The Civil War is Ken Burns’ masterpiece. It is a triumph of historical documentary filmmaking that even Burns himself has not surpassed (though both Jazz and Baseball come incredibly close). This film (or television series, depending on your point of view) is the definitive cinematic retelling of the American Civil War – and is done with more care, precision and detail than any Hollywood drama based on the same event.
The story of the Civil War is ripe for cinema, and there have been many attempts. It’s a dramatic, epic story with heroes and villains, and a moral center. However, none have really undertaken the breadth and scope of the struggle like Ken Burns’ film. The Civil War‘s exhaustive length even adds to its power, as one feels as if one has been through a journey by the end. It gives this film a weight and understanding that a simple two-hour narrative could never do.
I credit The Civil War with sparking my interest in American history when I first saw it on television in 1990. Burns made history come alive for my young mind. The images and sound effects pierced my being and lingered in my thoughts for years after. These weren’t just paragraphs in a boring history book, but a story that actually happened, and there were real people who fought it. And what is even more astounding that it was all done with simple pans over static images!
I re-watch The Civil War periodically, and just finished it again. It still retains its power and pull after all these years. This year is both the 25th anniversary of the film’s first broadcast and the 150th anniversary of the end of the war, and PBS marked the occasion with a re-broadcast of the film starting September 7, complete with an all-new HD remaster. The film has never looked better.
In this viewing, I really paid attention to the spiritual aspects of the conflict, and they both thrilled me and saddened me. The story told by Ken Burns is a tragic one, predicated on the sin of slavery and the pride of man. Both North and South invoked God in their respective struggles, and both, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, could not be right. However, within the tragedy and bloodshed, there was something higher at work.
As I have gone on my walk with God, my stance on war itself has evolved. My mind has definitely changed to be in line with God’s will. However, I have not lost the realization that in this world of sin, some things must be fought, though the consequences will certainly be horrible.