Ken Burns’ ‘Civil War’ returns to PBS amid a national debate over race
This summer proved to Americans yet again that the Civil War, which officially ended 150 years ago, has never really gone away.
The Charleston, S.C., church shooting that killed nine in June sparked a national debate over racism and public displays of the Confederate battle flag; ultimately, the emblem of Dixie was hauled down in July from the grounds of the state Capitol in South Carolina, where it had flown for more than half a century. Officials in Texas and elsewhere have pondered what to do with monuments honoring Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders who have come to symbolize the nation’s tormented history with slavery and race relations.
Long before the current controversies, PBS executives decided to honor the 25th anniversary of Ken Burns’ landmark 1990 documentary series “The Civil War” by showing a digitally restored version suitable for today’s HD flat-screen TV sets. But the 11 1/2-hour epic arrives on Monday with perhaps even more relevance than when it originally aired.
Which is no surprise to the film’s creator.
“It was called ‘the irrepressible conflict’ and I guess it’s impossible to repress it,” Burns said in a recent telephone interview, referring to the 1861-65 war that took the lives of an estimated 620,000 soldiers alone (historians disagree on the exact figures) and many more civilians. The death toll amounted to approximately 2% of the U.S. population at the time.
“It is the central event in American history,” he added. “Everything that came before it led up to it, beginning with Thomas Jefferson authoring the Declaration saying, ‘All men are created equal’ — but oops, he owned other human beings. Everything since then has been a consequence in some way or another” of the war.
Burns, now 62, has gone on to become one of the premier documentarians working in America today, with a filmography that includes “Baseball,” “Jazz” and last year’s “The Roosevelts.” All first aired on PBS, where he said he has contractual commitments that now run to 2030. He has lately been working on a lengthy film biography of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson due next year, plus another devoted to novelist Ernest Hemingway.
But “The Civil War” remains his signature work, partly because it offers a deep and resonant view of an American turning point that most adults otherwise recall only faintly, if at all, from high school courses, or else know through historically questionable entertainment such as “Gone With the Wind.” The Burns film told a vast and complicated story through archival photos matched with readings from primary sources such as letters and diaries; well-known historians, such as the late Shelby Foote, offered analysis of key events and battles.
Backed with funds from PBS and corporate underwriter Bank of America, Burns and his team converted the original 15-mm film stock to high-definition video. Daniel J. White, an editor at Burns’ production company Florentine Films, was pulled off an upcoming Burns project on the Vietnam War to work full-time on the restoration.
“All of a sudden, the whole blurry archives are less blurry and much sharper,” he said. “Old bouncing images … going through film sprockets have now been stabilized. A beautiful live shot of an iconic silhouetted cannon is not just a smear of sunset orange, but there’s in fact an entire palette of colors, from orange to pink to red to gray to blue to purple.
“You are now seeing the film as good as I saw it through the viewfinder of the camera,” he added. “I cried when I saw the first results. … It was as if I had never seen the film before.” (The film also underwent remastering work in 2002, when it was released on DVD.)
When PBS first showed “The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns” in September 1990, it became a national sensation, ultimately seen by more than 40 million total viewers, the most-watched program in PBS history. It has since become a staple in high school and college classrooms.
“I teach Ken Burns every semester, and he is always a crowd-pleaser,” said Maria de las Carreras, who teaches documentary film history at Cal State Northridge. “It’s stunning how much it resonates with the students.”
“The Civil War” introduced millions of viewers to a style of documentary filmmaking that was able to make still photographs come alive with slow pans and zooms, accompanied by carefully chosen personal narratives read by noted actors such as Morgan Freeman and Sam Waterston. Burns has said he was inspired by the 1957 Canadian short film “City of Gold,” which told the story of the Klondike gold rush via a montage of old photos.
“It is a modern way of writing history,” De las Carreras said of such techniques, adding that the style often ends up alerting young people to the possibilities of non-fiction storytelling: “Ken Burns makes them enthusiastic about family photos, about doing a little research to come up with the context. A good number of kids end up telling family stories using what they have seen in Ken Burns,” she said.
The technique is so influential it has come to be known as “the Ken Burns Effect,” sometimes parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and elsewhere. The filmmaker says he doesn’t mind the ribbing.
“That by no means I see as a personal criticism,” he said. “I see that as just having fun with a big cultural target. Which I’m very happy to say is better than not being talked about.”
More seriously, “The Civil War” has been criticized from time to time by historians who say it distorted or ignored important events. Military historians, for example, were irked because they believed Burns gave short shrift to the Western theater in Tennessee and Mississippi, where key battles such as Shiloh and Vicksburg were fought, according to UCLA historian Joan Waugh.
“We had a sort of dust-up in the first few years after the series: ‘It didn’t do this,’ ‘it didn’t do that,’” Burns said. “That’s music to my ears. … If you make an 11 1/2-hour film on ‘The Civil War’ … and people are telling you what you’ve left out, you just feel terrific because they’re betraying their own biases. But nobody’s saying, ‘It’s boring.’”
UCLA’s Waugh sees the Burns film as a valuable part of a cultural trend that has placed the battle over slavery and emancipation as key to understanding the Civil War. For decades, historians focused on the notion of the war as a battle to preserve the Union, while Southern sympathizers promoted the idea of the Confederacy as a “lost cause,” a noble and charming plantation society vanquished by an overwhelming enemy.
“The Civil War,” along with the Oscar-winning film “Glory,” countered those interpretations by putting slavery — America’s “original sin,” as some have called it — front and center in talking about the conflict and its aftermath.
“There are always going to be critics, but [the Burns film] was an overwhelming success, I think, in terms of reigniting interest in the war,” said Waugh, author of the 2013 book “U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.” “That’s a positive thing.”
Indeed, Burns has evidence that his film has helped find a solution to a problem that has bedeviled parents and educators for eons: The lonely and unopened textbook.
“A lot of teachers come up to me and say, ‘I showed [the students] a little bit of ‘The Civil War,’” he recalled with a laugh, “‘and then they gobbled up their reading.’”
‘The Civil War’
When: 9 p.m. Monday-Friday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)
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