Tuesday, June 07, 2011

"Thanks a lot, Ken Burns"

For all its appeal, however, The Civil War is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns' sentimental vision and the romance of Foote's anecdotes. Watching the film, you might easily forget that one side was not fighting for, but against the very things that Burns claims the war so gloriously achieved. Confederates, you might need reminding after seeing it, were fighting not for the unification of the nation, but for its dissolution. Moreover, they were fighting for their independence from the United States in the name of slavery and the racial hierarchy that underlay it. Perhaps most disingenuously, the film's cursory treatment of Reconstruction obscures the fact that the Civil War did not exactly end in April of 1865 with a few handshakes and a mutual appreciation for a war well fought. Instead, the war's most important outcome—emancipation—produced a terrible and violent reckoning with the legacy of slavery that continued well into the 20th century.
From "Thanks a lot, Ken Burns," by James M. Lundberg, Slate, June 7, 2011


Sara said...

Interesting article. Having just re-watched it I have to admit to finding myself disappointed at some of the simplifications and overstatements made, including what I think was a very unjust treatment of Grant's Wilderness campaign. But then it was this documentary that got me interested in the Civil War in the first place, something I might never have cared about if not for having seen it. And for that I will be forever grateful.

dw said...

Sara, thanks for the comment. I recorded it when it aired recently, and have started watching it again for the first time in many years. I know what you mean about how you're constantly thinking of qualifiers, or a more precise way they could have phrased something, or the awkward emphasis on this or that.

But even in the short time I've spent revisiting it, I remember the emotional power of it, and how quickly the subject matter inspires a sense of awe all over again. It's interesting to watch it with someone seeing it for the first time (in my case, my teenage children), and watching how certain parts of the story are sudden revelations to them. They've never seen Civil War history presented with such a monumental tone of importance, as if it were something that really happened, and not so long ago.

Sara said...

I agree with you completely. It's only because I've done so much reading about the war that I pick up on those few things that I feel could have been presented more fully or more clearly. But the overall beauty and emotional impact of the series is incredible, and as I said, it took a powerful hold over me as a young teenager and inspired my lifelong interest in the war. No matter how many times I watch it, the power of the words of those who lived through it and those beautiful images of the veterans at the Gettysburg reunion never fail to make me cry.

I'm glad your teenagers are watching it and enjoying it.