TV Heaven – The Civil War

April 15th, 2008

No, I refer not to some comic book plotline, or indeed to anything genre, but to Ken Burns’ 11 hour masterpiece of documentary film making, The Civil War. (Or The American Civil War, if you happen to be British). I’ll admit I’m not exactly capturing the Zeitgeist with this one – this series is nothing new. First shown back in 1990, I’d seen it all at least twice before, and just now rewatched it on DVD. But it’s just as good after three viewings and nearly twenty years as it was the first time round.

The American Civil War was in many ways the first truly modern war – vast numbers of men were conscripted and there were vast casualties (more Americans died in it than in all other American wars combined, if you can believe that). It was the first war in which civilians were targeted on a broad scale. It saw the first use of iron-clad warships, trench warfare that anticipated the First World War, vast prison camps and burned-out cityscapes that anticipated the Second. It was also the first war which was widely photographed, which is what makes this series possible at all. But at the same time the way in which the combatants thought, spoke and behaved seems a world away from us. It’s this collision between the old and the new that makes it such a fascinating subject, for me.

Now, I’ve worked as an editor on quite a lot of documentaries, so I appreciate just what a masterfully understated, unpretentious piece of work these films are. Visuals are almost exclusively photographs from the time, with some maps to illustrate the troop movements, some archive of veterans, and the odd bit of modern footage of the battlefields and locations. There’s no lame-ass stuff of civil war recreationists given a naff painterly effect to supposedly excite the jaded viewer. No attempt to jazz it up whatsoever. Why would you need to, when the photographs and the stories themselves are flipping amazing?

There’s an awful lot of ground to cover – political, social, industrial. The details of the warfare and of the key battles, the experience of soldiers and non-combatatants. A TV series, even one as long and thorough as this, can only ever be an introduction to such a vast subject. But this is a great, broad introduction, and the thing it achieves so brilliantly – which is so rare in films made from archive, especially stills – is a real sense of the personalities of some of the key players, and of the feel of the era, the importance of the events.

Sound-wise, it’s largely composed of writings from the time, voiced by quality actors (Morgan Freeman, Jason Robards, Jeremy Irons and Derek Jacobi among them). I don’t know if it’s something about the manner of expression of the era, or the events themselves that produced the drama, but the words are simply amazing. There’s the fabulous oratory of Lincoln, of abolitionists like Frederick Douglas, of poets like Walt Whitman. There’s the earthier wisdom of Generals like Grant, Sherman, Lee, Jackson. The magnificent pomposity of George McClellan. The reminiscences of diarists from privates on both sides to ladies of high society. Some moving, some terrifying, some simple. Stuff like:

“May 31st, 1864, Cold Harbour, Virginia. I was killed.”

It’s all held together by a superb voice-over, which manages to feel completely of a part with the rest. It’s also very uncluttered. Anyone who’s worked on voice-over driven documentaries will know that there’s always a push towards over-explaining, over-talking, filling every available second between interviews with blather. It’s actually the hardest thing to leave silent spaces, to let it breathe. It’s the pacing of these films that I particularly admire, because I realise the huge amount of work that’s required to reduce the words down to the most essential, poetic few. The huge amount of work needed to make it seem as if it was no work at all, in other words. The voice is never rushed, never confusing, the language simple and straightforward. There are long pauses with just music (of the time, of course) and subtle sound effects, we’re allowed to linger on the photographs of the people, to see their faces, to take it all in.

So powerful is the evocation of the period, in fact, that when the somewhat dated-looking sit-down interviews occasionally appear you’re kind of shocked to find the whole thing wasn’t filmed either in 1866 or yesterday. Chief among these interviews is the late, magnificent Shelby Foote, a man whose knowledge of the events is so thorough that he speaks with the emotion of an eye-witness, whose Narrative History of the Civil War is some of the most involving non-fiction I’ve ever read. Now, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom, out of print. Bloody publishers.

Anyway, it may be somewhat off the beaten track for readers of edgy yet humorous fantasy fiction, but it’s a must see for anyone interested in the period, in war, life in general, or for my money, the art of documentary making. Inspirational stuff.

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on April 15th, 2008. Tags:

10 comments so far

  • Elena says:

    Will have to check this out.

    My military history prof was big on the idea of the Civil War being the first modern war, but his reasons were all to do with the things you mentioned about fighting and tactics. It’s interesting to also say that about the war because it was the first one to be widely photographed.

    Thanks for the rec! And for making it something historical. Plenty fantasy fans are also students of history. Else we’d all happily read about the smiling peasants and benevolent dictator-kings who obey their own laws to the letter, and you’d have no job but editing. 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Why oh Why have you not seen the series Firefly? It leaves most other science fiction series for dead! It only ran for 14 episodes but spawned it’s own movie – Serenity. If you get the box set you can listen to Joss Whedon’s commentary discussing extensive camera shots for you to geek out all over.


  • daft sod says:

    The world is small. Just this morning I had my class answer some questions about the American Civil War. Since I had a seminar in 2004 about the “American Civil War in popular culture” I frequently stumble upon the subject. It played a part in my thesis, I have to teach it in school, and now I see it mentioned in the blog of a fantasy author. Long odds…

  • Anonymous says:

    Civil Wars are always the most bitter, the most devastating and have the longest after-effects.
    Generally they aren’t fought because of land, trade or money (the usual suspects) but over questions of principle, thus leaving little room for compromise.

    I’d contend that it wasn’t the first war to deliberately target civilians, the Thirty Years War was ahead of the game there – much higher civilian casualties too, whole cities wiped out, entire regions depopulated, though the Civil War was bad enough.

    One of the reasons the Civil War can be considered ‘modern’ was the use of manufacturing technology.
    The mass-produced Springfield rifle and the Minie ball probably had an effect roughly equivalent to that of the machine-gun in the First World War. Absolutely devastating to military tactics based on traditional mass attacks against entrenched defenders.

    There are too few TV progs with this sort of weight;
    the multipart BBC series on WWI using original film footage, maybe – and ‘Culloden’ – though that was a dramatisation of sorts.

  • BSM71 says:

    Can I also recommended ‘the West’ by the same people. Wonderful.

  • Elena,
    Most of what I read these days is historical non-fiction. The stories you find there are often more amazing than anything you’ll read in fantasy.

    I’ll get there, I’ll get there…

    Daft Sod,
    Small indeed…

    The civilian casualties in the thirty years war were absolutely appauling. The population of Germany decreased by a third. I’m far from expert on the subject, but I’m not sure there was the same deliberate and systematic attempt to destroy though, as Sherman did in Georgia, for example. I thought the destruction was more the (admittedly very predictable) result of having huge and ill-trained mercenary armies swarming across the country in all directions. Not that the lack of an expressed intention makes the results any prettier…

    Good point about the Minie ball. I’d say that was an even more important development than the machine gun, in a sense, since it rendered the bayonet – and the whole Napoleonic mode of fighting by massed charges – pretty much obsolete. The horrible irony, as so often with new technologies in warfare, was that generals still hadn’t really adapted to the rifle by the time of the First World War, let alone the machine gun.

  • BSM71 says:

    I also remember the ‘Spanish Civil war’ from the 80s and the famous ‘The world at War’ is always good for a relook. However the ‘People’s Century’ from 1999 is remarkable.

    Not to be mistaken for Space 1999!
    Not TV heaven.

  • AndrewB says:

    Having lived in a town with a major Civil War legacy (Franklin, TN-one of the bloodiest battles in said feud) I tend to overlook a lot of the books/movies that cover it. Although I greatly enjoyed the movie ‘Glory’ with Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick. For some reason I was always more interested in British history. LOL. But I will definitely check this series out because of your blog. You had my attention at ‘no re-enacters.’

    This is my first time visiting your little slice of the web and, I’m glad to say, it won’t be my last. I’m sure it cuts both ways, but it is very refreshing to find an author’s blog in which we don’t have to read about where their book is on the best-seller list or how it arrived for them to sign or plug their book incessantly etc.

    That said, I’ll plug your book here for you! I just read the first in the series and found them to be wonderful. In fact I’ve ordered the second one from Amazon and the third from an independent that ships from the UK. You’ve got a lot of talent and I think we’re all looking forward to the great things you will bring to the genre. No pressure.

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