Documentary masterpiece Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on his epic series The Civil War on the eve of its 25th anniversary rerelease
A QUARTER CENTURY after Ken Burns’ five-part, 11½-hour documentary debuted, The Civil War will air again this fall—in a restored high-definition version. It required two months of scanning the original footage to create the new edition, which enables viewers to see all the images as Burns himself did. The series has been hailed as a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, blending archival images and narration with passages from letters and diaries read by renowned actors such as Morgan Freeman as social reformer Frederick Douglass; George Plimpton as the acidic New York diarist George Templeton Strong and Garrison Keillor as poet-turned-nurse Walt Whitman. In 1990 The Civil War was watched by 38 million, setting a viewing record that has so far been unsurpassed. The high-definition version, which will air on PBS stations September 7-11, 2015, and will also be available as a DVD and on Blu-Ray, includes bonus footage as well as interviews about making and remastering the documentary.
CWT: What can viewers expect from the restoration project?
KB: Frame-by-frame transfer to high definition, which will result to sharper, clearer and just more stunningly beautiful images.
CWT: Looking back, would you change anything or use any methods from current technology?
KB: No, thank goodness. People have succumbed to the use of CGI [computer-generated imagery], and re-creations have become more standard. We really tried to limit that. We wanted the archival record—the actual historical record—to speak for itself. We were criticized, I think correctly, for not doing this general or that battle, or this or that aspect or Congress or American life, but in a war that took four years and was fought in 10,000 places, you can’t cover everything. So you’re left with taking what you think are symbolic and representative movements that will stand in for all those 10,000 places where the war was fought.
CWT: Is there anything you regret leaving on the cutting room floor?
KB: Tons. The cutting room floor is never filled with bad stuff; it’s always filled with good stuff. If you remember the movie Amadeus when the empress says, “Too many notes,” it’s always about subtraction; sometimes you take out a moment or a scene that is better than the one adjacent to it, but it didn’t serve the larger purpose. Those are really tough decisions. I love that people still come up to me after 25 years and say, “You know, what you left out….” Nobody comes up and says, “That was 11½ boring hours.” They say, “What you needed…” and come up with something else. And they’re usually Civil War buffs—and that’s great too because you want them to be experts. But I’ve still got to make the film for a general audience that may not know the difference between Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant.
CWT: Thousands of glass negatives were lost following the war. What image that might have been on one of those plates would you have wanted to find?
KB: One of battle! For the greatest war in American history there are a million images; 125,000 survive—and I’ve seen most of them. And not one of them is of battle. A lot of people say, well, that’s smoke over there…. These were long exposure times, and things were moving fast. So we don’t have that. And I doubt there’s any of that in all those missing images.
CWT: How is it you turned to making documentaries when your initial training was in film?
KB: I was trained in film—period. But that also included documentary, and all my teachers were documentary still photographers. My dad was also an anthropologist whose hobby was photography. I think there is as much drama in what is and what was than anything the human imagination makes up. That is to say, as Shelby Foote once told me: “God is the greatest dramatist.” Here is Abraham Lincoln triumphantly hearing the news of the surrender at Appomattox, and a few days later, on Good Friday, he decides he has enough time to go to the theater. If you try to sell that to a producer in Hollywood, they say, “Ooohhh, that’s implausible.” I think what you’ve got in a documentary is fresh, not stale plots. That’s a really good thing.
CWT: Some of the talking heads you used were unusual. Talk about how James Symington came to recite a poem.
KB: I had no idea that Symington, a congressman, would do that. That was one of the great gifts.
CWT: And what about Daisy Turner, who I understand was 101 at the time of the filming?
KB: Daisy Turner was an accident, too. I went to visit her in Vermont. She was blind and nearly wholly deaf. I tried a few things, but she seemed disoriented. Just when I started to tell the crew to wind it up, she asked, “Do you want to hear ‘The Soldier’s Story’?” I didn’t know what it was, but I was polite and said, “Sure”—and she flawlessly recited from memory all the rhyming couplets of a poem she had committed to memory 90 years before. We divided it up into three parts—sort of a Greek chorus for the entire Battle of Gettysburg, the greatest battle fought in North America.
CWT: Tell us about her connection to the Civil War.
KB: Daisy’s father had escaped from slavery, made his way north and joined the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, and came back and killed his former overseer. Then moved to Vermont because it had never made slavery legal.
CWT: How did you discover so much archival material regarding African Americans?
KB: For way too long the Civil War has treated African Americans as passive bystanders to this struggle and not the active, dedicated, self-sacrificing soldiers in this intensely personal drama of self-liberation. It’s one of the best stories I know. One of the hardest things we had to do—and the deepest we had to dig—was to find those narratives. This war came about because of slavery. Everyone tries to convince you otherwise: It’s economic. It’s social. Political differences. States’ rights. It’s about taxation. It’s about representation. But it’s about slavery. It’s about the fact that the United States began its existence proclaiming to the world that all men were created equal, and yet a person who wrote those words owned more than 100 human beings and didn’t see fit to free any one of them in his lifetime—he set in motion an American narrative that is constantly having to grapple with race. It would bring on the Civil War. It would cause the largest number of deaths. All the deaths from other wars combined do not equal the number of deaths from the Civil War.
CWT: What do you say to people who contend the war wasn’t about slavery?
KB: I say please look at South Carolina’s Articles of Secession after Lincoln’s First Inauguration. They never once mention states’ rights; they mention slavery over and over again. And we felt it was time to stop making this a story of two groups of people who disagreed and fought and killed each other, and then decided they want to be one. It’s a much more complicated dynamic. The drama is much more dramatic when you tell the more difficult story—when you don’t try to sell a kind of Madison Avenue, sanitized version of it.
CWT: How long did it take to assemble the material for the film?
KB: We spent five years.
CWT: Did you think it would take that long when you started?
KB: Pretty much. I’m working on a history of the Vietnam War that, when it’s broadcast in 2017, will be 10 years in the making. It sometimes takes time to do something right.
CWT: How did you decide to do The Civil War?
KB: I was visiting my dad in western Michigan, and I had brought him his 2-year-old granddaughter. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, everybody was taking a nap, relaxing, watching TV, and I finished reading The Killer Angels. I put the book down and said to my dad, “I know what my next film is.” And he said, “What?” I said, “the Civil War.” He said, “Oh, what part?” I said, “All of it.” And he just shook his head and walked out of the room like, “My idiot son!” And that was really fun. From then on I ploughed toward that.
CWT: How did you settle on Confederate and Union soldiers Sam Watkins and Elijah Hunt Rhodes to carry the film as main protagonists?
KB: One was sort of obvious: Sam Watkins, who had published this wonderful Company Aytch [in 1882]. As for Elijah Rhodes: I’ve lived in a tiny town in New Hampshire since 1979, and one of my neighbors was a descendant of Rhodes. One day I was visiting his garage, and he said, “I’ve also published this diary of my great-grandfather.” And I started to read it—oh my God, I thought, this is wonderful. Here is my Union grunt. So the wonderful thing that Sam Watkins did, as we see in the introduction, Elijah Hunt Rhodes also did: They started in the beginning, and they lived to tell the tale.
CWT: Why are the accounts of common soldier-survivors important?
KB: More often than not we’re distracted by the morose and the tragic—and there’s lots to be morose and tragic about in the Civil War—but these guys survived it. They brought out of it a kind of memory of the war that is so direct and honest that it’s a great thing.
CWT: Civil War soldiers were remarkably literate.
KB: It is really remarkable. This was a war fought by two very literate armies who saw things differently, and they wrote home in a way that we don’t now. We tweet at 140 characters and we do abbreviations, but we don’t write letters. Many of us don’t even know how to write a letter. These people did, and so you have access to them. While it seems different because we don’t do things like that, they also seem really familiar. Human nature never changes. The Bible says it: There’s nothing new under the sun. You have great examples of generosity and greed; you have puritanism and prurience on exhibit in the past. I think what I felt is: Why just have a narrator tell you? Why can’t you hear in the way they spoke from love letters to military dispatches, from newspapers to government records. All of them reveal much more than just the surface of what they’re saying.
CWT: How did you come across Sullivan Ballou’s beautiful love letter to his wife?
KB: We had more than two dozen historical advisers, some of the greatest writers of history, period. Not just Shelby Foote, but many other people, representing a spectrum of belief, from Marxist historians to Conservative historians of the Lost Cause, if that is the correct way to describe them. One of them who’s now passed away—Robert Johannsen of the University of Illinois, I believe—found it in the Illinois State Archives. I was sort of haranguing them about documentary material at a consultants’ meeting, and all of a sudden this ended up on our doorstep. I read it out loud, and everybody cried, and my voice caught itself. It was great.
CWT: Your film is what put it out there for the public, and for history.
KB: We tried to do that at every step of the way: to be honest about what was going on and see it from the Southern as well as the Northern perspective. I have relatives who fought on both sides. It is the most important event in all of American history. Everything that came before it led up to it, and everything that came since has been a consequence. All the films I had done before this—Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers, The Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, The Congress, Thomas Hart Benton—all those narratives, chosen randomly and haphazardly, had a central determining force: the Civil War. That’s what drove me to do it. Every thread unravels to the Civil War. All the things we talk about, Ferguson or Baltimore or Sanford, Fla., or Oklahoma City. These are all vestiges of what caused the Civil War: our inability to see people based on the content of their character, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, rather than on the color of their skin.
CWT: On that subject: I was impressed with your 2011 documentary on the Central Park Five—the story of five black and Latino teenagers accused and falsely convicted in 1990 of raping a jogger in Central Park.
KB: My daughter Sarah was really the guiding force for that, along with her husband David McMann, the great filmmaker, and myself. I remember—when she was too young to remember—I was editing The Civil War in New York City, and reading the tabloids every day. I thought they did it, and I was shaking my head, saying, “What’s going to happen to cities, what’s happened to families?” I now know these guys intimately, and they were and are all good people. They served out a full sentence for a crime they didn’t commit. There are still people who would prefer to say—you know, “Well, they must have done something.” Well, they actually paid for the worst crime that happened that night, and we know they didn’t do that. “Well, they must have done something.” What it says is the thing that propelled us into the Civil War is still here: the question of race.
CWT: The timing for this restoration project is perfect.
KB: We’re really thrilled about this kind of harmonic convergence. It is 150 years since the end of the Civil War. We’ve passed the important anniversary dates in April and May, and this September we will be able to say it’s 25 years since our film was first broadcast, 150 years since the Civil War. If you want to know who you are, you have to know where you’ve been, and the most important place we’ve been is not Philadelphia 1776, not Normandy 1944, not the World Trade Center 2001—all those are hugely important moments, but beginning at Fort Sumter in 1861 and going to Ford’s Theatre in 1865 is the way we understand best who we are. Then there’s the fact that PBS and our underwriter, Bank of America, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have been willing to pay for this restoration, frame by frame, of an 11½-hour film. There are 24 frames per second. That’s a lot of painstaking restoration, and we’ll have it for another generation. As we’re talking, it’s a school day in America. I’m told that 2,500 classes will be looking at part of The Civil War series. And that’s very heartening.
This interview was originally published in the October 2015 Civil War Times.