Ken Burns’s ‘The Civil War’ Returns in HD for Its 25th Anniversary

It has been almost 25 years since “The Civil War,” the gifted filmmaker Ken Burns’s visual poem and epic television documentary on our nation’s most costly and transformative struggle aired on public television, drawing some 40 million viewers and catapulting the boyish-looking Burns into the top ranks of documentarians.

In front of the 25th anniversary, local PBS station WETA, which was Burns’s original partner in this large and echoing project, is airing all nine episodes of “The Civil War” today through Friday, Sept. 11 in a newly restored, high-definition version.

Much has changed in the course of 25 years—history and time march on after all, and people move on, too. But at the time, “The Civil War,” with its signature and distinctive style, sound and look, was a definitive work about its subject. Burns went through thousands of photographs from the period, most of them by Matthew Brady and his shop, as well as newspapers, letters, memoirs, paintings. He used the voices—many of them easily recognizable—of leading actors and personalities to give voice to Lincoln, Lee, the generals and the firebrands, the abolitionists and sons and daughters of the South, the slaves in their sorrow and strength. Their voices were the garnish to the narrative, giving it the staying power it retains.

This is the year of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, after all, and everything in this stirring account resonates loudly, sweetly, and sadly to this day. This is also the year that a horrible mass shooting at an historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, where the national tragedy opened with the thunder of cannons in 1861, resulted in the amazingly and shockingly swift uprising against the Confederate battle flag across the South.

That the fate of the Confederate flag could still be an issue in the year 2015 will appear less remarkable after watching “The Civil War.” Early in the opening episodes, there are shots of regimental and division reunions of Yankee and Confederate units, decade after decade, with the old soldiers getting older, and older still, and a shot of President Franklin Roosevelt speaking to the veterans of both sides in the 1930s. The casualties on both sides—horrific in number—were always listed in the end as American casualties.

With few “movie” shots, but rather a moving camera caressing old photographs or contemporary landscape shots in color of cornfields and fences that were the common battleground landmarks of the time, Burns brings the period alive. The war—when it came—came with explosive energy in the South and the North, too, before the daily suffering set in. In the opening two episodes, the picture is that of two sides spoiling for a fight, even while hoping it wouldn’t come to that. Neither side had the slightest idea of what would happen, what devastating destruction would ensue.

What made Burns a kind of artist in the effort was the ingredients of his narrative—those voices, that music, faintly familiar as a lullaby, the stories, the personalities of the key actors, as well as those young men who fought in familiar fields, and those they left behind, and the slaves and slavery itself.

Everything changed in the Civil War, and with “The Civil War,” too. Burns and his team of composers, writers, voices, designers had created something enduring, a kind of thing that was akin to the best of Shakespeare—an author that Lincoln read voraciously. Burns would go on to make his fame and fortune in distinctive documentaries of the American experience—broad homages to subjects as different as “Baseball,” “Jazz,” and “The War,” or more intimate biographies of Mark Twain and the recent “The Roosevelts”

David McCullough, perhaps America’s premier and critically and popular historian (“Truman” and “John Adams,” and most recently “The Wright Brothers”) narrated “The Civil War,” giving the narrative an almost presidential and sage-like authority. Sam Waterston, who would become a tough New York City District Attorney in the long-running “Law and Order” series, was the voice of Lincoln, while Morgan Freeman—who else could do it?—resounded the voice of Frederick Douglass. The great Southern playwright Shelby Foote gave his voice to Jefferson Davis, while the late and great stage actress Julie Harris gave a tough musicality to the sharp observant notes of the Southern diarist Mary Chestnut. Garrison Keller emerged with the youthful Walt Whitman’s voice and Jody Powell (he was President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary) was Stonewall Jackson.

The most steady voice and observer belongs to the author and historian, the late Shelby Foote, who wrote a novel about the battle of Shiloh and a three-book epic history of the war, books that are at once searing with detail and energy, but clear-eyed with knowledge that is hard to refute.

You hear remarkable things in even the first set of episodes which end with the first Bull Run and the realization that this would be a long war, with no end in sight. It’s remarkable how many people—common soldiers in an uncommon war, slaves, firebrands and politicians, president(s) and intellectuals, wives and shopkeepers and newspaper reporters—expressed their feelings with such vehement eloquence, such a sense of the tragedy which engulfed them.

It almost strikes one dumb to hear the Major Sullivan Ballou read (in the voice of Paul Roebling) a letter to his wife, about his love for her and his country. He wrote: “Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield…..never forget, my dear Sarah, how much I love you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.” Major Ballou was killed at Bull Run.


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