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  • The Civil War: A Battleground of Meaning
  • Judith Lancioni

The Civil War, the centerpiece for PBS Showcase Week, debuted September 23, 1990, and aired for five successive nights. The series had 14 million viewers (Adler 58) and scored 9.0 in Neilson’s 24 major markets, a figure which at the time represented four times the usual prime time audience for PBS (Zoglin 78). It won more than 40 major film and television awards. Ken Burns reported that he had received more than 10,000 letters about the series, and many people told him it had changed their lives (“Better Angels” 7).

The series was lauded by the public, the critics, and most historians. Time called it “television at its best,” a “surprise smash” that had “thoroughly smitten the nation” (Zoglin 78). The Baltimore Sun proclaimed “The Civil War is to documentaries what Citizen Kane is to feature films” (Kaltenbach). Several historians judged it “the best Civil War film ever made,” while Grant biographer William McFeely knew it was good history because it reduced “bloodless professors” to tears (Lord 74). The press praised the film as “a magnificent example of the value of reality over tinsel drama… scrupulously faithful-to-fact documentary…genuine eloquence from genuine people” (Johnson A2).

The extraordinary success of this documentary series invites questions about the role of The Civil War in the documentary tradition. At first glance, The Civil War would seem to be a compilation documentary. Erik Barnouw traces compilation back to Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin, which used music to unify archival material (65). For Barnouw the term compilation simply means film created primarily from preexisting film materials (158). William Bluem, in his study of television documentaries, puts more emphasis on the stylistic features of compilation than does Barnouw. Bleum defines compilation as the molding of archival materials to express a universal theme (90). According to Bluem, theme documentarists begin with personal and emotional reactions to material yet must ultimately search for a larger meaning (143). The theme documentary foregrounds “artistic techniques,” including the use of symbols, orchestral music, and dramatic narration. The “poetic power” of these elements cooperates with “the aesthetic of cinematic structure and the dramaturgical form itself to shape the documents of reality into thematic expressions of the human condition” (Bluem 145).

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Many comments about The Civil War and some remarks by Ken Burns suggest that his documentary series is indeed a thematic compilation. For example, Bill Nichols argues that through its use of quotations The Civil War incorporates individual subjectivities into a kind of “collective memory”; he offers Victory at Sea, a theme documentary, as comparable in creating poetic and inspirational commentary (148). Ken Burns himself has remarked on the emotive quality of history on film, saying that it “goes directly to the emotions without translation” (Weisberger 99). Burns has also spoken about the importance of emotion in his own filmmaking: “I can’t be interested in a piece of history unless there’s something I can loosely describe as emotional about it” (Weisberger 99). No surprise, then, that a Baltimore Sun columnist wrote, “To watch a Burns documentary is to be not only educated, but moved as well” (Kaltenbach ). David Thomson agreed, suggesting that The Civil War represents Burns’s “emotional response to the materials. For it was always in his mind to build the film out of his feelings. The line of the series has to be chronological, yet it slips back and forth a great deal, adhering to an emotional sequence” (16). [End Page 21]

Nevertheless, Burns has forcefully rejected the idea that The Civil War is a theme-driven compilation documentary. “I’m a filmmaker. I happen to choose history the way a painter might choose oils over watercolors. But I’m a filmmaker. That’s what I’m interested in” (Burns Telephone Interview). For him, the notion of theme-driven seems to mean that the ideology of the filmmaker drives the narrative, whereas in his films themes emerge from the archival materials he is working with. His commentary on the use of archival photographs is instructive. Burns explains that traditional historical documentaries “have used the pictures...


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