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Filmmaker Ken Burns on The Civil War and More

by Jesse Shanks

Coming on September 17 on DVD from PBS Home Video is The Civil War—A Film by Ken Burns in a 5-disc box set featuring the entire series plus a quiz, maps, biographies and selected commentary by the filmmaker. Burns took time off from a remarkably busy schedule to attend a teleconference about the DVD release.

PBS will rebroadcast The Civil War in its entirety beginning on September 22, complete with digitally remastered images and audio. The updated version will include a new introduction by Burns, behind-the-scenes material, and include a side-by-side demonstration of the remastered footage. Also planned are presentations of special interviews with Shelby Foote, Stanley Crouch, George Will, musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, among others.

Burns credited the success of his four-hour, two-part portrait of American humorist Mark Twain as an impetus toward putting the immensely popular Civil War series onto DVD. With the entire film now digitized, Burns described his feeling when they first saw the new video transfer: "Paul [Barnes] and I looked at each other and our eyes filled with tears because it looked like that moment when the raw footage came back from the lab. From the interview with Shelby or the trip to the Library of Congress where I spent six weeks filming thousands of Matthew Brady photographs or out at dawn at a Civil War battle site straining to hear the ghosts and echoes of that inexpressively wise past. And so there's something so satisfying for us in what we have been doing."

Noting how some of the original process damaged the film, Burns said, "What we work with is a direct copy from the negative and looks spectacular. However, editing on film within a day or two, it's already scratched up the second you splice it. You have a tape splice, it collects dust so almost from the get go that image decays and, of course, by the time we have scenes that are working it looks terrible."

But in the digitizing process, some limitations of the film medium were overcome. "We also were able to correct an age-old problem, not only with 16mm film that occurs because of the small size of the negative, but also with material that is mostly archive that is shot off an animation bench or off an easel... which becomes a kind of target and shows off any imperfection, any 'bounce' in the stability of the image."

Admitting that he is so often busy with current projects and has rare occasion to see his own films in their entirety, Burns commented on his experience with revisiting The Civil War, saying, "There was something really satisfying about stopping and looking at The Civil War and in seeing it and recalling how it was made and the kind of terror and excitement we felt as we were working on it. The kinds of rules we were breaking, the emotions we were touching—not only in ourselves but in the country—all of that has come back."

Asked about the technology of the DVD, Burns described himself as "not so much the original Luddite," but he spoke on some of the advantages of the new medium, "Producing this DVD at this time allowed us to go back and literally, frame by frame from the original negative, make this film look and, because we also remixed it to stereo, sound better that it ever has, better than I had ever seen. Better than anything since the original moment of recording the image. So the principle advantage of that is the quality and the clarity of the digital world that has permitted us to do that."

The DVD includes some commentary by Burns, who discussed his approach to the task, "I was actually, in the beginning, very reluctant to do it all. Then I was talking to some people and they brought up enough questions that they thought had been raised in the course of the last twelve years. What I agreed to do was take a few signal chapters, and of course each episode had perhaps 10-15 chapters, and sort of talk with it. And sometimes I could be telling you sort of the larger impetus, how we made it, how we approached who we worked with, some of the interesting anecdotes. Another time it might just be riffing off the ideas that are happening in that particular episode or the series as a whole or maybe specifically in that chapter or the moment."

"So I found it, for me, a nice encounter session that allowed me to regurgitate—in the best way—some of the stories that have built up in me over the past twelve years, to be able to talk about the ideas that really compelled us as we were making the film; that didn't need, in an editorial sense, to be rammed down the viewer's throat, and to communicate just some anecdotes of the production that people might or might not find interesting."

As far as adding more extras or providing additional scenes for the disc, the filmmaker had this to say, "The content of The Civil War hasn't altered. It seems to be the tendency of a lot of directors to go in and tweak and add things that they couldn't put in before... alternative scenes. I'm less interested in that. It is sort of like asking a painter to go back into his blue period and change it to red. I have creative control with PBS. The film that I put out originally had it."

He continued, "Essentially, people want to have stories told to them well. So as much as you want to sweep up the junk on the editing room floor and show it and that's got some limited interest to the 'behind-the-scenes' folks. I think in the end, it is the final product that matters most. It's the statue that grew out of that rubble that is the most important thing. So I am focusing on how clean and beautiful the presentation is and less on the ancillary stuff."

As far as the extras that have been included, Burns said, "It also afforded us, twelve years out, to take a little time and provide extras like the making of the restored version, to go back and gather the threads of the short history that has taken place since The Civil War came out. That is to say, the kind of response we had. Interviews with Shelby Foote, to say how it changed his life. Interviews with critics like George Will and Stanley Crouch, who I think have been pretty keen observers. Interviews with the musicians." He added that he did not produce the extra material, saying, "I didn't want to have anything to do with soliciting compliments or criticisms from people."

The filmmaker emphasized that fidelity to the original film was paramount in his considerations of the DVD release, stating that he was "presented with an array of other options, " which he vetoed, he said, in order to focus on the quality of the presentation, and still allow for what he called "not so much modest," but "befitting the series itself."

In a similar vein, Burns was asked about the possibility of changing his films based on feedback or criticism and replied, "Our films are more the processes of discovery. In the course of making a film... we expose ourselves to all sorts of different influences and tendencies and choose those that seem to fit." He went on to say, "At the end people can come and say, 'Hey you forgot this,' and we can say, 'Yes we didn't forget it, we chose not to use it,' or 'Wow, that's an interesting story.'"

"But it has never been enough to think that I would go back and crowbar open the film, unless we made a mistake, which we, being human, always do. For example, although our film was vetted by two dozen historians of the highest order about the Civil War... we missed Lincoln's age of death. We had it as 54 and not 56. That's now been corrected. And, I'll go and do that. But, the idea of going and changing the direction of something that's already done... It's almost like opening a family album. Seeing the way you looked when you were twelve and wishing you had more flesh on your bones. You know, you're not going to pencil it in."

Asked about his perception of the impact of his films, Burns spoke with obvious pride, "I think it has a pretty profound one and I say that modestly. I think it's because it's on television, so it tends to reach a lot of people. I think the films are well made and I think that helps to increase the audience. But more to the point, these are the sorts of things that prime the pump. After The Civil War series, battlefield attendance at national park sites went up 300 per cent in some cases. It prompted study, it prompted investigation and well I suppose the pessimist who sees the glass half empty can worry that what happens in a an essentially superficial medium like film and television when that's the only source where people get their information and what kind of responsibility that you have to that. But nonetheless the history of the films have been that they have prompted so much additional reading, so much additional travel and investigation, that I think it really undermines the worry."

The Civil War is composed in what has become known as the "Ken Burns style" in its mixture of epistolary material, still photographs and period music. Burns noted, "There were more than a million images taken during the Civil War for a country that was obsessed with seeing and also thereby subduing the carnage they were inflicting on each other. After the war, the appetite fell off, Matthew Brady went bankrupt, and the reason why we have his pictures in the Library of Congress and the public domain is because Congress took pity on this guy and bailed him out with a little bit of local pork and paid several thousand dollars to buy his collection—at the time—which is, of course, priceless."

"There were 164 sources of photographs of the Civil War and it just becomes one of the best parts of what we do; a detective story, trying to track things down. One of my favorite stories is driving about eight hours to Gorham Maine to set up and shoot a single photograph of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top, that a family at a suburban tract house in Goreham Maine had."

One questioner noted Burns' extensive use of letters to narrate his films and wondered if the art of personal writing was somehow being lost in this "era of phones and email." Burns replied that his experience was different, "I've got thousands of letters and some of them are so poetic that they belie that. I do think that essentially we've forgotten [it] in our culture, and television is the worst entity for that and by extension, our media culture, that the word is the most important thing. We are the only country held together by words. You know all the other countries are there by geography, language, race, religion, conquest or economics. We're here because the citizens assent to agree to certain words, certain ideas. In our country it is the idea that is central, not the thing itself. That gets eroded. I hope that in these rather literary films that we make don't at all suggest to people that God is only in images; that we hope that he or she exists in combination of the two."

Burns also described some of the international impact of The Civil War that has come to him in the form of letters from abroad, "It's shown in dozens of countries I would guess 60 foreign countries: China, Russia, Bulgaria, Indonesia, as well as the usual suspects. Particularly, I got a lot of mail from Canada, Britain and Mexico. I think, for the North Americans, there was a sense that The Civil War gave them access to their complicated neighbor to the south and the north, that because of our power, our stature in the world, sometimes our belligerent stance, our arrogance.. that we're a difficult cup of tea to figure out. I think The Civil War has unlocked some of the mysteries of what makes us tick. And people have said so in just so many words."

He went on to describe more of what he has learned about how the world views our Civil War, "Most civil wars are characterized by huge slaughter of the civilian population—our civil war didn't do that and had the ennobling extra benefit of not just freeing 4 million black Americans that were held as slaves, but all of their descendants, of course, and of course, freeing the slave owners who were themselves burdened and enslaved by being slave owners. And it is a huge, important war in world history, and it proved at a very critical point that this tangible manifestation of the Enlightenment called the United States of America could overcome its first serious—and I mean serious—problem, and we did so with, essentially, flying colors, despite the loss of 2% of our population."

Although he made it clear that his intention in making the film is not necessarily to 'set the record straight' on history, he described how that is often the case, "If you took a random poll about Reconstruction, they would see it as a dark period of American history. That's because all our literature has pointed to that, when in fact, Reconstruction was the first attempt by the United States government to enforce civil rights laws. It was a good period. And it was the collapse of Reconstruction when a back room deal gave the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes—who had actually lost the election to Samuel Tilden—and the quid pro quo was the South demanded if they were going to change... By the way this is electoral votes in Florida... If they were going to change their votes, the quid pro quo was all the Federal troops would be withdrawn from the South. They were withdrawn because the party in power, the Republican party, which had been born the party of Civil Rights, were now a party in power and big business said, 'Okay' and Civil rights was abandoned. Blacks in offices disappeared overnight. The Ku Klux Klan was ascendant. Jim Crow became the law of the land. I mean nobody ever teaches that. And what we have tried to do in our films is just say, Hey this is what really happened and it's not really a question of skewing it our way or in favor of our consultants, it's usually the historical fact."

Asked what was the most important myth exposed in The Civil War, Burns replied quickly, "That African Americans were passive bystanders to the struggle, when in fact, they were active, dedicated, self-sacrificing soldiers, [in this] intensely personal drama of self-liberation. I'll go to my grave happy that we didn't help to push along, through the decades, the horrible stuff of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind."

Burns described how current events influence our perception of the past: "There's not an event that doesn't have its root in Today, and vice versa. This is the great tension of history. History is not about the past, right? I'm not going to change anything that happened on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. History is about the present. History is essentially the questions we, in the present, ask of the past. So, history holds up a mirror, not only of where we've been, but where we are now."

"The questions we asked in 1961 at the Centennial are not the questions we asked in 1990 when my series came out. They were different, more emotional, concerned with loss and life, gain, and African-American issues, stuff that wasn't there. History defines where you are at the moment. So, you have that tension as well, in addition to the fact that something like the Civil War can be so seminal to our national consciousness. As you make the film, you feel that running through you and you try not to be swayed too much one way or the other. But at the same time, it's very important to incorporate that idea."

He added, "It's important to understand that it is kind of a two-way street. There's no more important event in American history than the Civil War. Everything that came before it led up to it, and everything afterwards [in] some way echoes what went on, particularly with regard to race, particularly in regard to the Confederate flag. You'll look in our film and you won't see any villains, except the institution of slavery—which I am perfectly happy to have as a villain. It's really a family drama that we are trying to tell. And if you look at the criticism of the film, it's only from the extreme far left or the extreme far right that anybody has questioned the accuracy, the bent, or the prejudice of the film."

Burns outlined an exhausting schedule of what his next projects were, "I am currently finishing a film called Horatio's Drive about the first cross-country automobile trip done in 1903, on a $50 bet. Our hero, Horatio Nelson Jackson, bet that he could drive from San Francisco to New York—something that no one had ever done, although many had tried—in less than 90 days. He did it in a hilarious and wonderful way. We discovered the persevering letters that he wrote, and Tom Hanks has read them. That will be out in 2003 on the Centennial of his trip, and the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark journey. We'll pair those two films next fall. We are in the middle of shooting a film on Jack Johnson, the first African American boxer, the person for who the expression "Great White Hope" was invented because, at that time, it was intolerable that an African American might be the world's heavyweight champion. That is a complicated thing that will be out in 2004. We have been in negotiations and hope to produce a film with the King family on the life of Martin Luther King."

And if that were not enough, he added, "We are also engaged in two long-term series that will be out toward the end of the decade. The first on the National Parks—not travelogues but biographies, the histories of how they came about. And on World War II, in which we are taking several American towns and following the men and women who went to the Pacific and Europe, who went to the factories, who went to a segregated army, who came home changed... and I hope in the course to do something that, despite a spate of World War II stuff, gives the viewers a sense of what actually took place across the entire arc of the war. That for all the wonderful films and bad films, from Pearl Harbor—that I thought was pretty execrable—to Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan and all the other things... None of them have given the overview of the war, which we hope to do without being too encyclopedic. And that's the next ten years...."

PBS has launched a companion web site for the DVD release of The Civil War at, where they plan to provide a comprehensive overview of the film, the remastering process, and additional rich media content. Slated for reissue in paperback is the best-selling companion volume to The Civil War with a new preface by Ken Burns.