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

"The Civil War" is the best non-fiction television since "Eyes on the Prize."

It is the Public Television event of the year.

It is television to be savored and celebrated.

It is to American documentary filmmaking what "The Iliad" was to epic poetry in ancient Greece.

And that ain't the half of it. "The Civil War," the 11-hour series which begins at 8 tonight and runs each night through Thursday on MPT (Channel 22 and 67), is that good.

"The Civil War" is first and last a documentary. If the word "documentary" is a turnoff, stayed tuned anyway. Please. Just this once. It will be worth it.

Filmmaker Ken Burns spent more than five years combining archival photos, lithographs, newspaper clippings, newsreel footage, live cinematography of battle sites, interviews with historians, diaries, letters, 19th century music, contemporary music and voices from modern-day men and women of letters and the arts to make "The Civil War."

Sam Waterston provides the voice of Abraham Lincoln. Jason Robards is Ulysses S. Grant. Morgan Freeman is Frederick Douglass. Arthur Miller is William T. Sherman. Garrison Keillor is Walt Whitman. Others who also provide their voices to Burns' chorus for free or for unionSee CIVIL, 3x, Col. 3CIVIL, from 1scale include: Jeremy Irons, Kurt Vonnegut, Hoyt Axton, Julie Harris, Colleen Dewhurst, George Plimpton, Studs Terkel, Jody Powell and novelist-historian Shelby Foote (whom Burns also interviews length throughout the 11 hours and whose insights constantly dazzle).

The lead singer is David McCullough, the National Book Award-winning historian. He is the narrator. It is his voice -- reading the words written by Burns, Ric Burns (Ken's brother) and Geoffrey C. Ward and resonating long after the final credits have rolled -- that triggers the comparison to the "Iliad." It is not made casually.

Indeed, at a press conference this summer, Foote called the Civil War itself -- which was fought from 1861 to 1865 -- the "American 'Iliad.' " And it is Homer's epic poem about the Trojan War that "The Civil War" so closely mirrors both in style, subject matter and importance. It brings an epic tale of 19th century America to a 20th century television audience in a way never done before.

The film opens tonight on one of Burns' battlefield shots. It shows a cannon against a sky at dawn. It is Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn."

That's followed by a perfectly honed anecdote, which sets the tone for the next 11 hours. It is the story of a farmer named Wilmer McLean. The man moved his family in 1861 from a farm at Bull Run/Manassas, Va. -- because he saw two great, opposing armies headed his way -- to a little place near Appomattox Courthouse where he was sure he and his family would be out of harm's way.

They weren't, of course. Gen. Robert E. Lee finally surrendered in McLean's living room after more bloodshed on the McLean doorstep. Or, as, McCullough puts it, "McLean could rightfully say the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor." The documentary is drenched in that kind or irony and (again, like Homer) the sense of destiny or fate sweeping men hopelessly along in its tide of great events.

And, then, the musical theme is introduced -- the only piece of contemporary music used. It is called "Ashokan Farewell" and is sounded throughout the documentary, often on just one achingly sad fiddle. And people all over this country are going to be hearing it their heads when they go to bed tonight.

Over the sound of that solitary fiddle, McCullough begins an invocation of sorts (like Homer) mapping out the territory to be covered.

"The Civil War was fought in 10,000 American places," McCullough says in perfect meter with the music. "From Valverde, New Mexico, and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont, and Fernandina on the Florida Coast."

And, as McCullough speaks, we are shown a succession of battlefield photos. A dead man's face. A field filled with bodies of men and animals. Buildings devastated by cannon fire.

"Three million Americans fought in it, and over 600,000 men -- 2 percent of the population -- died in it," the narrator resumes. "American homes became headquarters. American churches and schoolhouses sheltered the dying. And huge foraging armies swept across American farms and burned American towns.

"Americans slaughtered one another here, in America, in their own cornfields and peach orchards and along familiar roads and by waters with old American names. . . . Americans killed each other, if only to become the kind of country in which that was no longer possible."

And all the while, those images are playing across the screen. Torn bodies of soldiers, unattached limbs, frozen death masks, mouths open, eyes seeing a horror and obscenity they never imagined -- interspersed with modern-day pictures of beautiful fields of corn and quiet country lanes.

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