Part seven in a series
“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war,” Oliver Wendell Holmes says at the beginning of Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War. Burns could not have picked a more appropriate quote to start his film with, not just because it set a particular tone for the entire eleven-hour documentary but because it would describe the viewing experience of the documentary itself. For a week, some forty million Americans tuned in to public televisions to watch Burns’ film—a shared media experience so profound that one book says, “For a generation of Americans, this documentary is the Civil War.”
Holmes’ words were appropriate, too, because the war remained largely incommunicable.“Ken Burns encountered thousands of ‘facts’ about the war in the form of pictures, letters, statistics, maps, and other kinds of evidence,” points out historian Robert Brent Toplin. “He could easily have turned his eleven-hour documentary into a 100-hour or 200-hour film, and still he would have to leave out much interesting material.”
Critics pounced on Burns for what he left out (information about social history, for instance) and for what he put in (too much traditional focus on battles and leaders). “In The Civil War, despite the abundance of images and resources at the command of the filmmakers, that social upheaval is never played out with the same depth, the same sensitivity, the same emotional and dramatic intensity as the military engagements,” contends historian Leon Litwack. He criticizes what he sees as Burns’ choice to focus on the Reunification tradition. “The nation had been reborn, and it is this rebirth that Ken Burns chooses to celebrate in The Civil War,” he says, calling it the “most appalling and revealing shortcoming” of the film.
Historian Eric Foner agrees. “In choosing to stress the preservation of the American nation state as the war’s most enduring consequence, Burns privileges a merely national concern over the great human drama of emancipation,” Foner says, vitriolic that Burns ignored the Emancipation tradition. Others accused him of embracing the Lost Cause tradition. Some “saw only capitulation to an ‘old’ narrative pro-southern version of history,” Burns lamented.
The film’s principle writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, admitted that “it was only the special demands of documentary filmmaking that kept us from doing still more” in the film than they did. “Time imposes crippling restraints,” he said, outlining other issues, as well: “Before anything else, film demands something to look at…. And, just as sadly, there is precious little written evidence of the sort we would have needed to fill our script.” He also pointed out that “Television is better at narrative than analysis, better at evoking emotions than expounding complex ideas.”
The ability to evoke emotion easily stands out as The Civil War’s greatest strength: From its opening shot of a canon silhouetted against a fire-orange sky and the use of the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote and the haunting Appalachian violin of Jay Unger’s “Ashoken Farewell,” Burns strives first and foremost to set an emotional tone.
Skillfully crafted, technically innovative, evocative and emotionally seductive, the television series made effective use of letters, diaries and journals, archival photographs, paintings, broadsides, newsreel footage, eyewitness accounts, and an often mesmerizing musical score.
The best example of his use of such primary-source material is the stirring narration of a letter by Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, killed during the Battle of First Manassas. A week before the battle, he wrote home to his wife, and Burns quotes the letter over top historical photos and beautiful modern battlefield landscapes to close out the first episode. It is exquisite art. What most people don’t realize is that Burns trimmed the letter by almost fifty percent—from 868 words down to 451—in order to maximize its poignancy on screen. Burns edited the letter because, as an artist, he needed to control the pace and dramatic impact of his film. Such editing, though, doesn’t mean Burns’ art compromises his history. Historians, too, quote selectively from primary sources when constructing narratives and arguments; Burns is using the same technique to the same end.
Burns’ most common primary source materials are the hundreds of photographs he shows. Here, Toplin lauds Burns’s “extraordinary filmmaking achievement in dealing with unequal source materials.” Photos for the Union side of the story were much more abundant than for the Southern side of the story because, after the first year of the war, “photographic activity in the South dropped dramatically”—yet Burns crafted a balanced story from what he had to work with.
The molasses-smooth authority of narrator David McCullough (who has himself taken flack for being too popular as a historian) shines throughout, punctuated by interview clips from a variety of experts, including historian Barbara Fields, who argued eloquently about the war’s higher purpose of emancipation, and the yarn-spinning Southern gentleman Shelby Foote (whom Burns subsequently called “an American treasure”).
Not that every swing Burns took was a home run. His choice to encumber Ed Bearrs with a suitcoat and tie and confine him to a chair is widely seen among my NPS colleagues as a huge disservice to Ed. As the NPS’s former chief historian, he’s widely regarded throughout the agency as one of the best battlefield interpreters in the business because of his forceful style and animated storytelling. He still leads frequent bus tours, which sell out. The Burns documentary did nothing to capture his charisma.
The film also contains a few factual errors. “The most spectacular must be the fact that we managed to get wrong both the date of Lincoln’s assassination and his age at the time of his death,” admits Ward. “Both errors are mine alone…. And, unbelievably, through repeated screenings for our distinguished advisers and for ourselves, no one involved seems ever to have noticed either error.” For such sins of commission, Ward says they deserved to be chastened.
But for sins of interpretation—especially after the five-year collaborative process the many drafts of the script went through with panels of historians—Burns deserves some slack. Because his film was so public and so successful, criticism creates an impression of controversy when, in fact, any historian could face questions about his/her interpretation.
“[B]ecause of our medium, with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses, because of the almost Aristotelian demands of structure and pacing, our film, not theirs, looked this way,” Burns finally said. The result is a sublime intersection of history and art that uses the strengths of both to tell a story so big it is, indeed, incommunicable. “[S]tory,” Burns has said, “is a central part of the word ‘history.’” His Civil War is a true story beautifully told.
Next: Fictions told until they are believed to be true