Ken Burns’ The Civil War

by Glenn Erickson Nov 30, 2015

Ken Burns and Co. made a big splash with this historical docu miniseries that in 1990 gripped the imagination of the whole country. Eleven hours of history are a breeze when presented in what was then a new form: authentic photos and paintings accompanied by actorly recitals of letters and documents from the era. It all comes to life. The people enduring the War Between the States seem just like us, as if it all happened yesterday.

The Civil War
PBS Video
1990 / Color + B&W / 1:33 flat / 11 hours, 20 min. / 25th Anniversary Edition / Street Date October 13, 2015 / 99.99
Starring Shelby Foote, Ed Bearss, Barbara Fields, James Symington, Stephen B. Oates, William Safire, Daisy Turner and the voices of Sam Waterston, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman, Paul Roebling, Garrison Keillor, David McCullough (narrator), Arthur Miller, Charles McDowell, Horton Foote, George Plimpton, Philip Bosco, Jody Powell, Studs Terkel, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Jerome Dempsey, Laurence Fishburne, Pamela Reed, Ronnie Gilbert, M. Emmet Walsh, Hoyt Axton, Walt MacPherson, Colleen Dewhurst, LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Cinematography Ken Burns
SMALL>Film Editors Paul Barnes, Tricia Reidy, Bruce Shaw
Original Music Jay Ungar
Written by Ken Burns, Ric Burns, Geoffrey C. Ward
Produced and Directed by Ken Burns

Back in 1957, UCLA Film School professor Louis Clyde Stoumen won a Best Documentary Oscar with his short subject The True Story of the Civil War. It wasn’t a work of complete brilliance but it did something new in illustrating a verbal essay about the war, with details of paintings, drawings and photos from the period. Stoumen layered in battle sound effects over cleverly edited details of battle paintings. At the time it was like a history lesson come to life, and it changed what a film documentary about a ‘dry, ancient school subject’ could be. It made Stoumen’s reputation.

We’ll start with the boring part — The Civil War redeemed the documentary format for a country steeped in ten years of formulaic cable offerings. The need to fill hours of cable schedules resulted in shapeless, budget-challenged shows with scripts cobbled from sources without credit, or written by sometimes- dubious experts. The history oriented shows were often good, but rehashes of WW2, repeating the same themes and footage, practically killed off the format.

“As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘All men are created equal, except Negroes.’ Soon, it will read ‘All men are created equal, except Negroes, and Foreigners and Catholics.'” — Abraham Lincoln

Ken Burns had already made some acclaimed shows for PBS that presented historical subjects in a different style — I remember seeing one on the Statue of Liberty that definitely seemed more intense than usual. The Civil War employs a style of presentation that no commercial TV station would have green-lit. Everything takes its sweet time, with soft violin music often playing on its own during transitions, or during holds to think about what’s just been said. Events are dramatized, but not with filmed re-stagings of events, that early ‘reality TV’ concept that has since deprived a generation of viewers of the ability to judge what’s real and what’s not. Visually, all we see are vintage photos and painted representations of events, augmented with maps, and beautiful film footage of famous places and battlefields as they are now. Burns instead augments his narration with a small army of actors, that read the words from vintage documents and personal letters: Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman, Julie Harris, Garrison Keillor, Arthur Miller, Horton Foote, and George Plimpton are just a sampling of the talent involved. Sam Waterston is the voice of Abraham Lincoln. The generals and politicians of the 1860s fill their correspondence and newspaper quotes with sarcasm, witty remarks and precise descriptions far more articulate and sophisticated than what’s heard today. The political swipes against President Lincoln are devastatingly insulting. They come from his own cabinet members, from his own generals.

Making the biggest impact are the serialized journals of ordinary citizens and soldiers, as heard in the dramatized readings of their letters. This is what made The Civil War really connect with viewers in 1990. When we learned about the War in grade school, it all seemed remote. The people caught up in their country’s strife sound exactly like us, if we were stuck at home with only occasional letters and the public notices downtown to keep us apprised of what’s happening. The whole continent was shaken up, with hundreds of thousands of men off fighting and many dying. A narrator explains that this war was especially horrible because military tactics lagged far behind the technology of the day. With improved rifles, direct clashes between armies in open-field, standup battles led to a monstrous slaughter. Neither side had established special provisions to evacuate and care for wounded. Minie balls shattered bones, requiring mass amputations. Almost any hit to the body could be certain, slow death.

“If we had ten percent casualties in a battle today it would be looked on as a blood bath. They had thirty percent, in several battles, and one after another.”


Although the loss of life was appalling, the war now has a feeling of civility, mainly because civilians weren’t directly targeted. Cities were evacuated in advance of shellings and burnings but unlike today, outright killing and slaughter of non-combatants was not official policy. Sherman’s Marches pushed the edge of that envelope, and individual raids had the character of the Bloody Kansas massacres that happened out on the western fringe. But there was a difference. Cities weren’t indiscriminately bombed and war was not generally waged against women and children.

What Burns’ The Civil War has that other docus do not is Time, enough running time to tell an enormous story at a reasonable pace. The first episode “The Cause” presents the reasons for the War Between the States but immediately hooks us with the personalities involved. Frederick Douglas seems an electrifying activist from the get-go, while the New England abolitionists come off as thoroughly dedicated to their cause. The politicians slamming Lincoln find creative ways of calling him stupid, although they at least remain reasonably rational in their remarks. The generals talk like tough guys, and then make sensitive, poetic speeches. Lincoln’s unsupportable do-nothing general McClellan is insolent and contemptuous of Lincoln. He refuses to engage in battle despite having every advantage over the resourceful, opportunistic Confederates.

Every issue and side story gets its due, from shortages on the front, to the new wave of battlefield photographers, to Lincoln’s tragic family situation in the White House. Many sidebars are amusing, and most fascinate when accompanied by the show’s seemingly limitless supply of relevant photographs. We find out how men were conscripted on both sides and what conditions were like for soldiers. Through the letters — always the letters — we share the feelings of those in combat and those waiting at home. People were just as intelligent as we are now, and the outlets for the educated were so limited that a lot of energy went into letter writing. Some of these heartfelt missives read like great literature. More than one episode ends with the reading of a note that might move some to tears.

“Oh Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I’ll always be with you; in the brightest day and the darkest night, always. Always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath. Or the cool air at your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dead. Think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.”

The Civil War takes full advantage of the opportunity to put the race issue into a true perspective. The war was fought over slavery, although the canny politician Lincoln tried to keep it off to one side; he finally used it when it was strategically appropriate. Slave conditions are fully explained early on, while the strange politics of John Brown and other renegades takes on the contours of modern Terrorism for a righteous cause. I guess the idea was inconceivable at the time, but to us it seems foolish that freed slaves were not trained for combat in large numbers. The Northerners were racists as well, of course. And Lincoln most likely had little personal use for blacks as well. Actually, Lincoln played the race cards in his deck well, in political terms. The slaves were freed, which will get him a pass no matter his personal opinions. His big mistakes were elsewhere. The major lesson in The Civil War is to fire anybody in a decision-making post whose name is McClellan. Even that crazy punk George Armstrong Custer had good qualities.

“No day ever dawns for the slave,” a freed black man wrote, “nor is it looked for. For the slave it is all night – all night forever.”

Here’s where we learn about the war’s impressive generals and officers, almost all of which are Confederate. Desperation breeds brilliance in wartime, especially where pride is involved. Hang Scarlett, Rhett and the whole antebellum slave-holding South and be done with it, but the dashing Rebel officers with their brilliant tactics come off as romantic heroes, even the SOBs among them. Helping to put us in the mindset of the times is testimony from a select group of historical experts. The one that The Civil War made into a star is Shelby Foote, a grand Mississippian who oozes integrity from every pore and mixes sage observations with an ironic sense of humor. Through him the ‘talking head’ format is inverted — we pay attention whenever Foote pops on screen, as he always has something special to say.

We learn some fascinating things about the war. The States’ Rights issues that the South held dear kept them from forming a stronger union against the North. And the prospect of England and France becoming involved for either side influenced every war policy.

Whenever I read a book about the Civil War, I hope to find something that will explain the tactics of those epochal battles, where every ridge and creek has a special name written in blood, and last stands and charges are commemorated with special names… sometimes two names, one for the North and one for the South. I’m still overwhelmed by the enormity of Gettysburg. The Civil War makes sense of Antietam and other awful battles. I finally understand how those Southern generals succeeded by striking farther West or North than expected. What galls us is McClellan doing nothing, spending the better part of a year dragging his heels, being replaced and then reinstated. Meanwhile whenever Grant gets into action he does well, but politics in the War Office seems intent on promoting losers. Thank God we had such efficient bureaucrats like General Marshall, ninety years later in WW2.

Some critics made fun of The Civil War’s slow pace and its mournful violin music. But the lack of MTV cutting serves notice that we’re not in 1990 any more, to transport us to the world of 1863. We look at the hundreds of photos and stop thinking of the people as being as stiff as they appear, standing in braces to hold their heads still. They seem just like us, minus the trappings of high technology. Walt Whitman is one of the witnesses quoted but the letters of a Massachusetts farmwoman are as eloquent as the poet’s writings. The Civil War helps us understand the sources of much of today’s American problems. We’re still a belligerent parcel of rogues and knaves, with some better men trying to hold it all together. Twenty years ago Ken Burns’ show was the thinking man’s documentary miniseries seen by a very wide audience. It’s needed now more than it was then. A few minutes of listening to the rancorous — but civil and honest — bickering of the politicians of 1862, and we who must endure our present political cesspool become nostalgic indeed. There’s a marvelous statement to be heard in The Civil War every few minutes.


PBS Direct’s DVD of The Civil War is a rebuilt and re-mastered show, all nine episodes from 1990. It’s available in Blu-ray as well, where some of the improvements will be more apparent. But the visuals look fine in Standard Def, even if the comparison video accompanying the show doesn’t look that much better. On DVD it’s all spread across six discs, so a substantial number of changeovers are required no matter what.

Ken Burns did a lot of the filming himself, presumably the photos on 35mm and the interviews on 16mm. To keep some photos ‘alive’ on screen during long speeches, Burns adopted a slow push-in or pull-out animation camera technique — by 1990 some rostrum cameras were essentially motion controlled, making possible precise creeping moves. Around 2004 an MGM producer kept instructing my producer to make sure that the show we were making, had the “Ken Burns Effect.” What, we thought, was that?  Put some slow violins on the audio track?  We found out that Apple’s iPhoto had programmed an option for their slideshow playback of digital photos. One could make the images just drift randomly, and Apple had given it that name.

The beautiful audio for all that sweet period-styled music is fine on the DVD and can only be better in HD. I remember the music was something of a fad in 1990. Not long ago The Civil War would be something sold only to schools and libraries, but the show is easily as popular as the older docu miniseries Roots, Victory at Sea and The World at War. And now that the nation is into binge viewing, the idea of watching twelve hours in three or four bursts isn’t odd at all.

The new featurettes aren’t that memorable but Shelby Foote’s complete interviews are… the man’s natural charm makes him exceedingly pleasant to listen to. A 16-page souvenir booklet contains some interesting notes and illustrations.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Civil War
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Making The Civil War: 25 Years Later featurette, Restoring The Civil War, complete Shelby Foote Interviews, and additional Interviews.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 29, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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