Monday, September 17, 2012

"Death and the Civil War" -- September 18th

Tomorrow evening, September 18, 2012, will see the debut of a new documentary,
Death and the Civil War, an installment of PBS’s outstanding “American Experience” series. It is the work of filmmaker Ric Burns, brother of the more widely known documentarian, Ken Burns. Like many bloggers, I received an advance review copy of the documentary, and like them, I would encourage everyone to make time for this compelling production.

To get some sense of the subject matter, try a little exercise. Imagine if the United States today -– in a four-year period –- were to suffer the same percentage of deaths as the nation endured during the Civil War. In today’s terms, and based on a recently updated death toll from the war, the total deaths would number 7,000,000. Yes, seven million.

The program’s content sprung in large measure from the book, The Republic of Suffering, by Drew G. Faust, one of the most intriguing, scholarly releases in recent years. Fittingly, the film is being broadcast a day after the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam, an epic clash of arms that still stands as the single most costly battle in American history.

The presentation will be familiar to everyone, colored as it is by camera and atmospheric effects that have become more or less an industry standard. As reviewer Megan Kate Nelson pointed out, Apple’s iMovie application actually features a “Ken Burns” button, allowing users to reproduce the effect of panning across or zooming in and out of a still image. Though some would say it's overused, it remains a mesmerizing technique, particularly with the masterful collection of images assembled for this work. 

The scope of the carnage at Antietam is difficult to appreciate from our distant vantage point, and the bucolic landscapes of that battlefield park today belie any tangible sense of the death and destruction visited upon the ground in 1862. But the dead at Antietam changed everything, beginning with the public exhibition of Alexander Gardner’s photographs in Mathew Brady’s New York City studio. Gardner’s graphic Antietam photographs, widely featured in Death and the Civil War, began to bring the war home. Speaking of the photo exhibition, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The sight of these pictures is a commentary on civilization such as the savage might well triumph to show its missionaries.”

While Antietam can be said to be a microcosm of the war as a whole, this film ambitiously examines the effect on the nation of the exponentially larger casualties resulting from a four-year bloodbath. The United States was ill-equipped -– emotionally, and in terms of infrastructure or policy (even policies regarding such basic things as notifying the next of kin)  -– to handle casualties of such magnitude, and Ric Burns has given us a powerful look at how Americans of all stripes coped with widespread mortality.

Burns opens the film with a heart-wrenching, blood-splattered letter from a Mississippi soldier who was mortally wounded at Spotsylvania Court House – a boy writing a final farewell to his father. History is especially gripping when told through the words of those who lived it, and this boy’s letter memorably sets a somber tone for a film exploring how the nation – the government itself, and the citizenry, wholly unprepared -- was transformed by loss of life on a scale previously unimagined.

A preview and other information can be seen here

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