American Culture

Telling History vs. Making Art: Communicating “the incommunicable experience of war”

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.

Part of it, Burns suggested, might relate back to expectations. “Had they forgotten the difference between literary scholarship and the demands of a popular medium?” he wondered.

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.

Even historian Leon Litwack, in all his criticism of the film as a piece of history, seemed taken with it as a piece of art:

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

3 replies »

  1. I think what many historians fail to appreciate is that the audience for history is layered. There are those who aren’t really interested much in history at all, preferring stories about the past that are often little more than pure myth. Then, there are those who want to dig deeper, comprehend more, and who come to understand that the mythmaking is rarely “true” in the sense that it’s completely factual and is almost never complete. This is a rather small percentage of people, I think. And then there are the fully professional historians who dig the deepest, usually into very narrow bore holes through time, immersing themselves in data to try to determine as many of the facets of “what happened and why” as possible. This is an extremely small percentage of people.

    I have come to believe that most of the real benefit of the study of history happens in that middle layer. We need the pros, of course, to inform the middle layer, but it is in the middle that people come to understand systemic cause and effect, how myths shape cultural norms, and the importance of the question, “What if?,” a question that is so enormously useful for sharpening minds and so repulsive, apparently, to the pros.

    I think Ken Burns did a stunningly good job of drawing in those who have heard only the myths, and giving them food for thought on a much deeper level. In that sense, he performed a priceless public service.

    On another note, I don’t know if you read comments on your posts. Perhaps you don’t. I don’t recall a response to anything I’ve replied to, here. If you do, though, I wonder if you could answer what is probably a simple question for me.

    I believe that you are a docent/guide at the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield? I grew up in Virginia, so of course I’ve been there, but what I’ve never understood is WHY the Confederates put themselves into the Muleshoe salient. Salients are generally weak defensive positions, unless supported by other salients (star forts, for instance). Why did they choose to make an enormous salient in their line?


    • Hi, Stuart. Sorry for the long-delayed response….

      Ewell’s men first put themselves into the Muleshoe configuration because they were following topography as they were filing onto the battlefield under fire. As things settled a little and they realized their formation, they chose to stay where they were because there was high ground in the middle of the salient, around the McCoull House, that they didn’t want to fall into Federal hands because it would’ve served as a perfect artillery platform against their lines if their lines were further back. Ewell swore he could hold that position so long as he had artillery, as he proved on May 10. However, Lee pulled out the artillery on May 11 in anticipation of a Federal maneuver (which turned out to be preparations against the salient). So, then the Federals attacked on May 12, Ewell had no artillery to speak of to repulse the attack, and was thus overrun. Lee traded lives for time by sustaining the fight there for 22 hours so that he could build a fallback position behind the Harrison House. If you want more details, feel free to e-mail me, and I’ll be happy to offer more.