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PBS American Experience: Robert E. Lee

directed by Adriana Bosch

In January PBS’ “American Experience” series fired an early shot in the run-up to the Sesquicentennial with the broadcast of its new documentary Robert E. Lee. Although the 83-minute film, now available on DVD for $24.99, doesn’t split much with traditional takes on Lee, it nevertheless veers toward revisionism.

Previous depictions of the legendary general tended to hew to the notion that for the South the Civil War was a noble yet Lost Cause. Lee was always presented as a brilliant and saintly commander, fighting smartly on a heroic mission despite the fact that he faced overwhelming odds. Producer Mark Zwonitzer and executive producer Mark Samels don’t buy that. Instead, they depict Lee as a flawed man whose ambition and desire for fame enabled him to win battles and recognition—at a terrible price in lives.

Because of the film’s length, the producers were forced to condense parts of Lee’s life. They start with Lee as a student at West Point, where he received the academy’s highest honors, then segue to his courtship and marriage to Mary Custis. Readings of contemporary letters establish that he could be a very affectionate and caring husband and father. But an edgy hint of a different Lee shows in one letter written to Mary when she was pregnant, in which he makes clear that his military career must come first, over family obligations.

The film devotes some screen time to Lee’s early military career, in which he saw no combat, then lurches into his baptism by fire in the Mexican War. He distinguished himself in that conflict by becoming the U.S. Army’s most watched young officer. One significant episode that apparently failed to make the final cut involved his role as commander of the U.S. troops who were rushed to Harpers Ferry in October 1859 to put down an insurrection by abolitionist John Brown.

The bulk of the documentary focuses on his leadership during the Civil War. The portrait of the sectional conflict that emerges in Robert E. Lee is stunningly simple—too many Southern soldiers lost their lives under Lee’s command. Grim photomontages dwell on horrific scenes of dead soldiers rotting in the sun, hanged deserters and shelled buildings. There is no glory to be found in this bleak landscape.

At the same time, some of the more admirable aspects of Lee’s life are no-shows in the film. His postwar career is dismissed as time spent laying low at a small college in western Virginia. Yet as president of Washington College (renamed Washington and Lee after his death), Lee was a great success. From various accounts, he seems to have been a fair-minded administrator, determined to establish a place where Northern, Southern and African-American students could learn on an equal footing—even though he did resist the advent of laws that gave blacks the right to vote. Like many of his troops, the students apparently liked and feared him at the same time.

Using paintings, photographs, contemporary writings and commentary from noted historians such as Peter Carmichael, Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon and Elizabeth Brown Pryor, the producers create a cohesive, convincing portrait of Lee as a military leader and family man. But there is so much more to consider, such as what really happened to him as a defeated commander after the war ended.

Robert E. Lee is a very good film that’s well worth watching. But it doesn’t tell the complete story. The facets of Lee’s life that are not represented suggest yet another film we’d all like to see, in fact—the definitive full-length Hollywood feature biography of a general who still holds a place in the hearts of Southerners.


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.