American Experience: Robert E. Lee – Review

By Jay Wertz
12/28/2010 • HistoryNet TV & Movies, Wyatt Earp

Robert Edward Lee, the most celebrated commander in the short history of the Confederate States of America, is almost always considered among America’s great military leaders, even though he spent nearly four years fighting against the United States. His legacy is a complex one and touches on many aspects of American history beyond his battlefield cunning and nerve—he was a Virginia aristocrat from a prominent family, married to a descendent of George and Martha Washington. He both studied and commanded at West Point; he excelled in military engineering, was a Mexican War hero, the spiritual leader of the Confederacy, a college president and, after his death, symbol of the “Lost Cause.” Now WGBH public broadcasing brings to its innovative American Experience history series his biography, “Robert E. Lee,” premiering on PBS stations January 3, 2011.

What can we learn about Lee from this documentary, coming at the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Anniversary and roughly two weeks shy of Lee’s 204th birthday? A companion article regarding this program is currently appearing on HistoryNet’s partner site,, written by that magazine’s editor in chief, Col. Jerry Morelock, PhD. That article examines the Lee legacy as presented in the program. My task is to look at the style of this documentary and, unfortunately, in that respect this great subject may be receiving a less-than-satisfying treatment when compared to other American Experience biographies.

Produced by Mark Zwonitzer, “Robert E. Lee” is a competently executed documentary, but it leaves me feeling unsatisfied and claustrophobic. That is not a good thing for a larger-than-life figure like Lee. Having reviewed many American Experience programs, including a very effective Wyatt Earp biography a year ago, I’m familiar with some of the stylistic conventions the series uses—still-life motifs, panoramic vistas, talking heads, and camera movement through paintings, photographs, maps. If the intent of the filmmakers was to be more symbolic than literal that intent is also betrayed in the visual elements.

The program begins and ends at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Present-day cadets march in close order drill, the camera exploring details of the formation. While not a unique beginning, it does serve as a good device to introduce by intercut details of West Point artifacts and scenes: uniform parts, period cadet quarters, instruments of study. Starting at the academy is a logical choice given the program’s emphasis on Lee’s conviction to excel as a soldier. While many wonderful authentic and detailed items are revealed, the quality of selection is not the problem. The still-life scenes remain too still and limited in scope and for too long.

The problem continues and expands in the next phase of Lee’s life presented, his courtship and betrothal to Mary Custis. There is a predominance of shots of flowers, grasses and leaves without much meaning, symbolic or otherwise, to attach to them. And while there are some truly magnificent and well-photographed paintings of Lee, Mary and other family members, they begin to lose effectiveness after repeated and often static uses. Considering the filmmakers photographed Arlington House and many other historic locations, the close-up views and static angles wear thin quickly. Even the most difficult location to screen out modern interference, the Lee Statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, could have benefited from some moving camera to augment the many ultra close-ups.

Despite the hemmed-in feeling I received from many of the tabletop motifs, closely cropped edifices and endless blown-up document parts, I did get an obvious symbolism—the neatly appointed desk belonging to Lee and the messy rooms of the Custis mansion. Lee was neat; Mary was not.

The program does gain some momentum visually when Lee enters combat in the Mexican War. Photographs, hand-painted lithographs and other visuals combine with sound effects to move the storyline along. Maps are introduced with some degree of success. One of the best early sequences, visually and as a story, is Lee’s braving the Pedrigal, the lava-strewn no-man’s land that was the key to gaining Mexico City. A convincing model reveals the natural menace, and the combination of visual, sound and narration effectively sums up one of Lee’s memorable triumphs.

As the program segues into the Civil War era, the photographs of Lee became more and more repetitive. Not only is his relationship with subordinate officers and Confederate leaders minimally discussed, it is never shown in photograph or rendering. In only one photograph is a group of Army of Virginia soldiers shown; in that marvelous candid shot in Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862. All other photographs of living soldiers are of the single studio portrait type. Renderings and paintings are effectively used most of the time, along with many shots of dead bodies. There’s a clear preoccupation with the dead. Few images are identified as to time or place and when they are, sharp-eyed viewers will spot some mistakes and out-of-order sequences.

The success of the program’s visual elements being in peril, the audio must take charge. The reliable narration of American Experience regular Michael Murphy is minimal, and that’s the strength of the program in most cases. Instead of long narration passages, the baton is often picked up by the historians, who usually fluidly carry the story right through to the next punctuation mark. The exception is Gettysburg College scholar Peter S. Carmichael who, in the program, looks and sounds like he just downed one of those popular energy drinks. He’s trying too hard. However, Gary Gallagher, Emory M. Thomas and the rest, especially Elizabeth Brown Pryor, tell the story with knowledge and eloquence. And just listening to Winston Groom speaking is wonderful. Even if he’s just summing up a point, he does it with flair.

I’ve heard better interpretations of Lee’s reading than the excerpts delivered in the program by actor Christopher Sarandon, but that’s admittedly a matter of taste. The music is mostly effective in my opinion, though it gets repetitive in the portion of the program dealing with Lee’s Civil War leadership. The sound effects are minimal but appropriate. When the story veers away from Lee and his experiences, as it does at times, the historians do their best to wrangle it back on track.

I can only speculate as to why this program, given its obvious resources of research, location, artifacts, images and technique, fails to deliver with maximum effectiveness. Perhaps it is because, though Zwonitzer is listed as writer and producer, no director is credited in the program. Like Lee, the producer may have been saddled with making strategic decisions colored by people and circumstances out of his control, with uneven results. But “Robert E. Lee” is missing the kind of thoughtful and cohesive battlefield tactical planning and execution that Robert E. Lee the general excelled at.

Jay Wertz is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He is also the author of The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian’s Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. His most recent publication is War Stories: The Pacific, Vol. I, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, published by World History Group Publications.

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