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The Civil War

review by Zach B.



Not Rated

Running Time: 660 minutes

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric Burns and Ken Burns

Directed by: Ken Burns


Studio: Warner

Retail Price: $129.98

Features: Audio Commentary with Ken Burns, Behind The Scenes: The Civil War Reconstruction, Interviews, Ken Burns: Making History, A Conversation with Ken Burns, Battlefield Maps, Civil War Challenge, Biographies

Specs: 1.33:1 Full Screen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Stereo, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections, Five Disc Set

Released: September 17th, 2002



The Civil War, all the way back in the 1800s and long before our time, will forever rank as one the United States' most interesting, challenging and extradoniary times. Besides all the bloody deaths, the famous battles, all the speeches... it was more than that. The nation was divided, and perhaps due to this war, the nation changed for the better in the end when it was all said and done (an example of the ends justifying the means? I'll let you be the judge of that). Ken Burns' rich documentary covers everything from the causes of the war to Gettysburg to Appomattox and to life after the war.

I'm not even sure if people realize just how much ground "The Civil War" tend to broke. Ken Burns didn't make this your typical documentary, and I still find it fascinating in how he crafted the film, not to mention how much it still stands firmly and how successful it came out. No, Burns doesn't round up a group of actors in stupid looking costumes and have them re-enact all of the key events. Instead, he takes talent and truth and mixes them together.

Honestly now, does a documentary told mainly through old photographs sound interesting (not to mention it being the subject of such a thorough topic)? Of course not. Yet somehow Ken Burns revolutionaized documentaries by making it interesting, cutting away to what seems like thousands of images throughout the 11 hours. Perhaps it just wasn't slowly zooming on photos and having sound effects being played against them, but maybe it was that we weren't exposed to so many images on the Civil War in such a careful manner. Having photographs during that era was certainly something incredibly useful, and maybe since the photographs presented throughout the film are so raw, powerful and sometimes downright simple, it makes it all the more effective. No, it's not film or anything, but seeing soldiers fighting and dead bodies can be something spiritual and downright haunting.

But it's more than that. Besides telling such a strong and very detailed narrative of the war (and I mean VERY detailed), interviews from famous historians are sprinkled throughout to give concise perspectives. Still, Burns hired wonderful and famous actors to bring life to certain historical figures, read real letters (those real narratives bring a great, human touch) and the like. Since some actors are so distinctive, you just know when you hear the likes of Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterson, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne and the late Jason Robards as Grant. They seriously do fantastic jobs.

Topped off with the earnest, strong voice of historian David McCullogh who does narration duties (which is highly effective), there's no question why this particular mini-series, as shown on public television, has set so many benchmarks, won so many awards and is used throughout classrooms everywhere (I know I've sat through a lot of parts a few times when studying it in certain grades and watching it on my own free time). "The Civil War" makes no mistakes. Everything you want to know about the war can be found here. Yet told in such a flawlessly executed manner that is not only informative yet highly entertaining, Ken Burns' ultimate masterpiece will always rank as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, documentary of all time.


All of the documentary is presented in 1.33:1 full screen, the way it was originally shot. It's all rather pleasing to the eye and wonderfully sharp. Since the photographs vary in quality and whatnot, everything is not always consitent. Still, I didn't notice noise or edge enhancment or anything. Yet what is incredibly distracting that really brings the transfers of the episodes down are just how dirty they tend to be. Dirt pieces, blemishes, scratches and all kinds of little flaws keep popping up throughout. This is very annoying, because everything else seems rather pristine. What a shame... it adds up and really does ruin fine transfers. And I thought this was digitally remastered. Feh.


Not too many documentaries would benefit from a 5.1 mix, but if there are any that would, "The Civil War" would truly have to be one of them. Thankfully, the 5.1 remixes on the episodes brings a fitting, strong ambiance to the documentary. The classic variations of that American theme music, the sound effects of gunshots and the battles and all of the dialogue, be it actors performing their roles or McCullough going on, it sounds perfectly clear and nice. It's not always really surround heavy, and is pretty low key at times, but is effective and does work.

An English stereo track is also included for those of you not into remixes and would like to hear everything in a much more straightforward manner. English closed captions are also included via your television set.


Why, this is certainly impressive. It could have been easy just to throw the feature on the disc, but given how much ground and how great "The Civil War" actually is, there's some nice icing of the cake. The main supplements are on the first disc.

Behind The Scenes: The Civil War Reconstruction features interviews with Tape House members and workers. Using examples, the guys there talk about the process of restoring and digitally remastering the documentary, complete with quite a few examples as they compare the original print to the new remaster. This is really interesting, and even though I thought they could have cleaned up all that dirt on this new print (I guess I should be complaining to George Bunce at the company), it must have been a lot of hard work to go through everything. There's also some bits on remixing the sound for stereo and 5.1 Dolby Digital. Still, all this new technology helps the process and it's really amazing in how flexiable with what they can do. This may not appeal to everyone, but is certainly fascinating to a large extent.

Interviews are with Ken Burns, Shelby Foote, George Will, Stanley Crouch, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Presented in full frame, each participant talks about the effects the documentary brought (all for the positive) and what not only it did for people, but what it did for those involved and beyond. Foote, Will and Crouch were writers, while Mason and Ungar did the music (who bring interesting comments). Everyone here is quite insightful and well spoken, truly capturing the impact the documentary made.

Ken Burns: Making History is a very cool look at the making of the documentary. Most of it seems to be filmed back when they were shooting the documentary, yet this isn't your typical EPK film or anything. Ken Burns is the main man here, talking about the challenges he must endure during the production, working with historians, how involved he really is and how much he loves it all. This is certainly extent, showcasing more of Burns' genius. There's a ton of behind-the-scenes footages, the music and how key voice actors are (even showcasing voice actors in other Ken Burns projects). Simply wonderful.

A Conversation With Ken Burns begins right off with that famous quote of what Americans will be best remembered for "The Civil War, baseball and jazz music." Naturally, they're all Ken Burns documentaries now. Using clips from his films to show while Burns is speaking sometimes, Burns is quite intelligent and very articulate in his answers. He talks about his filmmaking process, why he enjoys making long documentaries, how detailed he is and so many other little things. Another excellent watch.

There are quite a few Battlefield Maps for the certain states that even link to actual documentary clips of the famous battles complete with statistics and text on the maps, the Civil War Challenge which are trivia facts and a slew of Civil War Biographies for those involved in the North, South and actual civilians. The maps and challenge are included on every disc which do make for some nice bonuses to get more on what you've just watched and are really quite detailed. Each disc also comes with a still ad for PBS' website.

Though perhaps most notable is that every single episode of the documentary has an Audio Commentary with Ken Burns. While Burns does do talking for every episode, it is unfortunatly not for the whole time. He basically contributes comments on key moments of the documentary. As a nice bonus, under the special features when you click on the commentary, you can jump right to where he talks. It's still a shame that he doesn't speak for the whole time (I guess doing 11 hours worth of comments for one thing can get annoying), because besides him talking through what sounds like a tin can, his comments are incredibly worthwhile and great to listen to. Burns makes a lot of historical references to other events, and while his comments aren't always technical (I would have liked to learn more about the filming process), he's truly a historian with a lot to say, what makes these moments he talks about so worthwhile and so important, even somehow adding more details than what's presented in the documentary. I can definently see this commentary boring some, but if you like Burns, this film and/or history, you may want to pull up a chair and listen to what totals about five hours of comments.


Definently one of the most requested DVD titles of the past couple of years, Ken Burns' incredibly comprehensive "The Civil War" still not only holds up (and probably always will) as one of the greatest documentaries of all time, but the wait was worth it for this set, breaking new ground for large documentaries on DVD. I am usually disappointed by what documentaries tend to offer on DVD, but all the supplements included in "The Civil War" set is rather impressive, given the magnitude of the production. While it's just worth owning to own this amazing piece of work in the DVD format, the fine though flawed picture quality, strong 5.1 remix and nicely done supplements make this is a great purchase for fans and history buffs alike. Recommended.