Ken Burns Documentaries

The Civil War: A Documentary by Ken Burns – A Definitive Portrait

It is well that war is so terrible… we should grow too fond of it… – Robert E. Lee watching the battle of Fredericksburg.

An anecdote about Wilmer McClain, who moved his family from Bull Run, where a Union shell landed in the summer kitchen of his house, to Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered to Grant in his living room, leads off a stunning 5-disc visual documentary of the Civil War by noted documentarian Ken Burns.

Just how does one take a subject such as the Civil War, fought during a time before there were moving pictures and when photography was in it’s infancy, and translate that into a documentary almost 11 hours long? Each frame on the DVD version of this magnificent offering was digitally remastered and color corrected. Add to this the beautiful restoration of the photographs of the era, many by renown photographer Matthew Brady.

Burns incorporates the writings of the time read by various people with the observations of notable historians to craft a story of sorts. There are recitations from newspaper reports, editorials, and personal remembrances and letters. Just all of the work in amassing these great resources to document one of the darkest times in this country’s history represents a huge undertaking.

The stories are all interesting. Many of the never-heard stories of common citizens involved in the fight in whatever their role serve to humanize the conflict. Hearing about how Lincoln basically ignored the constitution and the Supreme Court while trying to keep the border states in the Union was fascinating and something I never heard about in any of the American History classes I had. The fact that the town of Winchester, Virginia changed hands seventy-two times of the course of the war is almost inconceivable. I stayed there once in my travels and it’s now very apparent why this is a popular place for Civil War re-enactments. There is also the fact that the south had a good share of deserters – two-fifths of the Confederate Army at one point. By the end of the war every southern state except for South Carolina had sent regiments to fight along with the Union Army. There were apparently plenty in the south who did not agree with secession.

Another interesting fact was an act of terrorism by the Confederacy in New York. Six Confederate agents snuck into New York and used phosphorous to try to burn down various New York City landmarks in retaliation for Sherman marching into Atlanta. All but one of those agents escaped and P.T. Barnum’s museum was one of the targets – hardly a military target. Another thing I never heard in history class was the way the Confederacy slaughtered captured Union soldiers who happened to be African-American.

Burns manages to go into the deeper meaning of various events during the Civil War, such as the battle of the ironclads: Monitor and Merrimack. I had never heard the statement that once they were engaged in battle every other navy in the world was obsolete. What a worry that must have been for the European sea powers!

The photos of the Union soldiers coming out of Andersonville prison are reminiscent of those photos from German concentration camps seventy-five years later. We can read about the war in our history books, but the visual imagery shows the terrible price exacted to keep the Union together. The story of the choice of Lee’s front yard in Arlington as the new cemetery for Union soldiers really has been transformed over the years. What originally was intended as an insult, now I would think of as more of an honor.

The choice of Shelby Foote as one of the writer/historian who comments on most of the events and battles during this time period was a masterful one. His slow drawl accompanies the commentary in a most apt way. The same way using Morgan Freeman as the voice of Frederick Douglas works so well and seems to suit him just perfectly. Different actors read the writings of various historical figures. Burns seems to have a unique knack for fitting the voice with the character in an almost perfect way.

Ken Burns is an artist. Some artists work with paint and media, others with notes and instruments. Burns takes still photos, current pictures and scenes from old battlefields, and the various narration sources and crafts them into a beautiful and entertaining piece of media. His passion about the subject at hand is evident in the interviews with him on the discs. He manages to make photographs come to life by moving the camera or slowly zooming in or out to what is an excellent soundtrack or the narration of David McCoullough.

The music is wonderful. Most of the narration and scenes are accompanied by simple melodies on a piano, bringing a melancholy feel to the piece. Other times the use of a fiddle evokes emotions of overwhelming sadness and the inevitability of the outcome of the conflict.

Disc 1 – 1861: The Cause
Disc 2 – 1862: A Very Bloody Affair, Forever Free
Disc 3 – 1863: Simply Murder, The Universe of Battle
Disc 4 – 1864: The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Most Hallowed Ground
Disc 5 – 1865: War is All Hell, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Special Features

Behind The Scenes: The Civil War Reconstruction – a featurette which talks about the remastering of the entire project. It’s very technical, but interesting to see how the pictures and the film were fixed.
Ken Burns: Making History – not specific to The Civil War, it’s a featurette about how Ken Burns makes the documentaries he does.
A Conversation With Ken Burns – a interview with Ken Burns about how he creates the documentaries and what inspires him.
Interviews with Ken Burns, Shelby Foote, George Will, Stanley Crouch, Jay Ungar & Molly Mason
• Commentary by Ken Burns on various segments including The Ironclads, Shiloh, The Arts of Death, Northern Lights, The Kingdom of Jones, Under the Shade of the Trees, Gettysburg segments, A New Birth of Freedom,
• Battlefield Maps
• Civil War Challenge – Trivia Game

This is an excellent addition to and DVD collection, but especially Civil War buffs or history fans. Burns has managed to give a balanced, non-judgmental look at one of the darkest times in this country’s history.

9 replies »

  1. “never-heard stories of common citizens involved in the fight in whatever their role serve to humanize the conflict. ”

    This makes sense, and is good advice for the aspiring writers among us, thank you, Patti!

    Yes, I had to stop and ponder when I read about the suspension of Habeau Corpus, after college, I believe, not for any class, just as with you. Something that Americans are not eager to remember, I think, though I heard it from someone arguing for The Lost Cause in MD.
    Of course the US Colored Troops (I have several relatives who fought in the USCT) were controversial, even up north, but I was glad that the film Glory made it a major part of the film, the policy of execution for Colored soldiers taken in uniform.
    Thank you for this excellent review, Patti.
    Stay safe,

    • Glory is one of my favorite films. I hate the concept of the “white savior” but alas, that is what history was at the time. If white people didn’t fight for their rights they wouldn’t have them. Too bad at times it seems we’ve learned nothing.

      • True, but I think that as we work to present more points of view, and to look at issues with empathy, we do and will learn. It just takes time (assuming we don’t blow ourselves up or otherwise kill ourselves off in the meantime).

  2. This was the first documentary by Ken Burns that I ever saw, and it made me a fan.

    True, I don’t have all of the documentaries that he has made and are available on home media, but I have most of his bigger ones (except “Country Music”). And “The Civil War” is my favorite, although I am also fond of “Baseball.”

  3. The funny thing about “Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns” is that it’s one of the most enjoyable films he’s made, and I’m not even a sports fan,

    The interesting thing about The Civil War (the documentary) is just how interconnected many of Burns’ documentaries (especially his pre-1990s works) all are connected to its topic in some way. Especially “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Statue of Liberty,” “The Shakers,” and “Thomas Jefferson.” “Baseball’ at times seems like a sequel to “The Civil War,” especially in “Inning One.”

      • It’s a crime how history is taught in the United States. I am sure it’s not a uniquely American trait; I bet that most countries have the same problem as well.

        I’m glad that my mom, grandparents, and most of my teachers encouraged me to read about history on my own. I love well-written and entertaining books – mostly about military history or aviation/space, but I’ve gone out of my comfort zone a few times and been pleasantly surprised – that go beyond the “famous persons/important dates” stuff that we got in K-12 schools back in the day.

        And, as you say, Burns is one of the few documentarians who can convey that history isn’t just a list of names or red-letter dates to memorize, but a series of events that are inextricably connected to each other.