“The Civil War”

A month ago, we turned on the TV for background noise and the local PBS station was reshowing Ken Burns’s “The Civil War.” Since Mrs. __B moved to the U.S. in 1992, after the show had originally aired, and has never had the opportunity to formally study American history, she was fascinated, seeing the show for the first time. I bought the DVDs and we have just finished watching the entire thing, including the bonus material of extra interview footage with Shelby Foote.

It’s an interesting and flawed show. It runs about 12 hours, which is very long by TV standards, but is rather short to tell the full story. As a result, a lot of context and explanation is compressed to the point of sloganeering rather than analysis. Having seen it before, I was free to sit back and analyze it as a film rather than as history, and a few things jumped out at me. Whether the selection of pictures is simply limited by what exists or was limited by the archives that Burns had access to, a handful of pictures are shown several times, to the point of overuse. Of the interviewees, only one (Barbara Fields, a historian) is black. (Daisy Turner, a 104-year-old daughter of an escaped slave, is seen reciting poetry, but is not interviewed.) The sound effects of battle are extremely repetitive. Perhaps most glaring is that the real differences in tactics and strategy between successful generals (Lee, Jackson, Bedford Forrest, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan) and the far longer list of unsuccessful ones are not discussed at all. This is not simply an epaulet fetish on my part: the length and bloodiness of the war, the form of its outcome (and here I agree with Foote that a northern victory was inevitable as the content of the outcome long as there was no foreign intervention), and the aftermath all depended on the military action. Given the effect of the war on our society, changes in how it might have been fought might well have had huge effects on where we are today.

Ultimately, it’s a good film for someone in Mrs. __B’s position, learning about that era for the first time, but really too shallow for any other purpose but entertainment. And anyone who is truly entertained by the series of bloodbaths that made up the war needs to rethink their life.

15 thoughts on ““The Civil War”

  1. There are entire libraries full of books on the Civil War. It would be close to impossible to cover it sufficiently on a TeeVee show. That said, I’ve noticed the repeated photos in his other films and been annoyed by the sound effects too.

    I think for what it is, it’s pretty good.

    On a related note, David Goldfield was on the local NPR station flogging his new book yesterday. I could only half-listen while I focused on doing my job, but I think I’ll pick the book up. It looks really interesting.

    • I don’t expect a thorough treatment. But a little less time spent on slow pans over the grass might allow a little more treatment of the issue of Napoleonic versus modern tactics, or more importantly, the international meaning and success of the blockade.

  2. The Civil War was the first series I had seen on the war and the first to use modern techniques of telling the story that I had seen. It prompted me to read more about the war and eventually I read all 3 of Foote’s books and the diaries of Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins. Plus other books too numerous to remember. I suggested that our local library get the “Gettysburg” video and watched it the day after it arrived.
    When our cat decided he wanted to fight we described his tactics as “hitting them on the eeyend” and “keepin’ up the skeaar” So it really did the job on me
    I don’t think that the series was about the tactics and such, I think was an introduction to the grand sweep of it and about how people reacted.
    In the current desert called New Zealand teevee I would fall upon a re-showing like a very hungry person.
    The lack of black people talking about it was a problem although Frederick Douglass’ views got a good airing.
    They were pretty insistent that Lincoln started out with no special purpose regarding slavery. Reading stuff recently it seems that the South was definitely interested in preserving slavery so it seems that there were different reasons for the same war. What do you think?

  3. Ahah, yes an important and central point.
    Have you read “Confederates in the Attic” by a Mr. Horowitz (not the crazy-arse RWDJ one)? Heh heh they a little odd in that book.

  4. What? Southern white paranoia over what some socialist President is about to do w/ his magical powers? Couldn’t happen.

    Semi-related film review. I mean, the film is similar to The Civil War. (Or do I?)

    • An uncle who was in the army 1943-1946 and who saw a shitload of combat in the infantry died a few weeks ago. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about ‘merkin images (movies, TV) of warfare. Uncle __B’s post-army life was reasonably peaceful and productive, but he had some awful scars on one hand and his forehead that (I would guess) meant he never went a day without reliving some portion of the war.

  5. Gotta disagree with you on this one, Ned. I think Kiwi is on the right track: Burns’ piece wasn’t really intended as a study of generalship.

    Moreover, your critique itself poses a dilemma: If Burns needed to add more texture and detail to the military analysis, he would surely need much more than 12 hours, don’t you thinK? And if that is the case, how would he cover the visuals in an even *longer* program? (Better and more military graphics, to be sure. But that will hardly cover all of the visuals.) You already gig him for re-using some stills … and for his slow pans, zooms, or pull-outs.

    Think about his ‘battle’ soundtrack, too. What sound elements does he have to work with? Essentially, he’s got artillery, small arms, and shouts (and, if we’re honest, screams); plus clopping horses, neighing, creaking harnesses for cavalry, moving artillery, or transport. One can get *some* variety by using artillery in *barrage*, or small-arms in *volley*, in addition to the chaotic ‘fire-at-will’ in the midst of combat. But that’s it. He doesn’t have many types of ‘battle audio’ material to work with.

    Also, as a longtime student of military history, I must take exception to describing the Civil War (ACW) as having ‘Napoleonic’ tactics. All three arms–infantry, artillery, and cavalry functioned differently. The key change was increased range of ACW rifles (Minie ball) in the infantry weapons…quite different than Napoleonic smoothbore muskets. This changed the relationship between infantry and artillery…the gunners were no longer as ‘immune’ from infantry.

    Also changed infantry-infantry tactics…looser formations, more skirmishers, and column attacks were suicidal in the ACW; whereas Napoleon used them to great effect. And the change in cavalry’s role in battle was profound. Cavalry was no longer the potent and dangerous battlefield weapon of, say, cuirassiers at Austerlitz. Essentially, ACW cavalry was used for recon, screening, and raiding. As a tactical element, cavalry had few combat uses on the battlefield, unless they dismounted. (Such ‘mounted infantry’ was used with excellent effect by Forrest,

    Burns was painting a landscape with broad brushstrokes–covering social, economic, political dimensions. I think he did a solid, craftsmanslike job; I added ‘The Civil War’ to my DVD library (which, alas, was destroyed in the fire). Whatever you think of his personality in interviews and conversation, he does have a portfolio of other fine projects: Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony; Brooklyn Bridge; Baseball (which I also purchased).

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