Ken Burns’ Civil War

September 13, SFO-JFK: What do I remember about Ken Burns’ Civil War? I watched it young, probably bit by bit on PBS. Eventually I convinced my parents to buy the VHS set— that bread box brick of a dozen cassettes. It was not the best investment; I watched it through once. But it was so visually impressive, sitting their in the tape library! It’s the number of VHS cassettes that sticks out most prominently in my memory. Christ, it was long. You kept feeding those things into the VCR one after another in a never-ending cycle.

How delighted I was to find the whole thing on Netflix and moreso to find it was only nine episodes. Perhaps my memory of its length had been distorted by time? Nope. That was correct. Each episode was longer than an hour, the first the length of a feature film. I dove right in.

I love the way the series begins: with an anecdote of a Virginia home-owner who claims “the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor”. It’s one of countless ways in which sprawling over so many hours Ken Burns brings the details of the Civil War to the forefront to make it more accessible and human.

As a documentary filmmaker, I felt there was always a smirking joke in the style of this series. That you could always slow pan across a couple of still shots and, with a wink, call it your Ken Burns sequence. But I’d originally watched this series long before I ever produced a frame of documentary, and today, with a professional’s eye, I found myself bowled over and impressed. The challenge of telling a story of epic length about long-ago history is the scant visual materials you have to work with. Burns essentially has a pile of photographs, a half dozen backbone interviews, and a handful of contemporary shots that affected the mood of long ago. There was no Zapruder film of the Battle of Gettysburg and impressively, Burns didn’t stoop to reenactments.

Ken Burns’ Civil War is unique in that it doesn’t present itself like a film. It’s actually more akin to a book. A big hefty doorstop of a tome. It uses the same techniques of detail and anecdote and the pace moves slowly, each beat breathing. After a battle, when the sun has set, Burns will give you a solid thirty second soundtrack of campfire and crickets over the moon in the dark night sky. (Ironically, this shot feels almost identical to the one used so frequently in Sherman’s March.) Burns tells the story about the great men, Lincoln and Lee and Grant and Davis, and meanwhile he builds narratives around on-the-ground characters like a Maine private who fought through the whole of the war.

I’m happy as hell I rewatched this series. It’s the sort of thing that feels unnecessary to repeat a viewing of— yeah, yeah, I know all about the civil war and I know what a Ken Burns movie looks like. But I’d never fully appreciated what a masterpiece this is.

Thankfully, modern technology now means you don’t need to buy a dozen VHS cassettes. Netflix will do you just right in your search for Ken Burns’ Civil War.

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