The Civil War – A film by Ken Burns
When evaluating Ken Burns documentary series The Civil War (1990) in terms of establishing a verdict on the inherent quality of the series, it is important to keep in mind that there two basic perspectives from which the film will ultimately viewed: the perspective of an “average” viewer, and the perspective of an historian. The division between these two types of viewers is, of course, not absolute, but such a distinction remains important because Burns’ documentary appeals, in my opinion, to the average viewer much more than to the historically informed viewer. By expressing such an opinion, I am in no way trying to insinuate that Burns’ film is technically deficient or conceptually weak; merely that the film serves more as a primer than as a comprehensive survey of the American Civil War.
The film begins by exploring the cultural and political build-up during the prewar years which ultimately led to the great schism which culminated in the outbreak of the war, proper. The format of the documentary is also established during the episodes which describe the build-up to war. In this way, the viewer is given a background in the historical realities which led up to the war while simultaneously being indoctrinated into the style of Burns’ documentary, which si to create a “montage” effect of diary entries, letters, photographs, paintings, and music to create an atmosphere which is compatible with and closely aligned with the voice-over which forms the backbone of the film’s narration. Because the narrative aspect of The Civil War plays such a key role in the way the film is perceived, it is crucial that the style of narration be examined beyond its simple capacity to hold the viewer’s interest and to entertain.
The overall impact of the narrative style of the film, especially in the opening episodes, is to give off the feeling of an “epic” story, of an historical time which of such great consequence and far-ranging influence that a multitude of voices must be engaged in order to fully articulate the story from a great number of perspectives. This style not only prevents the viewer from becoming fatigued with any one sub-plot or character, but also gives the impression to the viewer that the film is comprehensive in its vision. This latter impression is one which is specious when set against more deeply researched or more attentively noted historical fact and therefore part of my impression of the opening episodes of the documentary was that while the narrative form and style of the film is highly effective, certain historical actualities must be left out in order for the film to flow smoothly and remain a “linear” style of narrative. That is, I had the recurring impression that Burns seemed to be more deeply engaged in delivering a solid narrative than an historically accurate documentary.
In my opinion, the urge to restrict the historical scope of the documentary to those historical aspects which served the main line of narrative-plot for the film is a limiting decision. For example, the “cause” of the Civil War is explicitedly expressed as being slavery. However, most people understand that the historical basis for the Civil War rested on many other factors than slavery. When Shelby Foote remarks during the early section of the film that “The Civil war defines us for what we are” (Burns) it is very likely that he intended for that comment to mean much more than how it pertains to the issue of slavery. However, this quote is followed by a shot of a slave with a voice-over that is meant to be Lincoln’s voice which laments the coming tragedy of war. This same link between the outbreak of war and slavery as the singular cause is made when an historian, Barbara Fields is quoted as saying “If there was a single event that caused the war, it was the establishment of the United States in independence from Great Britain with slavery still a part of its heritage” (Burns).
Absolutely no dissenting voice is offered to perhaps expand upon this definition of cause or to refute it altogether. This fact illustrates that way in which Burns’ commitment to narrative overshadows his commitment to historical accuracy adn also helps to blur the historical realities of the Civil war in favor for what is a positive impact on the narrative thread Burns wants to pursue. Because Burns accepts that slavery was the primary impetus for the outbreak of war, it follows that his discussion of the war, itself, will be highly influenced by this belief.
During the account of John Brown’s actions at the early pre-war years, Burns paints John Brown as a hero although he was executed for being a murderer. Similarly, the Southerner John C. Calhoun is quoted repeatedly as though his voice represents the historical perspective of the South as a whole and, in reality, the South was comprised of a very diverse and opinionated group of individualists, something which may have contributed to its eventual defeat in the war.
These aspects are not covered by Burns because they do not contribute to the narrative picture he endeavors to paint. That picture simplifies, yet simultaneously elevates, the historical realities of the American Civil War to the level of popular myth. The term myth is not meant to indicate that Burns’ historical vision is shoddy or missing altogether, rather that Burns’ historical vision is shaped by a storytellers’ desire for a linear and harmonious narrative and this type of storytelling rarely, if ever, reflects the nuances of actual history. In this way, the documentary partakes of a mythic articulation of the Civil War, rather than a strictly historical perspective. Although the film may be imperfect in regard to historical comprehensiveness and authenticity, the film is engaging, exciting, and fulfilling to the average viewer. Burns’ approach allows for the potential that ordinary people who might otherwise express no interest in American history or in the American Civil War, are likely to be not only entertained but educated by the documentary.
Burns, Ken. The Civil War. 1990.