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DVD: Civil War, The (PBS) 5-Disc Set (1990)
Review Rating:   Excellent  
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Warner Bros / PBS Gold
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1 (NTSC)

September 17, 2002



Genre: Documentary  
The 1990 documentary mini-series on the American Civil War that is the highest rated program in PBS' history.  



Directed by:

Ken Burns
Screenplay by: Geoffrey C. Ward,  Ken Burns,  Ric Burns
Music by: various
Produced by: Ken Burns,  Ric Burns

David McCullough,  Sam Waterston,  Julie Harris,  Jason Robards,  Morgan Freeman,  Paul Roebling,  Garrison Keillor,  Arthur Miller,  Horton Foote,  George Plimpton,  Studs Terkel,  Derek Jacobi,  Jeremy Irons,  Kurt Vonnegut,  Hoyt Axton,  M. Emmet Walsh

Film Length: 660 mins
Process/Ratio: 1.33 :1
Anamorphic DVD: No
Languages:   English (Dolby 5.1),  English (Stereo)
Special Features :  

Audio Commentary by Director Ken Burns (approx. 5 hours) / 20 Battlefield Maps, Civil War Challenge / 54 Participant Bios for the North, South & Civilians

Disc 1 -- Documentary: Behind the Series: The Civil War Reconstruction (8:14) / Interviews: Ken Burns (10:18) + Shelby Foote (10:17) + George Will (7:45) + Stanley Crouch (11:00) + Jay Ungar & Molly Mason) + Ken Burns: Making History (7:17) + A Conversation with Ken Burns & Charlie Rose (10:24)

Comments :

Originally broadcast in 1990, the legendary PBS documentary finally makes its debut on DVD in this loaded edition. Even without the extras, "The Civil War" is a thoroughly engaging, provocative, and hugely moving 9-part film that proves why funding PBS is worth every penny.

Originally photographed on 16mm film and transferred with 1990 cutting-edge technology, the filmmakers have gone back to the original film and audio elements and completely re-transferred the series in a vastly superior format, as detailed in "The Civil War Reconstruction" featurette, on Disc 1. All of the film's key participants - director Burns, and the film's sound designer, in particular - show what's been done using today's technology. The main differences include special software that stabilizes the colour fluctuations, and brings out the beauty of the film's location and interview cinematography: sunsets are gorgeous, greens are natural, and flesh tones no longer wallow in the murky realm that tends to date video transfers from a mere 10 years ago. Blemishes and artifacts have also been digitally removed, and it's to the credit of the restoration team that a balance between the inherent flaws and the cinematographer's intentions is maintained; viewers don't have to worry about watching the digital filtration busily working onscreen, and won't notice the production's age.

The film's audio - already an exceptional mono mix that combined between 20 and 50 separate tracks to convey the vivid imagery of the various events - has been sweetened for the Dolby 5.1 environment, and like the visuals, the enhancements aren't oppressive, but add some nice depth. (Note: some players may experience a sync problem with the 5.1 track, noticeable during on-camera interviews.)

What critics and viewers quickly realized is how the series' power came from Burns' assimilation of letter, news, and diary readings from carefully chosen actors; important location shots; moving assessments by historians (mainly Shelby Foote); and a stunning variety of period photos. Though documentarians sometimes resort to fast cutting and digital transitions, Burns recognized the value of pacing, and knew holding on a single image can maximize the absorption and comprehension of his intellectual and factual points. Almost a million photos were taken during the Civil War, and to fill the gap between the surviving 100,000, Burns employs period paintings and location cinematography. (As to what happened to the remaining 900,000 photos, the truth is pretty shocking, but we'll not spoil it here.)

Each of the discs include battlefield maps with direct links to specific chapters, and a Civil War Challenge Q&A game for those with stellar memories. The director commentaries vary between a few minutes to under 10 minute chunks, and are indexed from a separate menu. You'll have to shuttle between gaps, but a voice notifies listeners when the selection is over, and pressing the Menu button will permit the next commentary selection.

Burns' commentary does repeat some info already covered in the doc and in some of the featurettes, but his production recollections are very concise, and he spends more time detailing the project's genesis, funding challenges, and the immense effort in constructing a fluid narrative with so many aural and visual elements. There's also some excellent background info, including the discovery of a former slave's daughter, now 104 years old, and her moving poetry recitation; and a touching anecdote regarding the show's airing during the Gulf War, and its use by General Norman Schwartzkopf.

If you haven't seen "The Civil War" before, watch the reconstruction doc first, and it's pretty safe to look at the Ken Burns Interview; save the rest for a post-wrap-up, though, since the interviews and perspectives will answer viewer questions, and reinforce the swirling emotions that linger after having seen such a powerful documentary.

The Ken Burns Interview covers the before and after, and includes a moving anecdote regarding President Bill Clinton and the immediate recognition that befell the director. Though he'd already made 5 highly respected docs for PBS, Burns chose the Civil War because each of the previous works included elements from that traumatic 5-year period; it just seemed logical to attack the beast, but do it justice like never before.

Recognition was another aspect historian Shelby Foote had to deal with after the film's original broadcast, and one he ironically continues to encounter every time the series reappears, with admirers often calling him up from his phone listing. Foote's perspective and on-camera moments are more than narrative links; besides adding perspective, his naked motions and humble pauses still resonate, and are secondary to the period photos - indelible impressions for many viewers.

Both the Gorge Will and Stanley Crouch interviews present 'outside' opinions from politically savvy personalities, and men who share a sublime respect for History. William Faulkner's observation is key to their philosophy, where 'History isn't Was, but Is.'

The musician featurette contains interviews with violinist Jay Unger and guitarist Molly Mason, members of "Fiddle Fever" who performed on some of Burns' previous docs but achieved a level of immortality through their myriad versions of period songs; and Unger's own composition "Ashoken Farewell," which became the doc's theme song. Heavily overused by Burns, the theme's creation and power are nevertheless addressed, and the musicians also perform the song for the camera.

The remaining interview, "A Conversation With Ken Burns," is an oddly filmed Q&A between the director and Charlie Rose, though multiple angles are used in place of straightforward head-shots, and Rose is only seen in silhouette. This 'vintage' session covers some of Burns' personal life, including the death of his mother, and some of the subjects that attract the director.

Finally, "Ken Burns: Making History" is a vintage featurette with behind-the-scenes footage, and reveals some of the ways the director and cinematographer photographed and gave life to the myriad period stills, and some footage of interview and location filming. The quality of both vintage pieces is very clean, with little artifacting.


© 2002 Mark R. Hasan

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