When PBS unfurls Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War on five consecutive nights beginning Sept. 23, viewers will see the year’s most unconventional miniseries: an 11-hour action drama composed largely of still photographs, with a cast of stars — Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterston, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, Jeremy Irons, Colleen Dewhurst, Pamela Reed — who never appear on camera. Burns’ goal-to weave a tapestry of the War Between the States that would encompass national politics and private agonies, mammoth battles and single casualties-required five years of work, innumerable trips to 160 archives, and examinations of 100,000 photographs in search of the 3,000 that made the final cut.
”When I look at an old photograph, I hear it,” says the 36-year-old Burns, who received Academy Award nominations for his documentary films Brooklyn Bridge (1981) and The Statue of Liberty (1985). ”I trust those old pictures to have been alive, and I treat them as if they’re three-dimensional, moving the camera across, moving in, moving through them as if they were from a Hollywood movie.” Burns chose photographs by dividing them into 300 categories — ”Bearded Lincoln, Beardless Lincoln, Northern Generals A-to-D,” he recalls — and then paring them down mercilessly. ”My first cut was 16 hours, and I could easily have done 20,” he says.
For the soundtrack, Burns recorded 2,500 quotations to create a historical narrative, and used ”civilians” — playwright Arthur Miller as Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; Jimmy Carter’s former press secretary, Jody Powell, as Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson; journalist Studs Terkel as Union Gen. Benjamin Butler — to complement his ensemble of actors. Burns was able to keep the budget to a lean $3.2 million largely because his readers — stars and nonstars — agreed to work free or for scale. ”Using nonactors was important for the quality of voice,” he says. ”We weren’t looking for performance but for meaning, which can come from any intelligent person.”
Burns has already turned his attention to his next film, on ”a subject that’s just as integral to the American character”: a history of baseball for PBS’ 1993-94 season. ”Battles or games, generals or managers, soldiers or players — they’re equally defining of who we are,” he says.
Burns awaits the airing of The Civil War with the hope that viewers won’t be daunted by the subject. ”If we care about the American soul, we have to learn about the Civil War. I want viewers to understand this as a huge emotional event, an epic family drama. And if they can give up Roseanne or The Cosby Show just for a week, they can find something that’s just as entertaining, even funny in parts, and moving.”