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One Of The Best Documentaries Ever Made
on August 9, 2005
There aren't too many productions from television that one can call "noble," but Ken Burns' The Civil War qualifies. Burns uses photographs, music, speech, maps and historical context to tell the story of the second most formative event in the nation's history. And since in those days people wrote...diaries, letters, journals...there is the written record not just of the great leaders, the politicians and generals, but of the wives and sweethearts, the nurses and doctors, newspaper editors and farmers. Most of all there are the words of the soldiers. Burns shows the importance and the sweep of the war, but in part he does it through the lives of average people caught up in events they may not have completely comprehended, but which they believed in.
If the words themselves have power, so do the voices. Burns recruited great voices, some actors, some not, to speak the words, distinctive voices that give great resonance to what we see. Julie Harris as Mary Chestnut, Charlie McDowell, a Virginia reporter, as Sam Watkins, Arthur Miller as William Sherman, Jason Robards as Grant, Studs Terkel as Benjamin Butler, Sam Waterston as Lincoln, and many others. He has David McCullough as the narrator. McCullough, an outstanding historian and writer, does a wonderful job. Burns also uses a number of historians to underline key points. Foremost, in my view, is Shelby Foote. Foote is the author of the epic three-volume Civil War. With his Southern accent, common sense and soft irony, he's a fascinating raconteur.
The program is never dry or dull. It is gripping and emotional. Both sides felt they were fighting for a pure cause. What is particularly touching is that, as a people, we had not yet lost much of the capacity for simple, unadorned, unembarrassed feelings, whether it be patriotism for one's country or love for one's wife. I challenge anyone to read this letter from Sullivan Ballou, a 32-year-old soldier in the Union Army, to his 24-year-old wife, and not sit stunned with emotion. Ballou was killed in the first battle of Bull Run a week later.
July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days-perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing-perfectly willing-to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .
Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me-perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .
The program flows over 11 hours on five discs. In addition to the documentary, the discs are stuffed with background information...maps, documents, biographies and additional interviews. This is a superb production and is worth every penny.