Its haunting fiddle theme song has become a popular processional, and the wrenching love letter from a dead Union Army major has been incorporated across the country into many wedding vows.
Those are just some of the public effects of the remarkable documentary "The Civil War," first seen on PBS last fall, repeated once already by many PBS outlets (including Maryland Public Television) and now getting a nationwide repeat showing beginning tonight for five consecutive Wednesdays. (MPT channels 22 and 67 have it at 9 p.m., and Washington's Channel 26 is carrying it at 8 p.m.)
Although television is often a mostly meaningless morass, this show represents and fulfills the medium's highest aspirations.
By far the most popular show ever on public TV, seen at least in part by an estimated 38.9 million viewers in its first airing, the series does nothing more than "tell the truth about what happened" in America's bitter, sundered years of 1860-65, according to filmmaker Ken Burns.
"The real story is horrific, but very uplifting, too," the 37-year-old documentarian told Paula Zahn yesterday on "CBS This Morning." The remarkable public response to the series, he suggested, shows "we are hungry for self-definition" through examination of the nation's tragic split and reconciliation.
Burns has received letters from some 6,000 school teachers, for example, who are using the series in classes. And he says the outpouring of other responses proves that the art of letter writing -- exemplified so well in the numerous excerpts quoted in "The Civil War" -- is far from dead.
The letter home from Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah, written a week before his death at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 and never mailed, seems to have perfectly captured the depth of romantic love and has become part of many wedding vows.
And fiddler Jay Ungar's song "Ashokan Farewell," which is the theme music behind much of the documentary, has become a hit record and is often used in a variety of ceremonies, the composer revealed in an interesting profile on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" yesterday.
THE PARODIC SIDE -- Visitors to the Maryland Science Center's current exhibit on movie special effects take note:
That yard-long model of a Winnebago with wings that is featured JTC in one of the display cases can be seen in cinematic action tonight. The prop is part of director Mel Brook's manic "Spaceballs," airing at 8 tonight on WNUV-Channel 54.
Made in 1987, the film is a broad spoof of the "Star Wars" saga, in which Brooks himself plays a couple parts, including the mystical dwarf Yogurt who urges, "may the Schwartz be with you." Joan Rivers also supplies the voice of a female robot.