April 26, 2011


According to author and historian Shelby Foote, any understanding of America has to be based in the Civil War, nearly the entirety of “the American character” was defined by it. For his part, Ken Burns agreed. When he began the nine part series, he had already made six films on American history – topics as diverse as the Statue of Liberty and Huey P. Long, the Shakers, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In all, he felt “the dark cloud” of America’s greatest conflict hanging over them.  Continued after the jump.

When the war ended, Walt Whitman, a nurse in a Union hospital, summed it up. “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the secession war; and it is best they should not.”

“The real war,” he wrote, “will never get in the books.”


In 1990, both Ken Burns and PBS rose to that challenge. If not “the real war” Whitman described, this was as close as we’re likely to get. To those who lived through it, The Civil War was a television event. To those who didn’t, it’s worth a look. The nine episodes makes use of over 16,000 archival photographs, paintings, and newspaper images from the time, single handedly coining the term the “Ken Burns Effect”.

When Shelby Foote, who contributed heavily to the series, wrote his three volume history of the war, he attempted as much objectivity as he could muster. He found deep respect for such disparate individuals as Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Edwin Stanton and Jefferson Davis. All fascinating characters on different sides of the same war.


Of course, like all history, it’s the story of those caught up in it that make it compelling: the lackluster clerk from Galena, a failure at everything except war, who, in three years would be head of the Union Army and, in seven, President of the United States… the courtly and unknowable aristocrat who disapproved of the secession and slavery, yet went on to defend both… the rough man from Illinois who would rise to the be the greatest President in American history…

All nine episodes are included on the DVD set, along with maps and interviews with Ken Burns, Shelby Foote, George Will and others. Every episode features a commentary from Burns himself. At first, it’s hard to see the appeal in such extensive commentaries on an already extensive series but Burns proves as fascinating as the series which bears his name. Indeed, it’s almost hard to imagine his observations are off the cuff, so readily does he roll off dates and quotes.

This remixed and remastered edition features Dolby Digital Surround Sound and a voice cast as diverse as Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterson, Garrison Keeler and even the late Kurt Vonnegut. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” would make an excellent companion piece, given Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln biopic.

All in all, if you haven’t update your VHS copies yet, this one’s worth a buy.

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