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.