In 1990, Ken Burns produced The Civil War, a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking that stands today, even after 21 years, as the definitive examination of the subject, and seems poised to hold that title for the foreseeable future. The Civil War is a feather in the cap of not only Burns, but also PBS; it’s unlikely that such a film could have been produced on a for-profit, commercial network. PBS allowed Burns to create a truly powerful work the way he wanted, and helped him find a welcoming and thankful audience.
As we remember the sesquicentennial of the start of the American Civil War this April, PBS and Paramount have issued a six-disc, 150th anniversary commemorative edition of The Civil War, featuring digitally enhanced images, audio commentary, and bonus interviews with Stanley Crouch, George Will, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason (composers of the haunting “Ashokan Farewell” theme), and Shelby Foote.
When it originally aired, Foote emerged as the star of The Civil War. His wizened face, lilting, Southern drawl, and warm anecdotes about the individuals who fought made it seem as if he had walked right out of the past to tell us about something he had witnessed personally. He had the grace, nobility, and charm that we want to believe that Grant, Lincoln, and Lee may have possessed.
Still, there was always something uneasy about anchoring this documentary around the commentary of a white man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, and who, despite his education, savvy, and equanimity, seemed to lionize the Southern cause even knowing that its motives were indefensible. The extra interviews included on this commemorative edition of The Civil War are far more explicit in confirming this than anything Burns included in the original cut. In unused footage from Foote’s 1987 interviews, he explicitly downplays the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War and expresses a belief in the mythical paternalism of slavery, claiming it was better for African Americans than the post-war sharecropping system because as slaves, they at least had to be cared for, fed, and clothed by their owners.
In a 2002 interview, Foote briefly (and very lightly) criticizes Burns for his focus on slavery, saying “It seemed, to me, to lean a little heavily on slavery as the biggest problem of the war, which I don’t think it was.” His views are disappointing, if not unsurprising, but also completely and verifiably false. Thankfully, Foote is right about Burns. He did not allow Foote’s personal opinions to color the substance of The Civil War, using him for his strengths in storytelling and in personalizing the conflict, while leaving his less enlightened analysis on the cutting room floor. The best counterarguments to Foote’s views are woven throughout Burns’s documentary, in the inspiring words of Frederick Douglass (Morgan Freeman) or the scratchy recording of a former slave who says that were she told she would ever have to be a slave again that she would “end it all.”
Foote’s contention that slavery was a minor factor in causing the Civil War found popularity in certain circles during the 20th century, but the historical record is clear. Slavery was the most significant political and social question of the decades leading up to the war. Secession was a reaction to the election of a Republican president, as the Southern states feared that the party’s abolitionist platform meant emancipation was near, threatening their vast slave wealth. The articles of secession for several of the Southern states explicitly mentioned slavery as their motivation, and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens maintained that the “new government” was expressly founded on the tenets of white supremacy and eternal bondage for African Americans.
Burns himself looks back on the making of the documentary in a bonus interview, and touches on the Foote phenomenon with mixed feelings. He rightly lauds Foote for his contributions to the documentary, but talks about how Foote’s prominence and subsequent fame led contributors to his other documentaries to make an unfortunate effort to be the Shelby Foote of their respective films. It’s hard to imagine that Burns is not somewhat responsible for this, however, considering the focus he gave Wynton Marsalis in Jazz and Senator Daniel Inouye in The War.
What The Civil War gives us is an opportunity to confront the demons of the past, and understand the true history of the United States. America is founded on lofty ideals that Americans have, too often, failed, but there is always hope for redemption, for atonement, and for reconciliation. Burns expertly conveys the gravity of the war, and clearly lays out the stakes. It was a battle for freedom, for humanity, and for the triumph of good over unspeakable evil. A penance for the nation’s original sin. With simple narration and still photographs, Burns is able to evoke joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. It’s a singular achievement, beautifully composed and profoundly moving.
The Civil War: 150th Anniversary Commemorative Edition is available on DVD in fullscreen standard-definition; it’s likely that any attempt to convert it to HD would have been prohibitively expensive or would require modifications to the cropping and framing that would have harmed the film. For fans who already own The Civil War, it seems unlikely that this edition offers enough extras to justify purchasing it again. For those who don’t, though, this box set is a sound investment that will no doubt see much use in years to come.