'civil War 5 1/2 Years In The Making

September 23, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Ken Burns, the producer of this series, has now devoted more of his life to the Civil War than either Abraham Lincoln or Robert E. Lee."

So spoke Sharon Rockefeller, the president of WETA-TV, when she introduced Burns at a news conference last summer in Los Angeles.

And that commitment may be the key to understanding Burns' massive accomplishment with "The Civil War," which begins at 8 tonight and continues each night through Thursday on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

Burns -- whose works on Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and the Brooklyn Bridge were nominated for Academy Awards -- is arguably our greatest documentary maker. But "The Civil War" did not just happen because Burns is so talented. It happened because a great documentary maker worked with a dedication bordering on obsession for 5 1/2 years.

In that news conference and a follow-up interview this month, Burns talked about what went into making the 11 hours of television that PBS will show this week. There was almost an evangelist's certitude and fervor to some of Burns' comments about the making of "The Civil War."

"I was really beckoned and called [to make this film]," said the boyish-looking 37-year-old. "I feel possessed by American history and its stories. In fact, the word 'history' is mostly 'story.' That's what I'm drawn to.

"In all the other films I've done -- as diverse as 'The Brooklyn Bridge' and 'The Shakers' -- the Civil War has always hovered around and above as some very important determining aspect, an influence on all these events. . . .

"What was this event? What happened? Not just the march of causes and then the consequences that I was vaguely familiar with, but what actually took place there? What so many conspired not to tell us, whether it was 'Birth of a Nation' or 'Gone With the Wind' on a popular culture level, or just our own teachers, unfamiliar, unversed in military history. And, so, it literally beckoned.

"You know, television is responsible, I think, in large part for the amnesia that we have in this country -- in mostly young people -- about our history. At the same time, I saw in it and in film the possibilities to create a kind of new Homeric mode, where it was possible to tell the story of the Civil War not just from the point of view of the gods -- the Lincolns, the Lees, the Davises, the Grants -- but also the ordinary soldiers. . . . "

Burns said looking at the Civil War from the ground up, instead of only from the Olympian heights down, was important if he hoped to dispel the "popular myth that this was a gallant bloodless war" fought only for noble ideals.

"We also [in the film ] . . . consider the home fronts, North and South," Burns said. "The economic scenes. The diplomatic struggles. The foreign relations involved in the Civil War. We treat women and how their roles changed. And, most important, we have begun to suggest that there is a much more vital and dramatic and passionate and honorable story of American blacks. Not passive bystanders to this war, but truly active participants in sponsoring the first Emancipation and then laying down their lives . . .

"So it was an attempt to set some things straight," Burns went on, "to try to tell a story in a medium that normally doesn't try to tell this complicated a story."

Since there was no film or videotape of the war years to work with, realizing that vision in a visual medium was a formidable task.

"We photographed at over 160 archives," Burns said, "nearly 16,000 old photographs, paintings, lithographs. We visited dozens of old battle sites, usually at the exact time and day of the year that the battle took place in order to see maybe some ghosts -- to pick up something off the now-quiet sites."

Photographing at a certain time of day, looking for "ghosts," might sound unusual, but there are scenes of empty battlefields at dawn, dusk, midday, midnight where much more is suggested than just geography.

Burns discussed the process.

"I look at them the way a feature film director or a Hollywood film director would look at a long shot or a close-up. And to try and hear what was happening then -- the wagon wheels, the muskets, the troops, the cicadas, whatever it is -- to try to breathe some life into that . . .

"At the same time, we were selecting. I think I probably handled about 100,000 photographs during the course of the research, which we did all ourselves."

Then there was the editing. "There's a very strong analogy with music here," Burns said, "the kinds of composition that goes on. And the structures of music are in many ways the structures of film. . . . We have intervals. We have shots. We have notes. Duration, color, feeling, chords . . .

"Now, the more important thing is the music itself," Burns said, adding that although music is usually scored after the film is edited, "I recorded all the tunes before we began editing. And I collected literally hundreds of tapes of these songs, a dozen or two different takes on each of the 60 or songs that we finally chose."

Two dozen takes on each of 60 songs. It may sound obsessive. It may, in fact, be obsessive. But it starts to explain the difference between this documentary and every other since the "Eyes on the Prize." It makes 5 1/2 years seem like not so long a time.

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