The Civil War
First appearing on PBS in 1990, Ken Burns' hugely influential epic-length documentary on the War Between the States immediately became the most-watched show on public television in history, a distinction that has yet to be bettered. Broken into nine episodes shown over nine separate nights, more than 40 million people tuned in to Burns' re-telling of the most monumental event in American history, captivated by the intricate subject-matter, but also by Burns' genre-defying documentary method an approach so unique that it has been imitated several times since and is now often referred to simply as "The Burns Style." Rather than simply stringing along a series of photos and maps, Burns interspersed his traditional documentary elements with modern-day footage of battlefields, carefully captured at the correct times of year, which gives the The Civil War a poetic quality that viewers didn't expect. Rather than relying on a singular narrative account (traditionally via an authoritative male voice), Burns expanded on his epic story by including letters by historical figures read by actors, including Sam Waterston and Morgan Freeman, skillfully blending humanity and history. Burns also took liberties with the linear structure of his story, starting with the events that led to the siege of Fort Sumpter and ending with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomatox, but also investigating several non-military issues along the way, including the often-overlooked plight of both women and African-Americans during the conflict. Audiences loved it, but high-profile success can come at a price, and in Burns' case it resulted in an academic backlash from many historians who felt that The Civil War actually performed a disservice by distilling complicated historical events into easily digestible television. Burns himself readily admitted that his film was inferior to history books, but his critics overlooked one obvious fact he had made a film, not a history book. Even though The Civil War clocks in at 11 hours, it is still a narrowly confined version of the events it depicts. Besides, Ken Burns hasn't won too many accolades as a historian, but he's won several as a filmmaker, and The Civil War is both a spectacular glimpse of the past and spellbinding cinema. Hopefully, it has encouraged people over the past ten years to read more about the war, and about American history in general.
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The Civil War has been released on DVD by PBS Home Video in a spectacular five-disc set (General Motors has been the sole corporate financier of Burns' Florentine Films imprint, with PBS holding broadcast and video rights). The new full-frame transfers have been improved over the original 1990 broadcast source the old Telecine materials have been discarded and a new Spirit Datacine transfer was created specifically for the DVD and a 2002 PBS rebroadcast, which means this version of The Civil War looks better than ever before with deeper definition and digital retouching. Audio also has been improved from the original monaural broadcast source to a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that locks voices to the center channel and spreads the music and sound effects across the soundstage (the original mono is included as well). In addition to all nine original episodes, director Burns performs a Herculean commentary effort, offering five hours of selected comments throughout the series. Each disc also includes a "Battlefield Maps" feature with selected stills from the film, textual notes, and a quick link to the relevant section on the DVD, as well as a "Civil War Challenge" with trivia questions. Tucked away on Disc One are a few more special features, including "Behind the Scenes: The Civil War Reconstruction" (8 min.) with a look at the new Spirit Datacine transfer; "Ken Burns: Making History" (7 min.), which examines Burns' filming process; "A Conversation with Ken Burns" (10 min.) which features Burns and an unidentified interviewer; "Civil War Biographies" of the film's historical principals; and additional interview footage from the film. Five-DVD digipak with paperboard slipcase.