All throughout elementary school and well past high school -- I hated the subject of history. Hated it. It wasn't that I thought it was a stupid thing to study (even back then I knew it was crucial to learn lessons from your past), but I guess I suffered at the feet of a few too many, well, seriously boring teachers. They'd rattle off dates and names and documents andzzzzzz -- I just involuntarily tuned out. To this day my knowledge of American History is sadly underwhelming, mainly because of my laziness as a student -- but also because Philadelphia used to hire just about anyone to be a history teacher. At least that's how it seemed to me.
But as I got a little older (and began discovering how delicious the cable channels "brain candy" could be), I took a strong interest in stuff like The American Revolution, The Civil War, and all that jazz. Plus, living in Philadelphia you really feel stupid if you don't know at least a little about our country's heritage -- and so I watched a whole lot of cable documentaries. From Christopher Columbus to the Industrial Revolution to the building of the Hoover Dam ... if the show was informative, well-paced, and boasting some half-decent production values, I watched it.
And then I discovered Ken Burns' mega-brilliant 680-minute masterpice called "The Civil War." (I swear I could watch it again right now.) This massive documentary brought The Civil War home in a way that no educator had ever done before -- plus I felt smarter for having learned a lot of interesting stuff, so I offer a big "thanks!" to Ken Burns.
So when I learned that I'd be reviewing a DVD collection that had the phrases "History Channel" and "Civil War" in the title, I was pretty psyched to sit down and see what the discs had to offer. And perhaps I'm unfairly comparing this series with Burns' definitive piece -- but this History Channel series reminded me a lot of my old high school history teachers.
That's not to say that the series doesn't cover some solid ground; it most assuredly does. From Shiloh and Antietem to Sumter and Bull Run, all of the major battles and participants are covered, but material is dry at best, redundant in general. While each episode is packed with letters, photos, and diary entries -- each one is also saddled with a ton of cornball re-enactments that look pretty darn silly. One might also expect a fair amount of "talking head" interviews from educators, authors, historians ... but nope, not really. Just a lot of monotone voice-over and a whole LOT of battle re-enactments. I was generally unimpressed -- plus I found myself tuning out a whole lot. Just like in high school.
Disc 1: The Hornets' Nest at Shiloh / The Bloody Lane at Antietem
Disc 2: The Wheatfield at Gettysburg / The Tragedy at Cold Harbor
Disc 3: John Brown's War / Destiny at Fort Sumter
Disc 4: The Battle of 1st Bull Run / The 54th Massachusetts
Disc 5: West Point Classmates - Civil War Enemies / Robert E. Lee
Disc 6: Stonewall Jackson / Sherman and the March to the Sea
Video: Original fullscreen format. Video quality is passable, but hardly stellar.
A pretty nifty booklet that's filled with Civil War info, plus some DVD-ROM stuff.
Civil War enthusiasts (who love to collect things) may appreciate this six-disc set more than I did, but I doubt that anyone would call it something to get excited about. Anyone else ... just stick with the Ken Burns film.