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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns
The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns
Warner Bros. // Unrated // September 17, 2002
List Price: $129.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Phillip Duncan | posted September 15, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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PBS DVD has undoubtedly released their finest DVD set in their new re-release of the groundbreaking documentary Ken Burns' The Civil War. Twelve years ago the documentary was considered groundbreaking and set a new standard for American documentary. Burns has gone on to replicate this formula several times with his follow up films, Baseball, JAZZ, and Mark Twain. Using the technology available for those films, the original crew has restored and reinvigorated the original documentary for today's technology.

Spread across 5 discs, The Civil War is a commitment to watch but one that does not go un-rewarded. The 9 episodes and various extras that make up this set are all top notch and the restoration that the set received shines.

Burns popularized the now common documentary style of telling a story using a creative combination of live location shots, copious photos and first-person voice-overs. Blended with a beautiful selection of music, the information is enchanting and appealing to watch. More than popularizing the Civil War, Burns has introduced a new generation to a respect for the past. The documentary brought about a new understanding for the price that was paid by American population and how it relates to events today. He masterfully picks the pieces of American history that are both widely known and almost unheard of and treats them with equal importance.

What follows is a brief rundown of each episode:

Episode 1: The Cause - Opening with a anecdote that sets the tone for the whole war, this episode also introduces some of the key players in the war without actually revealing who they are and the importance they will play. The beginnings of the war are shown to have come from slavery and how the south supported it and the north opposed it. The effect on the country is shown, from the attack at Fort Sumter to the 5,000 casualties that were the product of the battle at Manassas, Virginia.

Episode 2: A Very Bloody Affair - Opening with the writing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, this episode shows the immediate effects the start of a civil war had on the country. The political problems that Lincoln had to the technological advance in warfare with the introduction of ironclad ships and gatlin guns. More than just focusing on the battles, this episode focuses on what it was like being a soldier at this time and the amazing story of the young children that were enlisted in the armies.

Episode 3: Forever Free - Lincoln comes to his decision that slavery is necessary but wants to wait and issue the proclamation after a Union victory. The politics of war are explained as the South cuts cotton production to England and France. General Benjamin "The Beast" Butler is made infamous after his General Order No. 28 proclaims that women insulting any of his troops will be treated as ladies of the street. The episode closes with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.

Episode 4: Simply Murder - The episode starts off with a history of the rebel yell and then describes the mistakes that plagued the North. After a brief introduction describing more of the major players and events that would happen that year you learn more about the troubles facing the north. Despite their numbers, the North was often overwhelmed and the South too faced problems. Despite popular belief many northerners were against the Emancipation Proclamation. The highlight of the episode has to be section four where the food of the army is focused on. Worms seemingly infested every inch of food and drink. One soldier comments on the fact that the worms were easily skimmed off and they left no taste in the food. The episode ends with the death of Stonewall Jackson after losing his arm.

Episode 5: The Universe of Battle - The main focus of this episode is the Battle of Gettysburg. Over 150,000 men will fight in what will come to be known as the greatest battle fought on American soil. Ironically enough the battle was started by marching Confederate soldiers who were in search of shoes. Their March led them straight into the Union army. Interludes in the episode provide information on the role that black troops and women played in the war and ends with Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

Episode 6: The Valley of the Shadow of Death - Like many of the episodes this one shines when it focuses on more than just the battles. The highlight of this disc is the exploration of the growth of hospitals. The largest hospitals had gardens, livestock and breweries. Poet Walt Whitman is profiles when his trip to find his wounded brother winds up involving him with the plight of the wounded soldiers. Appalled by the conditions he found, he stayed on and read the men poems and talked to many of them "providing a medicine that the doctors could not." The harsh reality of the situation is conveyed with a slow procession of photos from an outdoor embalming session only accompanied only by the hot summer clicking of the insects often heard outdoors.

Episode 7: Most Hallowed Ground - With a focus on Lincoln's political bid for reelection, this episode is a little slower than others. Interest in inserted with stories about spies for both sides and the important role that slaves played in that area. Black soldiers in the war face both a victory and a vicious defeat. They are elated when given equal pay and Nathan Bedford Forrest shocks many as he slaughters 300 black soldiers that surrendered. The episode ends with a look at the thousands killed and the creation of Arlington National Cemetery.

Episode 8: War Is All Hell - With only two episodes left, the series seemingly ends early with the events that lead to the surrender at Appomattox. General Sherman makes his famous march through the south, destroying all in his path. Slaves are freed and soldiers desert their units as the South begins to lose all hope of victory. After the formal surrender the episode ends on John Wilkes Booth.

Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature - The surrender is revisited once again as the motive behind John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Lincoln is explored. As a final look, the episode revisits most of the key players in the war. More than just generals and leaders are focused upon. Finally all the elements are brought together one last time with an examination of what the war meant to the nation.

On another note, PBS should be given an award for the navigation that is on the disc. Strictly static pages contain all the information needed and links to the episodes and special features are present on any page. There is little to no back and forth menu switching here. Such a subtle thing is a blessing when moving through such a deep and complex set.

The Video: The only true video in the disc is the live action location footage that was filmed. Originally filmed more than 12 years ago, film technology has evolved since then and a major restoration was given to the set. Covered in detail in a documentary the restoration improved the video quality immensely. Using a machine called a DataCine and a software package called Scream, the restoration removed most of the grain and noise from the film. Other errant marks and scratches were cleared and the still photos and other images were manipulated and cleaned as well. All of this work makes for a near perfect transfer.

The Audio: The audio was remixed into a stereo and 5.1 channel mix as well. The beautifully composed music sounds perfect coming from the surrounds, as does the added effects. The voice-overs are served well by the center channel isolation. All in all, nothing was taken away from remixing the audio. It's a subtle mix that never overpowers and takes away from the documentary feel.

Extras: Each disc has a few extras on it that add slightly to the set. Filmmaker Burns has provided a commentary for all the episodes. Those expecting a full-length chat fest will likely be disappointed. Burns lets the material speak for itself and only occasionally chimes in with a few extra details about the material or the source. Several full screen maps are provided that illustrate the paths that the many battles took and the routes that both armies took to get there. There is a trivia section that poses a few questions about each episode. Nothing extremely difficult, there is no reward other than just feeling good having known the answers.

Overall: This amazing documentary has received the treatment it deserves. The restoration methods for this set are normally reserved for only blockbuster films and the like. PBS and their supporters should be thanked for providing the funding necessary for such an undertaking. The only drawback to the set will likely be the high price ($129 SRP), but with the holiday season right around the corner this is a set that should definitely be added to any wish list. The amount of detail and information presented is unequaled and the quality is as well. This is a perfect addition to any collection and one that any civil war fan would no doubt be caught without.
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