine episodes. I can only say that it’s the most oddly structured commentary track ever. Instead of Burns doing commentary throughout the episode, he only has a few five-minute blocks of commentary in each episode. They can’t be reached by just starting the episode and having the commentary start whenever he starts talking; you have to choose the commentary blocks individually, and then it goes right to that section. When the section is over, a narrator voice says, “The commentary section is over, push menu to go back to the commentary menu” or something. It’s crazy. Very unwieldy. Also, Burns' commentary often talks about the generals or battles rather than the filmmaking process or techniques. So, it just sounds like another narrator rather than some insight from the creator.
Each disc also includes “biography cards” of the various players, battlefield maps of the major battles with the ability to jump to the part of the film where that battle is discussed, and something called the “Civil War Challenge.” This is trivia questions that were too difficult for me but which would likely be a piece of cake for any real student of the War.
There is a bonus disc that includes just what you’d expect from a PBS film: interviews! A 25-minute interview with Burns shows that his hair did not get any better between the time the film was made and 2002 (when I think the interview was shot). He does give a nice overview of the project and some of the techniques, but it’s still mostly just 25 minutes of a talking head. There are four other interviews like that (all shot, I think, at the same time) with Shelby Foote, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, George Will, and Stanley Crouch. Foote reminisces about the project and his experiences, as do Ungar and Mason, who did much of the background music. Will and Crouch talk about the importance of the series and their reaction to it. It’s a nice little supplement, but again, mostly lots of talking heads. Foote is the main attraction here.
The final extra is raw footage of the interviews Burns did with Foote that were used in the film. A nice treat, in addition to hearing more from Foote, is that you get to hear Burns' questions in addition to the answers. It shows a bit more of Burns’ slant and how he really, at times, tried to direct Foote to say certain things that served Burns’ own agenda (only a slight agenda, but still). Foote resists it mightily, and at times says things like, “I don’t think that’s true. Here’s what I think.” It’s a good piece.
It seems both the picture and sound were upgraded and remastered in 2002, and that’s what is presented here. Everything looks good (although the location of Foote’s interviews always seemed a bit dark to me), and while I have to wonder why they didn’t make more of an effort to make the extras interesting, it’s well done overall. The commentary is annoying, but a couple of the interviews are enjoyable, and if they’d put in some more technical info about producing the series, it would have been very solid. Still worth adding to the collection, though, and it immediately becomes your go-to Civil War reference.