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The Civil War: A Film By Ken Burns
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525 of 540 people found the following review helpful
Format: DVD
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 . . .

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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.
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155 of 158 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2011
Format: DVD
I first saw this on PBS and was spellbound by it. It is simply everything you need to know about the American Civil War. If you think history is dry and uninteresting, this film by Ken Burns will change your mind. This is filled with comedy and pathos, courage and cowardice, and a balanced explanation that is fair to both sides of the conflict.

Burns used well-known actors to read the diaries and writings of both famous people (Grant, Lee, Lincoln) and average persons and soldiers. It gives one a well-rounded view of both sides. I am in awe of the writings of that time--the people had an incredibly, descriptive way of writing; a command of the English language that has sadly been lost in modern times.

Burns also used still photographs, panning across them, giving the audience the feel of watching an actual movie of the time. That technique has since been adopted by other documentaries.

I've seen the series many times, and each time find something more. If nothing else, see it for Shelby Foot--a writer/historian who speaks about Robert E. Lee, and others, like he personally knew them. Fascinating from beginning to end!
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169 of 178 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2005
Format: DVD
Ken Burns has established himself as one of the greats in terms of historical documentaries. The Civil War is Mr. Burns' greatest work. The attention to detail brings the history to life. Mr. Burns does an excellent job of bringing humanity to the tragic time in America. With the use of solder's and family letters it is evident what a difficult time it was to be an American. Originally aired on PBS in September of 1990, nearly fifteen years later the series remains the ultimate narrative about the United States darkest time.

The series is finally released on DVD. While the price is a little high the amazing quality of the series makes the cost very reasonable. Ken Burns' Civil War is required for any Civil War historian's collection. The series is also a great way for those wishing to learn more about the Civil War. I would recommend this to anyone that loves historical documentaries. It does not get any better than The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns.
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87 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2002
Format: DVD
I remember watching this documentary by Ken Burns when it first appeared on PBS in 1990. It started my lifelong interest in the Civil War. Countless books and trips to battlefields later, it still stands as the finest general work on the war ever made.
The story of the war is told through pictures, narratives, and the unobtrusive narration by David McCoulough, who's voice is pitch pefect for the job. Never before have photos had such a dramatic effect in telling a story. They say a picture says a thousand words, and this series prove that maxim correct. The five discs cover the 5 years of the war, and the 9 parts of teh series. The most effective are "1861: The Cause", "1863: The Universe of Battle", and "1865: The Better Angels of our Nature". They cover the events that led up to the war, the turining points at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and the end and aftermath of the war. Each is suprememly emotional. One episode intersperses an old narrative from the daughter of a former slave as she remembers her father's stories. Shelby Foote, author of the most comprehensive book on the war, offers invaluable advice. High praise must also go to Sam Waterston, who voices Abraham Lincoln. In the final segment of the 1863 disc, Waterston recites the Gettysburg Address, and I must admit it brought me to tears.
The music is also a key factor to the success of the film. Burns went back and found the old music that was popular among the people and the soldiers, both North & South during the war. It is moving, from the haunting opening music, to the old spirituals that are found on disc 2's "1862: Forever Free". Add that to a stable of great voice actors, (besides Waterston, Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass and George Plimpton as George Tempelton Strong are standouts), and the film becomes almost magical, transporting the viewer to those 4 horrible years that changed the Nation forever.

The Civil War is the most important saga in American History, and this documentary gives the people who fought it and the effect the War had on the US as a people the proper historical weight and respect. It deserves a place on any amatuer historians shelf.
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97 of 103 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2004
Format: DVD
Having owned and viewed the VHS edition of the Civil War numerous times, I didn't know if the DVD would make that much of a difference. Believe me, it does. Every frame of the film is digitally remastered and color corrected. The entire soundtrack is also digitally remastered. It's almost like seeing the film for the first time.

Concerning the film itself, for those of you who have been hiding under a rock and haven't seen it yet, this is probably the best Documentary ever made. Just get it.
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60 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2005
Format: DVD
I used to watch documentaries with my dad when I was growing up from time to time. Being African American and from the deep deep South (both parents from the Atlanta area) we never really watched the ones having to do with the Civil War or Black perspective because they tended to be slanted one way or the other. I never wanted to see those kind of documentaries and my parents had such pained expressions on their faces whenever something of that nature was on tv it just wasn't worth it to me. Seeing as my parents lived such trying times day to day when they were growing up, I guess they could never be interested in other's views since they lived it.

Both my parents passed unexpectedly 2 months apart from each other my mother dying after my father. (This documentary originally aired literally days after my fathers passing.) I know I was in shock from his loss at that time otherwise I never would have watched, but since it reminded me of watching documentaries with my him I watched it.....then I became captivated.

The presentation rang so true, because it wasn't just opinion from the modern viewpoint feeding us information from their own perspective. There were period photos, correspondence, diaries from actual people and Good Lord...the MUSIC was wonderful. Things from North and South, White and Black woven throughout giving authenticity to the series. It was like a tapestry. ALL sides were never ever presented as a whole to see why things were as they were. Especially in such an eloquent manner. Although I in no way agree with why any Southern slave holders (not just White, but there were Native American and Black as well) felt the way they did, I began to understand that this was all they knew since the time this country began. Slavery was not aggressively addressed then because it was too divisive.

Because slavery was too painful to speak of it was never examined in my household. It truly changed me, I HAD to know more. Then when the movie "Glory" came out on video shortly afterwards I was a goner. I became a true Civil War buff. This is honestly a truly perfect documentary that should have been named "The Real Civil War" God Bless you Ken Burns.
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41 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2007
Format: DVD
The Civil War by Ken Burns may be the single best thing that I have ever watched on television. There were so many moments of grandeur and tragedy interwoven into the show--it was remarkable to watch.

The show's ability to create dramatic tension with only old photographs of Civil War battle sites and the people of the time, coupled with voice-overs was astounding to me--there was not one dramatic re-enactment in the entire series.

Since the show was an extended miniseries (11 hours long) that meant that it could be leisurely yet thorough, and explore people and events from multiple points of view.

Probably the most appealing single person in the series, for me, was Shelby Foote, a Southern historian who, throughout the series, provided an appreciative accounting of the Southerners who fought on the Confederate side, while making it clear that he had no appreciation for the practice of slavery.

Along with the remarkable eloquence of the people who wrote the letters during that War, I appreciated the care that was taken by Ken Burns to find celebrities, like Jason Robards and Julie Harris, to read those letters aloud. They had such wonderfully evocative voices, and along with the mellow voices from historians like David McCullough and Shelby Foote, providing information and perspective, they made the experience of watching The Civil War magical.
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Format: VHS TapeVerified Purchase
I could kick myself for not recording this PBS special when it aired almost ten years ago. Luckily, I was able to purchase this magnificent documentary, and I can tell you all that it is well worth the steep purchase price.
Ken Burns' artistic creation seems to be the standard by which all other documentary films are judged. It was a landmark film disecting a very complex subject. Using actors to read actual letters and quoting dialog from the war's participants, while showing the viewer startling photographs from the war, was a brilliant stroke. And the commentaries sprinkled throughout by the historians, especially Foote, gleaned an insight not often found in documentary films, and brought vividly to life the great battles and the terrible human cost that the people of the era (both male and female / north and south) had suffered.
If one wants to see how our nation grew up and is the country we have today, look no further than this epic as a starting point. I would also recommend the four-hour movie "Gettysburg", taken almost word-for-word from the late Michael Shaara's pulitzer prize novel "The Killer Angels", as a fine companion piece.
"The Civil War" documentary (nine video tapes--approximately 15 hours of viewing time) is a fine beginning for anyone thirsting for knowledge about our history. Those interested in the "Old West" may also get an insight, or at least an understanding, of where some of the most notorious outlaws and lawmen sprang, and possibly why they felt human life was so dirt-cheap.
Between 1 and 10, "The Civil War" rates the highest level possible. If films like these were available when I was going to school, maybe I wouldn't have napped so often in history class.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2005
Format: DVD
I frankly think that this is the best film made about the Civil War. Burns does a great service to all those who took part in the war and the nation that was shaped by our "greatest" War. As Shelby Foote so wisely put it, "It was a divide in the road and a hell of a divide it was". (The War basically made us the Nation that we are for better or worse and I like to think for the better)

The use of the old photos and the actual terrain by Burns was frankly brillant.It really helps one gets a feel for what it must of been like and what the people of the war thought and behaved. I think that this film will be watched & enjoyed by future Americans a 100 years from now.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2002
Format: DVD
Whereas critics may have chirped at Ken Burns' other documentaries like 'Jazz' or 'New York', there is virtually universal praise for this single, spectacular masterpiece. Not only is the Civil War brought to life but by the end of the entire 11 hour series you feel like you've been through the war itself.
The most important achievement of the documentary is showing how the war, with all its carnage, achieved the higher purpose of freeing the slaves. While the war may have started with the notion of keeping the tattered union together, it eventually brought societal, constitutional, economic, and medical changes that would have otherwise not come about had their not been a war. It truly was the birth of a "new freedom".
You watch as new innovative tactics are introduced out of sheer necessity. You see thousands of men using outdated tactics (charging a defense line with your bayonet) are mowed down by new weapons such as the gattling gun and the Repeating Rifle. You witness the banality of siege warfare as implemented by Gen. George McClellan. And you contrast that with maneuver warfare brilliantly executed by Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest. You learn how the generals (and the country at large) grew to appreciate and utilize the telegram. You learn from General Lee how to lead from the front and how a few men effectively positioned can hold off 100 men. You witness how incompetent Union generals nearly lost the war to an inferior army. With only a rudimentary understanding in medicine, tens of thousands died from disease and from reparable surface wounds. However, without the enormous loss of life, we would have never made the medical and tactical advances that the war brought on.
More than any other character in the documentary, I enjoyed historian Shelby Foote the most. His amusing Mississippi drawl and the way he personalized the war made you realize the humanity of these legendary figures. He also highlighted how resentment towards blacks lasted for decades after the war (how the south still hates Lincoln, how Vicksburg refused to celebrate 4th of July for 80 years). You cannot possibly begin to understand US History until you have faithfully studied the Civil War. Thank you Ken Burns.
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