A ‘Civil War’ for the Masses : Filmmaker Ken Burns says his five-night, 11-hour PBS epic--five years in the making--is a tale for Everyman


What a perfect setting for filmmaker Ken Burns, this pre-Revolutionary War town tucked in a corner of New Hampshire, a place where 19th-Century author Louisa May Alcott summered, and where there are as many American flags on front porches as maple trees and white church steeples. Burns’ documentaries, after all, come straight from American history.

Here in a wood-frame house, Amy Stechler Burns, who edited three of his early films and wrote two of them, gave birth to their daughters--Sarah, 7, and Lilly, 3. On a chill spring afternoon, guests are greeted by the smell of Amy Burns’ fresh-baked cookies while some of her handmade quilts decorate the walls. And here, too, in a two-story studio that had been a garage until his first film brought success, Ken Burns created his films--all of them for PBS.

In a 10-year period, the 36-year-old independent filmmaker whose hair looks as if it was cut to fit the rim of a flowerpot has amassed a body of work that belies his boyish looks.


“Brooklyn Bridge” (1981)--the first film if you don’t count his senior thesis project--drew an Academy Award nomination. It was followed in relatively short order by “The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God” (1984); “Huey Long” (1985); “The Statue of Liberty” (1985), which received Oscar and Emmy nominations; “Thomas Hart Benton” (1988) and “The Congress” (1989). Altogether they encompass 7 1/2 hours of film.

Now comes “The Civil War”--an epic, 11-hour, 9-episode series that, rare for public television, will air on five consecutive nights, miniseries-style, beginning Sunday, Sept. 23. The series, presented by Washington’s WETA, opens PBS’ fall season.

A bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln now sits on Burns’ desk. Behind him hang the flags of the Union and the Confederacy. Ironically, Burns took only one history course at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where he majored in film and photography. And that was in Russian history.

“It just called me,” he says of the Civil War. “It beckoned loud enough that I had to pursue it. I didn’t want to do what everyone else has done, which is take an aspect of it or do an abstract slice of it--deal only with blacks or women or Lincoln or politics. I wanted to put my arm around the (whole) war and try to pick up as much as I could and understand. . . .

“Before the war, we said the United States are . Plural, union. After the war, we said the United States is . Singular, ungrammatical. The Civil War made us an Is . . . a nation.”

The idea for the series, he says, “was mine. I have done in my career a series of films on American history. I am drawn to individual stories. And I chose each one of these (subjects) randomly and haphazardly, but after doing several I realized there was this event called the Civil War that hovered over and proved influential to every one of the subjects chosen.”

Burns perceives his documentaries as a quilt. The Brooklyn Bridge, which “could not have been built had it not been for this new metal called steel which came out of that war,” is “one square.” The Shakers sect, which “declined because of the economic and spiritual changes as a result of the war,” is another. The Statue of Liberty, “originally intended as a gift to Mrs. Lincoln in May (1865), a month after her husband was killed,” is yet another. So is Huey Long, whose Louisiana parish had “refused to secede from the Union. They thought the Confederacy was a rich man’s cause--owning slaves--and they were poor dirt farmers.


“And you just fit ‘em in,” Burns says, “and there at the center, the biggest square of all, is the Civil War.”

It was the bloodiest war in American history--this war that brought an end to slavery, though it had begun as a fight for union on one side and states’ rights on the other. “Civil War,” studded with battles, points out that more than 3 million Americans--including blacks--fought in the war and more than 600,000, 2% of the population, died in it. “If I am most proud of one thing in this film,” notes Burns, “it is the erasing of this pernicious myth that blacks were passive bystanders. . . . Blacks were agents of their own deliverance.”

The series is told in narrative form, chronologically--one night for each of the five years during which the war was fought. Burns says he made it “for the person who says, ‘Yeah I’ve heard about the Civil War. When did it take place?’ . . . ‘Between 1861 and 1865,’ ” Burns replies in answer to his own question, “ ‘and have I got a story for you.’ ”

He sits at an editing machine with twin facing screens, scrolling two large reels of “Civil War” film. On one screen in front of Burns are the graves at Andersonville, site of the hellish Confederate prison in Georgia. Gravestones are bathed in blue-ish light.

When the curator at Andersonville refused to allow him and another cinematographer in before 7 a.m., notes Burns, “we came at 5, climbed the fence, and shot these incredible shots, then climbed back over and waited for them to show at 7, and went in and filmed the archives. . . . Look, there’s the full moon setting against these rows and rows of unknown (Union) soldiers. Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross) laid these out. But look at that shot. Doesn’t it look like God is there?”

It took Burns five years to make the $3.2-million series--longer than it took to fight the four-year war. He did, however, squeeze in filming “Benton” and “Congress,” films that had been proposed to him. “Those were my moonlighting projects,” he laughs.

At first, Burns says he “very conservatively and tentatively said (to himself), ‘OK, I’m going to do the Civil War. It’s a big leap for me. What if I do one hour on each of the five years of the war?’ Well, I get this rough cut, an assembly that’s 16 hours long, and it’s good.”

Barry Chase, PBS’ vice president for programming, credits Burns with the ability to seemingly “make inanimate objects and pictures move without doing so literally. If you’re talking about history and historical events prior to the time there were moving pictures, there is no one who is his peer.”


Within Burns’ team that included his younger brother Ric as co-producer and a co-scriptwriter, there was a bit of civil war, an internal tension that Burns deliberately sets up between writers and cinematographers. As filmmaker, he was the “strange spy on each (side).”

“We try to do it where the left hand doesn’t really know what the right hand is doing,” Burns says. “We set to work on a script. We have stories, we have forms, we have dramas we wish to tell. We collect thousands of first-person quotes that we hope these (acting) voices will bring alive. . . .”

Burns has a cast of voices, a parade of actors who remain invisible, that a Hollywood producer would covet. Sam Waterston is Lincoln, Jason Robards is Ulysses S. Grant, Julie Harris is a Southern diarist and Morgan Freeman is Frederick Douglass.

“We did not write our script knowing what was available with imagery,” Burns continues. “At the very same time, rather than afterwards, we went out and filmed at over 90 archives. . . . I’m sure I touched 100,000 photographs. We shot 16,000 and we used about 3,000. . . .

“And sometimes there were great stories with no pictures to tell (them), and sometimes there were lots of pictures with no stories to go along with it. And we let these two sides fight it out. So some places where you would normally have gotten rid of something because there were no pictures, it forced us to find some sort of visual equivalent.”

One of the best of these, according to Burns, is the moment of Lincoln’s assassination in Episode 9. He had actors from Arena Stage in Washington read, off-camera, the actual lines from “Our American Cousin,” the play the President was watching at Ford’s Theatre at the moment he was shot. “So here we have this high Victorian comedy,” and Burns imitates its exaggerated style, “the footfalls and door slams, the canned laughter, the light orchestra music, and then on the other side the inexorable, excruciating advance toward that moment when (John Wilkes) Booth pulls the trigger. By offering the silly counterpoint of the play, we have heightened the profundity of the assassination.


“It places you there, despite the essentially static nature of our visual presentation,” says Burns. There is the “empty shot of the interior of Ford’s Theatre, the hand-tinted advertisements” of the show itself, then along with the music and laughter and narration comes the sound of a pistol.

David McCullough, with a voice that sounds vaguely like John Chancellor’s, is the unseen narrator. It was McCullough’s 1974 book “The Great Bridge” that prompted Burns to do that film. McCullough has narrated all of Burns’ works except “Benton,” which Robards did.

The war, as the series notes, was fought in 10,000 places. Burns and crew shot in several dozen. “We filmed at all the major battle sites when they actually took place, the same time of year. . . . We did no reenactments.”

He shot falling peach blossoms at Shiloh on the banks of the Tennessee River on April 6 and 7, where in the spring of 1862, the series notes, “more American men fell than in all previous American wars combined.” He shot at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1, 2 and 3 because in 1863 that’s when the battle was fought. He films “at the magic hour. In the too-cold harsh light of day,” notes Burns, “you feel the modernness, but at dawn or dusk the light is hitting just so--the time Emily Dickinson used to call ‘the far theatricals of day.’

“If I have a secret . . . it’s that you treat the old photographs as if they’re live, and you treat the live shots as if they’re formal paintings. So you notice our landscapes are almost painterly . . . the silhouette of a cannon against the beautiful orange sky, the abstract light on the Mississippi River when someone is killed.”

Photography had been to the Civil War what television was to Vietnam. It was the first war that was massively photographed, more than a million images, and the country, notes Burns, was “absolutely thirsty for images--the way we are now for USA Today and ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ We were hungry to find out how we were murdering each other.”


Now months after the series has wrapped, the images that stick in his mind are of “the ruins of Richmond, the silhouette of these bombed-out buildings that look like Berlin in 1945. . . .” And after the battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia in 1864, notes Burns, “where 7,000 men fell in 20 minutes, a horrendous statistic, as bad as D-Day, horrible . . . months later there was a photograph taken of blacks, interns or hospital orderlies who had gone back to pick up the bodies, and there is the picture of a black man posed next to a wheelbarrow full of human remains. But it’s the contrast of the bleached white skull, and I emphasize white , with this black (man) who looks out from it with . . . awe and tolerance and the sense of where he is.”

In “re-photographing,” Burns seeks to “make (the picture) come alive, to coax out its life. So that if you have a long wide shot of a scene of soldiers, why stay at arm’s length? Why not go in and really penetrate the surface of the image, believe that it is alive, hear those horses snorting, hear the wagon wheels creaking, hear the wind through the trees, perhaps the lonely harmonica of a soldier? It’s really listening to these photographs. . . .”

And the soundtrack helps. For color, Burns also turned to paintings of the Civil War. Indeed there are times when mixed with the sounds of battle--gunshots, bugles, trumpets, drum rolls, men shouting--watching “Civil War” almost feels like watching actual battle footage.

With one exception, all the music in “Civil War” is from the period. “I don’t score these films. . . . It’s not wall-to-wall carpeting. These are like Persian rugs; they’re artfully placed.”

There’s “Oh Susanna,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Lorena” and, of course, “Dixie” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Battle Cry of Freedom,” which was sung with different lyrics by North and South. The contemporary piece is the haunting yet melodic “Ashokan Farewell” composed by Jay Ungar. To Burns, its music is “the equivalent of the tragedy and the purpose and the uplift and the loss that is the Civil War.”

On the editing machine’s facing screen, Burns scrolls to the photographic gallery of main characters, who are not immediately identified within the series’ first 10 minutes. Ulysses S. Grant comes up first, and Burns recites the narrator’s voice-over from memory: “A lackluster clerk from Galena, Ill., a failure in everything except marriage and war, who in three years would be head of the Union Army and in seven President of the United States.”

Though only a word off here and there, Burns sounds as if he could almost do the series by heart. He moves to Confederate Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson: “An eccentric student of theology and military tactics, a hypochondriac who rode into battle with one hand raised, ‘to keep,’ he said, ‘the blood balanced.’ ”


He turns to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who has become one of his heroes: “A college professor from Maine who on a little hill in Pennsylvania ordered an unlikely textbook maneuver that saved the Union Army and quite possibly the Union itself. . . . Two ordinary soldiers, one from Rhode Island (Elisha Hunt Rhodes), the other from Tennessee (Sam Watkins), who each served four years, and seemed to have been everywhere--and lived to tell the tale.”

Burns learned about Rhodes from Robert Rhodes--Walpole’s town librarian and Elisha Hunt Rhodes’ great-grandson--who had published the soldier’s diary.

There’s ramrod-straight Gen. Robert E. Lee, as Burns relates: “The courtly, unknowable aristocrat who disapproved of secession and slavery yet went on to defend them both at the head of one of the greatest armies of all time.”

There’s the powerful visage of Frederick Douglass: “The runaway boy who ‘stole himself’ from slavery, recruited two regiments of black soldiers” and helped transform the Civil War into “a struggle for the freedom of all Americans.”

“And then,” says Burns, reverence in his voice as a photograph of a young, vigorous Abraham Lincoln appears, “there was the rough man from Illinois who would rise to be the greatest President the country has ever seen. . . . This is my favorite Lincoln. Look at that young man,” adds Burns. “He doesn’t know what coming. Actually,” he laughs softly, “he does know. . . .”

He quotes from an 1837 Lincoln speech in the series: “Whence shall we expect the approach of danger? . . . All the armies of Europe and Asia . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”

In “Civil War,” a Confederate major, after bombarding a Union flotilla in Texas, boards the ship Harriet Lane to find his son, a federal lieutenant, dying on the deck. A black Union soldier encounters his former slave owner among a group of war prisoners. “Hello, Massa,” he says, “bottom rail on top this time.” And a Union quartermaster general, from Georgia, as retribution for the South’s rebellion, chooses Lee’s estate as the site for a new cemetary, ordering that the Union dead be buried a few feet from the house so no one could live there again. It became Arlington National Cemetary.


Burns is confident the series will attract viewers who will go the distance. “I think we may beat the networks . . . on one or more of those nights--at least for some time, one of the networks. ‘The Civil War’ will attract people to PBS who heretofore had always said, ‘Oops, PBS,’ and passed it on the dial. But if they knew that incredible family drama filled with a cast of characters more dramatic than anything you can find at (“Dallas’ ”) South Fork.”

The series--credited at the end of each episode as “A Film by Ken Burns”--was directed by Burns, though he does not take a specific directing credit. It was written by historian Geoffrey C. Ward (who has worked on several Burns films) and Ric Burns with Ken Burns, and produced by both Ken and Ric Burns. Paul Barnes, who edited Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” as well as Burns’ “Statue of Liberty,” was primary editor.

General Motors and the National Endowment for the Humanities are the series’ principal funders.

Jody Powell, who had been President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary, gives voice to at least six Southern generals, including Stonewall Jackson, and is other Southerners as well. Garrison Keillor is poet Walt Whitman, who was a nurse during the Civil War, and a host of Northerners.

Actor Paul Roebling is the voice of several characters, including Chamberlain and his own great-grandfather Washington Roebling, a Union Army officer who built bridges during the Civil War, and later the Brooklyn Bridge. His reading of a letter by Union major Sullivan Ballou to his wife as he anticipates death is one of “Civil War’s” riveting moments.

”. . . The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me. . . . And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when God willing we might still have lived and loved together and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us. If I do not return my dear Sarah never forget how much I loved you. . . .”


Julie Harris, whose work with Burns dates back to “Brooklyn Bridge”--she had been Emily Roebling, Washington Roebling’s wife--is Mary Chestnut, a well-connected Southern woman who, as Burns notes, “abhored the (slavery) system her husband and many of her relatives were fighting for yet gamely defends the South.”

“God forgive us but ours is a monstrous system,” Chestnut told her diary. “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children. . . .”

Other voices include Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Studs Terkel, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Pamela Reed and Kurt Vonnegut. “Washington Week in Review” fans might also recognize Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Charley McDowell as the voice of Pvt. Sam Watkins.

Burns saw Waterston in the title role of “Lincoln,” a two-part series on NBC in 1988. “He (captured) the humor and vulnerability of Lincoln. Everyone has played (the Gettysburg Address) stentorian like the voice of God, and we’re always berated by those three propositions: ‘ Of the people, by the people, for the people. And that’s not the way Lincoln read it. Lincoln said ‘of the people , by the people , for the people .’ . . . It makes it a revolutionary speech . . . and Sam Waterston, God bless him, knew that.”

Burns, of course, is an active director. “Jason is grand. From now on, you can’t hear Grant without (him). What I did is, I took a sharpie pen. I hadn’t gotten the right sort of gruff indifference I thought Grant had in his voice. And I said, ‘General, put that pen in your mouth and take it out just before you speak. . . .’

“Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass, I think it’s the best single voice in the film. He speaks from this low volcanic voice and anger and he comes back up with truth that is undeniable. We really worked with him,” notes Burns, who wanted deeper tones than the chauffeur’s voice one hears in “Driving Miss Daisy.” “ ‘No, lower. Whisper it to me. Be angry, be angrier, now be dignified.’ And we’d hone it down, and he’d get it.”


How does Burns get these all these people?

“You tell them that ‘the Civil War was the most important event in American history, and could you give us an hour of your time for which we’ll pay you SAG (Screen Actors Guild) minimum to read? We’ll do it at your convenience. You tell us when.’ In typical Ken Burns fashion, I bang on the door until they give up.”

Ken Burns grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and wanted to be a director like John Ford.

When he was 11, his mother, who had had cancer through most of his childhood, died. He would stay up watching old movies with his father, an anthropology professor.

“The kind of films he makes,” says his brother Ric, “commemorate real struggles, frequently about real and very traumatic loss, which nevertheless has been redeemed by the effort and the endurance, the creativity and the imagination of at least some of the participants. He’s drawn to these kinds of symbolic moments. . . .”

A student achiever who read encyclopedias for fun, Burns entered Hampshire College in the fall of 1971, then in its second year of existence.

He liked the school’s linkage of film and photography classes. “I was taught essentially by still photographers from the old documentary tradition--Cartier-Bresson. Particularly a man named Jerome Liebling. He got me off feature ideas. What was happening in the world (and) in the past was as dramatic as anything the imagination could make up.”

At Hampshire Burns began making movies--and met Amy. “In my senior thesis on Old Sturbridge Village--about its work in the early 19th Century, which they still show--I began to experiment with the use of first-person quotes in addition to narration to bring alive a story.”


After graduation in 1975, Burns and a group of buddies formed Florentine Films--named for another teacher who lived in Florence, Mass., and because “we pretend it’s a renaissance in filmmaking.” Members of the original group still use the name Florentine Films.

When Amy moved back to New York after her graduation in 1977, Burns followed. He also wanted to make the Brooklyn Bridge film. They moved to Walpole in 1979 to ease financial pressures, and give them artistic independence.

He didn’t finish “Brooklyn Bridge” until 1981. “It was very difficult to convince people that it would be interesting if it was more than 10 minutes. And the fact that I was doing an hour, people laughed at me. And then when it was done and people enjoyed it, they said, ‘Oh how smart and clever of you to plan for the bridge’s centennial,’ which was in 1983. It was nothing that I planned for (but) a wonderful reward for perseverance.”

Burns is not without critics. “Ken is a wonderful fellow but he puts himself in front a great deal,” says a collaborator who declines to be named. “And there are a lot of people behind him who deserve enormous credit. . . A lot of people find it impossible to work for Ken Burns . . . the overriding ego. But you know, you say the world of filmmaking is filled with giant egos; that’s like saying water is wet.”

Does Burns ever see himself doing feature films? “I’ve got a lot of ideas but I’m waiting for. . . .” He stops. “I do not believe that documentary is a lower rung on the ladder,” he says firmly.

Burns remembers the exact date he began “Civil War”--Dec. 27, 1984. He had just finished reading Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels” about the battle of Gettysburg, and that persuaded him to follow his instincts.


He says he was “warned by a good many historian friends, ‘Do not tackle this. It’s too big, it has swallowed better men than you.’ But as much as television is the culprit for this national amnesia that we have--kids can’t tell you the rudimentary facts of our history--it does have this possibility to become our Homeric form. . . .

“Oh they’re rife in the list of (academic) credits,” laughs Burns about the naysayers. “It’s to their credit that they joined on. . . . I said, ‘I have to do it.’ Doing these films has been like the ‘Red Shoes’ ballet. You put them on, and you can’t stop.”

Burns had already read some Civil War works including Bruce Catton’s, and continued to read--but not too much; he wanted to put himself in the viewer’s place and be “deliberately innocent.” While other Burns films have had academic consultants, “Civil War” had a veritable platoon of them to certify its accuracy and help ensure funding.

It took a year to get funding, then in 1986 he began shooting. He spent three days shooting an extensive interview with Shelby Foote, the Southern novelist and author of a three-volume narrative history of the war. “The best interview I’ve ever done,” notes Burns. “This is a man who in answer was a perfect quote who we could flip into the film.”

Two years of shooting bled into two years of editing. The material was so vast that when it came time to put it all together, Burns had to rent a studio in New York. Still he kept filming and recording until the end, inserting on the last day a new Frederick Douglass quote--”Teach the rebels and traitors that the price they are to pay for the attempt to abolish this government must be the abolition of slavery”-- which he put into Episode 1.

That “The Civil War” took five years is a source of pride. “My metaphor is a New England one. This kind of product,” says Burns, “is like maple syrup. You need 40 gallons which you boil down and boil down to get the one gallon that’s eventually syrup. Or take a nice Tennessee metaphor. It takes a lot of distilling to make a good gallon of whiskey.”


Will he ever again take five years? His answer is an unhesitating yes. He expects that his next film project--on baseball-- will take three years.

Just before Christmas on the next to last day of mixing sound and visual, says Burns, they came to that seminal moment on April 14, 1865, five days after the end of the war. “It’s the last creative moment,” recalls Burns, “and Lincoln’s about to be shot. And at the moment where we’re moving right toward the image of Lincoln, everybody in the room shouts ‘STOP!’ My editor, myself and my associate producer. The mixer dutifully hits the button. It doesn’t instantly stop. It slows down and it came to rest right up against the sounds of all the gunshots that we laid on the sound effect tracks. And the narration had been going, and some of the background noise that we had, just zooming in on an old photograph of the box at Ford’s Theatre.

“For a moment there was total silence, and we looked around, and for about two or three minutes we kept him alive. We all held it, as if we controlled time for a second. . . .”