Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - The Civil War (#81)

The Favorites - The Civil War (#81)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Civil War (1990/USA/dir. Ken Burns) appeared at #81 on my original list.

What it is • As a commentator notes very late in the documentary, the American Civil War is an immeasurable gulf separating the "before" and "after." Remarkably, Ken Burns' 11-hour PBS opus attempts to bridge that gulf and if the ambition of this attempt is awe-inspiring, the extent to which he succeeds is even more so. Burns evokes this bygone world by employing striking contemporaneous photographs (a new medium at the time of the war), modern-day battlefield cinematography (given a meditative air by the emptiness of the locations), a few fleeting newsreels from veterans' reunions in the early twentieth century (which are among the most arresting artifacts of the series), and especially the stirring soundtrack (cycling various motifs from the 19th century and coupling them with the gorgeous, mournful "Ashokan Farewell" theme, which was actually composed in 1982). He also sprinkles the series with interviews, but not as much as we might expect (maybe a half-dozen subjects, whose input is mostly limited) - allowing David McCullough's soothing narration to do most of the historical heavy-lifting while historian Shelby Foote is given the lion's share of talking-head screentime, mostly to contribute colorful anecdotes to the film's texture. The Civil War was a rather shocking hit in 1990, racking up numbers that would have been breathtaking for a major network, let alone public television. That success is undoubtedly due in large part not just to the subject, but to Burns' treatment: creating an all-encompassing format that allowed viewers to immerse themselves in a zeitgeist.

Why I like it •
That's why I love the film so much as well: The Civil War is not just a history, it is a movie in the full sense of the word. I have read certain criticisms of Burns, and can envision others: that his portrait is too romantic, missing the ugliness of combat which was the central experience for the soldiers; that his fascination with colorful characters and their individual stories sidesteps the larger historical forces at work - and makes way for a certain gauzy mythology, particularly when it comes to the glamorous yet deeply repugnant Confederacy; that his reliance on certain techniques becomes overbearing and monotonous over the course of nearly half-a-day's worth of material. What's interesting is that these potential weaknesses are inseparable from the film's strengths. I think some are more fair than others (in particular, Burns' techniques do sometimes become grating in his and his brother's later works, ripe for parody in their solemn use of repetition and sentiment, but they still feel fresh for me here and appropriate to the time period and material). Obviously I come here to praise rather than bury The Civil War, and so I would argue that what the strengths and flaws alike contribute is a sense of history as mythology which I think is just as important in a way as history as journalism (which is not to say the film isn't often both). The Civil War does an admirable job conveying the thrust and import of various battles, it certainly does not sidestep the centrality of slavery to the conflict (to the mild chagrin of Foote, the film's primary mouthpiece, as we would discover in a later follow-up interview), and its structural division into many vignettes ensures an attention to detail does not get lost in the film's broad sweep. This balance between the elephantine scope of its subject and the termitic texture of its approach is what makes the documentary such a remarkable and - despite the massive influence of Burns' approach - unique accomplishment. When I speak of history as mythology, then, what I mean is that The Civil War is less about reporting every detail of the conflict than it is about conveying what it felt like, to the people of the time and to us today. The Civil War belongs not just to the soldiers who fought it, but to the entire nation: it is the United States' Iliad and Odyssey but separated from the present by a mere century and captured with nascent technology that allows the inexplicable aura of the period to reach our eyes and ears today.

How you can see it • The Civil War is available on DVD from Netflix. Also, I would be pretty surprised if it isn't available from your local library! You can watch a clip from the documentary at 4:50 in "New Age" (chapter 26 of my "32 Days of Movies" video series).

What do you think? • Is this Ken Burns' finest moment? Would he improve on his style later, or come to rely on it too much? Do you enjoy and/or respect his approach to filmmaking? How does The Civil War compare to other sweeping historical documentaries? When it comes to history, do you prefer the worm's eye view or the bird's eye view? Do you think both approaches are possible in the same package? What did you learn about the Civil War from this film? What do you wish Burns had included in the coverage? Do you feel the film emphasizes the importance of slavery enough? Do you feel it takes sides? Do you think it should? Does the film do justice do the various battles? To the various participants? If Ken Burns was making The Civil War today, what do you think he would do differently, and would it be to the film's benefit?

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Sam Juliano said...

Yes it certainly does focus on the "before" and "after" of this most devastating of American calamities. It is eloquent, soulful, provocative, educational, and imbued with a poetic essence. It is the uncontested masterwork of Burns' extraordinary career. I actually revisited this months back after I drove my family for a day trip out to Gettysburg, and subsequently embarked on my umpteenth Civil War kick. Yes the charge that Burns is an incurable romantic is off base--this aspect adds humanism to the enterprise. And yes the battles are superbly re-created. As to your question, yes THE CIVIL WAR is his top effort as I stated, but his superb BASEBALL is at least within hailing distance as runner-up.

Terrific review here Joel. Great stuff.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Sam. I've actually never seen a Civil War battlefield though I've come close a few times. I imagine it must be pretty surreal to see the quiet countryside and imagine what happened there at one point.

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