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Ken Burns on PBS
<em>The Civil War</em>. A Film by Ken Burns
Images of The Civil War
The Film, Past and Present
The War
The Filmmakers
Ken Burns
Paul Barnes
Lynn Novick
Buddy Squires
Geoffrey C. Ward
Q&A on The Civil War
In the Classroom
Questions and Answers on The Civil War

In a recent interview Ken Burns reflected on the film and on the War and its role in America's history. Below is an excerpt from that discussion.

When you undertook The Civil War, your first long-form documentary series, you were tackling the pivotal event in American history. Were you ever daunted at all in the enormity of the task?

KEN BURNS: You know, when I look back at The Civil War experience, I can’t believe that I wasn’t daunted every single day by the task. And the only excuse or explanation I have is that I must have been incredibly naïve and optimistic.
And maybe that’s what the whole story of it is about, that I bit off more than I could chew, and then sort of slowly and tenaciously learned how to chew it, with the help of extraordinary people. You know, my brother was eventually the co producer; and with Geoff Ward as the principal writer, David McCollough as the senior creative consultant, Paul Barnes as the editor and the help of assistants and cameramen, together, we were able to figure out a way to wrestle this monster of an idea to the ground.

I remember once talking to Shelby Foote about U.S. Grant, and he said Grant had what they called "four o’clock in the morning" courage, which meant you could wake him up at four in the morning and tell him that the enemy had turned his right flank, and he’d be as cool as a cucumber. I think we all, as filmmakers — but I know, especially myself — developed a kind of "four o’clock in the morning" courage as each day you woke up with a gasp and a gulp. "What have we taken on? How can we possibly understand and represent this most defining event to the country?"

QUESTION: I’ve heard you say many times when someone has pressed you about the impact of The Civil War, you have defined it in the differences between two verbs, "are" and "is." Can you explain?

BURNS: Well, this is something that we began to see creeping into the language of Americans during the course of the war, and it was reinforced by historians like Shelby Foote, who reminded us that if all the complicated causes and all the complex effects of the war are too difficult to ultimately comprehend, we can see The Civil War in very simple terms.

Before the war, in speaking about our country, we said, "The United States are" — plural. We saw ourselves as a union, a stitched-together collection of states, a "many" thing. After the war — though we ended slavery, we didn’t really end the question of race that has bedeviled and ennobled our struggle — we then began to talk about America as a "one" thing, as a nation. And we began to say something that is still to this day ungrammatical; we say, "The United States is." And that is ungrammatical. It would be like saying, "These shoes is."

And we say it without thinking about it because something happened in those four years between 1861 and 1865 that, for whatever reasons and for whatever consequences issued from it, formed this country in a way that not even the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did. And so, in the end, the story of The Civil War is the story of the change of a simple verb from a plural to a singular.

QUESTION: The film brings us so close to the key figures in this drama. In all your years of research and work on this project, was there one figure from The Civil War period who struck you the most?

BURNS: I think if I look back at the series, the strength of The Civil War series, as a film, as a documentary, is the fact that we focused on telling a story, not just history from the top down, but from the bottom up. So it was as important for us to have our audience get to know the Northern grunt Elishah Hunt Rhodes or the Southern soldier Sam Watkins, as well as it was critical to know what was going on in the mind of Jefferson Davis or Abraham Lincoln and the myriad generals, North and South, that made the war go and happen and turn out the way it did.

But at the end of the day, when you consider the important figures, one cannot help but be inexorably drawn to that extraordinary poet-president who saved the union, Abraham Lincoln: this unlikely, essentially lower-middle-class guy from the frontier, from Kentucky and Illinois, who had raised himself up and was able to not just articulate what was going on in the moment, but to gather together all the impulses of the past and to see into the possibilities of our future, and to do so without a lot of fuss. And to do so with a great deal of poetry, in the way he spoke about the war and about the struggle. And helped to, I think, remake our country, helped to reshape and give new purpose to ideas that had perhaps become corrupted since the founding of the nation. And he gave us this impulse, this new start.

He called it, in the Gettysburg Address, a "new birth of freedom," and I think we still are the beneficiaries of it today. You know, the Age of Enlightenment, of which the United States is the prime, tangible example, still goes on today in large measure because Abraham Lincoln was able to articulate and help put into practice the manifestations of democracy and freedom in a society for all people.

QUESTION: You also, in The Civil War, introduced us to the actual ground on which these epic struggles were fought. Was there any one of the many sites you visited and filmed at that, to you, captured the essence of the conflict?

BURNS: We knew, as documentary filmmakers, that one of the most dangerous things is to rely too heavily on re-enactments and recreations. And so The Civil War has almost none. I think there are a few instances where a horse runs through a puddle and all you see is the hoof splashing the puddle and erasing the beautiful blue sky in a muddy, dirt track. And that’s all you see.

We rely instead on a kind of atmospheric, evocative, live, modern cinematography that took in the two villages that we followed, North and South, that took in sites like the Capitol dome or the Smithsonian in Washington, or various other scenes. But also, our cameras went to the battlefield, and we tried as much as possible to go at the same time of day and year that the battles took place, so that we would be in Gettysburg on
July 1st, 2nd and 3rd, hoping, straining, listening, trying to catch the ghosts and echoes of this almost inexpressibly wide path that we hoped to bring back for ourselves and for our audience.

And we really endeavored to do this. And so, quite often, you’ll see a peach tree in blossom at Shiloh, raining down on, now, the quiet grass, as it did back in 1862, in a battle the size of Waterloo, on the dead and the dying of that horrendous struggle.

But I think of all the places we’ve been — and it’s really been from Deer Isle, Maine, down into Florida, and as far west as Kansas and Missouri — it was the experience in Gettysburg that sort of — you felt the ghosts. We chose to focus a good deal of our attention on the life of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He had been a rhetoric professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and had been denied permission to take a leave to go into the army. Instead, he took a leave, supposedly, to study someplace, but actually became a colonel commanding the 20th of Maine, a volunteer regiment. The regiment saw horrendous action at Fredericksburg, which was a huge Union defeat, and ended up on the extreme left of the Union line on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, on this little hill called Little Round Top. The times that we spent filming on Little Round Top, you could almost swear you could hear the bugle call or the musket fire or the moans and shouts of men.

And those experiences, I think, helped to cement Gettysburg as the place, the defining experience of the war for us in terms of place.

QUESTION: Prior to The Civil War, you had done many successful films and a lot of acclaimed work, but the distinctive style that you have, of great writing and music and compelling commentary from experts, all seemed to coalesce with The Civil War. Can you talk about that process a little bit and how that came to you?

BURNS: Well, there was some frustration after The Civil War came out, that I wanted to yell that I wasn’t born yesterday, that I had been struggling for well over ten years with some of the styles and techniques that we used, in a film first about the Brooklyn Bridge, in which we went in and microscopically examined old photographs, used first-person voices, complicated sound effects, evocative music, the telling commentary of experts and what we hoped was a poetically written and driven narrative.

And each subsequent film – on the Shakers, on the turbulent Southern demagogue Huey Long, on the Statue of Liberty, on the history of the Congress, on the painter Thomas

Hart Benton – all kind of refined and expanded on things we were learning from that very first film.

Somehow, it all coalesced in The Civil War. I think it’s less that it was something new that we were doing — and people having a chance to go back and look at BROOKLYN BRIDGE will see lots of similarities to The Civil War — is that the event itself, The Civil War, is so central to American consciousness, whether you washed up in a boat from Haiti three weeks ago or your ancestors came over on the Mayflower: that somehow in our bloodstream, the second you sort of set foot on this soil with intentions of becoming a citizen, The Civil War takes its place as the defining moment.

Because we were working with, arguably, the greatest story in American history, we were ourselves as filmmakers called to a much higher purpose. And I think that the film does reflect our attempts at least to meet the high standards of the subject.

QUESTION: Twelve years after it first aired, The Civil War remains the highest-rated limited series in the history of PBS, and seemingly every month, there’s a new volume that comes out on some aspect of The Civil War. Do you have a theory as to why this epic event resonates so much with Americans?

BURNS: Shelby Foote said it best. The war defined us. It made us who we are, for good and for ill. Everything that came before it led up to it, and in many ways, everything since has been in some ways, however faintly, a consequence of it. We’re constantly struggling as a nation, particularly in these challenging times, for a sense of national self-definition.

And paradoxically, it’s the moment where we try to rip ourselves in two that we come to terms with the greatest sense of unity that we’ve ever had. And that, in the end, is why The Civil War has always been and will always be the central subject in American history. It goes down to that simple, paradoxical idea.

We tried to contain it in one sentence in the introduction of The Civil War, in episode one. We said, "Between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in order to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive how that was possible."

And I think, in the end, it’s that duality, that paradox, and whatever spirit of reconciliation issues from those opposing and contrasting ideas that sustain The Civil War as a subject for so long.

Copyright 2002 WETA. All rights reserved.