The Civil War

Genre: Documentary; Director: Ken Burns; Run Dates: 09/23/1990; Broadcaster: PBS

Ken Burns’ history of the Civil War is at once hypnotic and exciting. It tells the story of America’s worst war in the most straightforward manner possible: through calm narration, period paintings, and memorable photographs.

Nowhere over the course of this immense project will you see that bane of modern nonfiction TV, the ”dramatization.” You’d think that 11 hours of no action, of a stately succession of still photographs and voice-overs, would be dull. You would be wrong. Great drama, tension, and even humor arise from Burns’ artful editing of images, the way he moves his camera in and around pictures of battles, and scans across the portraits of people from Robert E. Lee to a teenage private in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers named Elisha Hunt Rhodes.

The closest Burns comes to a commercial strategy is having celebrities read from the diaries and speeches of Civil War participants and witnesses. But the voices of stars such as Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterston, Julie Harris, and Jeremy Irons are always discreet and appropriate.

Burns has said he wanted to avoid ”analysis” — that is, avoid imposing a political interpretation on his subject. But Burns’ The Civil War is by no means a creation of dry objectivity. To take just one aspect of the series: Burns’ extensive coverage of the roles that African-Americans played in the war — from the eloquent antislavery activism of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to the lives of black soldiers on both sides — amounts to ground-breaking scholarship, and is certainly a first for TV.

Even if you know little about the war — and I speak as an ignoramus myself — you’ll be caught up in Burns’ subtly urgent portrayal of this period in our history. And after watching it, you’ll probably feel you understand contemporary America a little better as well. A

Originally posted September 21 1990 — 12:00 AM EDT

More from Our Partners