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.