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Historical Filmmaker Ric Burns - An Interview

By Jay Wertz 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 17, 2012 
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Ric Burns started his illustrious career working with his brother, Ken Burns, as a writer of television documentaries, and then collaborating on the landmark PBS series The Civil War. Since then, he and his New York–based production company, Steeplechase Films, have produced a number of historically themed documentaries for WGBH and other television venues. And though productions like New York: A Documentary Film and Andy Warhol: A Documentary were immediately popular and successful, he hasn't been afraid to tackle more obscure and controversial subjects; he's also responsible for Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World and The Donner Party.

Recently, Ric sat down to talk with Jay Wertz for a HistoryNet interview at the PBS summer presentation for the Television Critics Association, on the occasion of his upcoming documentary, Death and the Civil War. In this exclusive HistoryNet interview, Ric not only addresses the subject of death, and how the overwhelming casualties of the Civil War shocked the nation into a new familiarity with death as a societal issue, he talks about the Gettysburg Address, the future of historical documentaries and a film about a powerful Italian-American family not named Corleone.

Jay Wertz: A major thesis of Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust's book (This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Vintage Civil War Library, 2009) is the idea that the Civil War made death public, national; beyond the local family idea that most Americans previously had. How did you decide to approach that cinematically?

Ric Burns – I think that in her book there is a narrative of tremendous transformation at the heart of it. But the way to turn it into a film was not immediately obvious. And I think that what we wanted to do was sort of anatomize the story she was telling. What were the narrative chapters? So it begins with the kind of the idea of the good death. How did people feel in 1860? What was their expectations of how you'd make that passage? What were their expectations then of what would happen when the war began? So no one brought to the Civil War any idea that, as they marched off to First Battle of Bull Run, they were entering a kind of meat grinder; that was going to change forever the American understanding of how you died, or (under) what circumstances, what the relationship of the government is in citizens' deaths. No one expected the Federal Government to bury the dead. No one expected the army to notify next of kin. Didn't happen. Nobody expected circumstances would arise which would make that necessary.

That narrative is in Drew's book, but you have to arrange it so that it comes out in a straighter line. And that's what we're determined to do, because the power of the book is really tremendous. So Chapter 2 is to make as vividly clear as possible how the realities overwhelmed the expectations and challenged them in the most severe and punishing way. As late as the end of 1862 dead bodies are mounting, but everything is ad hoc. Following the battle of Antietam, it's basically still that the battle's over and here's the arrangement for trying to bury them, and it's all makeshift. And it looks like nobody is really in charge—because nobody really is in charge.

An unburied Confederate lies next to a Union soldier's grave, Antietam. Library of Congress.
An unburied Confederate lies next to a Union soldier's grave, Antietam. Library of Congress.
But this idea develops, especially in the North, that we have to change—not just our way of thinking, but the institutions that we put into play to deal with a reality totally out of proportion to anything we had seen before. And in a sense, I think you can sort of say the psychological turning point of the war takes place during the period Drew calls the "Year of Citizenship." And over the next fifteen months—Drew's "Year of Citizenship"—in almost every single respect, at least the prototype of what's going to come out of the war is put into place. Gettysburg. Gettysburg Cemetery. The beginning of the Federal (responsibility). It doesn't happen all at once. It doesn't happen by edict. It happens through a coalescence of local (and) state (efforts).

Every state that sent Northerners to the battle of Gettysburg chips in. A local lawyer buys up some land, gives it to the federal government. They slowly put it all together. And by the fall you've got this big deal happening that nobody was expecting. Now you've got the first major federal cemetery, and people have to come out and consecrate it. When Lincoln issues the Gettysburg Address, it's really the climatic moment in our story, I think.

It's so cliché to even point to the Gettysburg Address, but it is the central text, it seems to me, for connecting the transformation of the country to those dead bodies. That's Lincoln saying to the country as the official president and therefore unofficial father to the country, "Behold, I show you a mystery. We're going to take these bodies, those ones right there in the unburied coffins next to the open graves here as I speak in November. We're going to put them in the grave. And we're also going to do something else. We're going to ensure that they are buried properly. That we remember them. That we never forget them. Because after all, those dead bodies are vastly more eloquent than anything else can be. I'm just speaking 270 odd words here—they're doing the talking. And we're going to do the bidding of what they say. From those dead bodies we're going to take increased devotion. Otherwise the whole thing will have no meaning. And we'll not only lose the country, we'll lose our soul."

That's a priest essentially, saying to the American body politic. "Behold, I show you a mystery. Let's move from here to here. Finish the war." Eventually he'll say bind up the wounds, but get the body into the grave so we can have, in some sense, a collective good death. And there will be an afterlife. This (was an) unbelievable transliteration of Christian theology from the first half of the 19th century into what is arguably still the political philosophy of our nation.

JW – I'll tell you, if the Gettysburg Address is a cliché, it's the best one ever.

RB – It is, you know, it just is. It is the most permanently moving and meaningful (speech), just extraordinary. What would we be as a country without it? Only genius could have come up with its necessary conciseness, and the power of it is that he is right. It is about something larger, and about those dead bodies and why they might or might not have died in vain, depending on what we do in their absence, in their posterity. It's incredible.

The truly astonishing thing, when Lincoln sits down after delivering the Gettysburg Address, is that the Civil War is only half over; half the total deaths have not yet occurred. Appomattox is the end, but it's not the end, not when you have half a million dead bodies littering the South. What are you going to do with them?

That logistical and human and moral and political issue is what generates the most surprising thing in this story. You think when our film gets to Appomattox we must be over. No way. The spiritual and political groundwork and foundation have been laid; now we have to actually implement them.

That's what Edmond Whitman and the Quartermaster (General) Montgomery Meigs find out. Edmond Whitman and his platoon of U.S. Colored Troops, with some clerks and a few officers, are heading down the Tennessee River to count the bodies. Show me where the bodies are. And what we should do with them. Whitman's crew finds (some) 118,000 bodies. Eventually, three hundred and three thousand were found and reburied.

That's the implementation. Gettysburg Address, theory. The reburial movement, as it's improvised and then institutionalized, practice. We are going to make sure the dead are honored and they're in safe graves. And they're going to be permanently commemorated.

I think the fact that will come as the most complex surprise, one that takes a lot of reflecting on, is that the Southern dead were not included. But human beings will never be so virtuous as to make the collective decision, after three-quarters of a million people have died, to adopt a form of Christianity as pure as Christ himself and embrace (forgiveness). Maybe Lincoln. But I suspect even Lincoln could not have presided over a kind of magnanimity in the North that would have said, "and the Southern dead too."

Southerners felt, "Not only did we lose everything … one out of three or one out of five Southern men of military age are gone. And we lost the cause. Our country is in ruins. And we're now Americans again, but we have to have a bake sale to bury our dead?" That's the biggest tragedy. We're going to be haunted by that for a long, long time, I think.

JW – You have this wonderful material, and you have these wonderful Walt Whitman quotes and others, but you had to come up with a visual mix that would keep it interesting to go with the audio. Tell me a little about your thought process there.

RB – We knew we wanted everything to be, everything you looked at, to be something that contained an authentic trace of what was there, starting with the J. R. Montgomery letter. (A letter written by a dying Confederate soldier that is used to open Death and the Civil War.) Not only is that the actual document, that's his actual blood on the document.

Film works through images, but only when those images withhold as much as they disclose. The way we selected the images was to always have them suggest more, we hoped, than you are actually seeing, even if it's a familiar photograph of a haunted and ghostly ruin of Richmond. Are we struck by the building fragments we see, or are we struck by all the things that aren't there?

It took us a long time to get (the film) into the version that we've come up with, but, it was really worth all the work. I can probably very quickly tell you exactly how many still photographs were used. How many live images. We rifled through a lot of stuff, but these are the ones you're going to get because these are the ones that seemed to us to reverberate as much as possible in telling this story.

JW – As one of America's most respected historical documentarians, what do you see as necessary to keep history fresh and relevant for current and future audiences?

RB – I think this is true for historical documentary filmmakers, true for historians, true for historical novelists. The crucial resource has to be that kind of burning gut interest, the feeling you have when presented with a particular event, personality, narrative, whatever. It's not that you assume no one has ever heard before what you are trying to tell them. It's that you want people to feel what you are feeling. Not to overwhelm the record with sentiment that distorts it but to bring it alive and makes people genuinely care about it. All you're trying to do is find people who are capable of having the pilot light of a strong furnace womp on, so that when somebody who might spend no time thinking about death in the Civil War sees this film or reads this book, maybe some version of that womp, the pilot light goes on and they go like, woooo. It's like a revelation of some kind. And so I'm pretty sure that the crucial thing is just human beings who continue to be deeply, deeply touched by and interested in things larger than themselves. Remote from themselves in space and time. It's amazing how expanding it is.

We'll never be poor for tales. The tales are there. The tellers are going to be there. I never go to bed at night feeling discouraged about it, but I do know that the market forces and the economic realities are moving pretty strongly in a direction which doesn't help the tellers tell the tale. We look at public TV today, and its resources are dwindling. I still think the main fundraiser is the embodied fire of the work of the men and women who do it, but there's going to be a lot of big burning off. PBS might not exist. It's not unimaginable. But maybe what it means is people will conjure up powerful new ways of telling the stories.

I mean, look at the Civil War. They had to figure out under adversity how to do things that were really hard. Make it tougher and we'll still prevail. History itself is about those things that are so meaningful that when they changed you know there are multiple forces, multiple causes, multiple consequences. And in order to make it intelligible you say, "Sit down, I got a story to tell you." And there are going to be people who want to tell those stories.

JW – Are you ready to disclose your next project yet?

RB – I'm working on a couple of things. A film about two people named Generoso Pope, father and son. The father was the most powerful Italian American of the first half of the 20th century. And his son was the person who started the National Enquirer. So it's about 80 years of Italian America, not through a story everybody has heard but through a story that nobody has ever heard of. It's really a kind of astonishing piece of Americana.

Then, there's a film about the Pilgrims and another episode of our series on New York, about what's happened since 9/11 in New York—and therefore by extension what's been happening in the world, but focused on New York. So there are stories to tell.

Click here to read Jay Wertz's preview of American Experience: Death and the Civil War.


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