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Featured TV on DVD Review: Ken Burns: The Civil War

April 15th, 2011

Ken Burns: The Civil War - Buy from Amazon

This is the documentary series that started it all. Ken Burns: The Civil War is the documentary that helped coin the term, "The Burns Effect". It is being re-released to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the start of The Civil War. But twenty after the show first aired on TV, and nearly a decade after it first came out on DVD, is the latest release worth picking up? Is it worth upgrading to?

The Show

The Civil War is a nine-part documentary that details the time line of The Civil War from the very early events, events that began a long time before the first shot was fired till the aftermath and the post-war lives of some of the combatants. The story of The Civil War is told through the personal diaries and public statements of countless people, from privates and civilians, to generals, and right up to the leaders of the both sides. The documentary also makes extensive use of "The Burns Effect", which is the term given to the panning across a still image. It's such a simple technique, but one that helps give visual flair to what would otherwise be such a boring piece.

  1. The Cause (1861)
    When the United States was formed, the issue of slavery was momentarily brought up, but not really dealt with. This left the issue simmering and it was practically inevitable that the nation would go to war with itself. At the beginning, both sides thought it would be a very short war lasting just 90 days.
  2. A Very Bloody Affair (1862)
    It's clear the war would be a long one, and a bloody one, as the Battle of Shiloh showed without a doubt. General McClellan refuses to fight. General Ulysses S. Grant becomes the most successful Union General, but that didn't make him immune to politics. Also, Merrimack vs. Monitor, which changed naval warfare in an instant.
  3. Forever Free (1862)
    Robert E. Lee, who was initially asked to lead the Union troops, became a rising start in the Confederate army. Meanwhile, with too many loses, it seemed the Union's best bet would be a stalemate, but Lincoln threw an Hail Mary pass with the Emancipation Declaration.
  4. Simply Murder (1863)
    Both sides are starting to fall apart. Despite having advantages in nearly every regard, the Union seemed determined to screw up. Meanwhile, the Confederacy had military victories, but the political coalition was strained. This episode also deals with the food the two armies ate, 90% of which was eaten by worms and weevils.
  5. The Universe of Battle (1863)
    One word: Gettysburg. It's the most important battle in The Civil War and it could take up a full 10-hour documentary all by itself. This episode deals with the prelude to the battle, the battle itself, and the immediate aftermath both political and personal. It then goes on to talk about how women on both sides helped in their own ways.
  6. Valley of the Shadow of Death (1864)
    The main focus of this episode is the showdown between General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee, including a lot of background information on the pair. There is also an emphasis on Lincoln's re-election campaign, which of course was tied tightly to the fortunes of the Union soldiers.
  7. Most Hallowed Ground (1864)
    In order for the North to win the war, Lincoln would have to be re-elected, because a loss would certainly mean the new president would negotiate for peace. The South new this and their plan was to wait till after the election to deal with the new president. The North needed something to break the stalemate, and fast.
  8. War Is All Hell (1865)
    After General Sherman took Atlanta he started his march toward the sea in what was seen as a push to crush the Confederacy once and for all. In order to do so, his plan wasn't to conquer the land and hold it, but to live off whatever they found along the way, and destroy what they couldn't take with them. It was the slow end to the deadliest war in American history.
  9. The Better Angels of Our Nature (1865)
    The end and the aftermath of the war is examined, from the celebration in the north, to the lamentations in the south, as well as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the final death tolls.

The Extras

New extras appear on the first disc and starts with Reconstruction, an 8-minute featurette on the re-mastering of the documentary. There are five interview featurettes, running from 8 minutes to 11 minutes, featuring Ken Burns as well as pundits like George Will, and the two musicians that provided the score. There is a 7-minute making of featurette, and finally a 10-minute interview with Ken Burns

The old extras are ported over and include audio commentary on select scenes for all episodes. The next extra is on the battlefield maps where you can look at the maps, read text information, or jump to the related parts of the episodes. Finally, there are quizzes.

The Verdict

If you don't have Ken Burns: The Civil War on DVD, then the - Commemorative Edition is a must have. On the other hand, the five-disc set only has a few new extras, but costs $50, and that's taking into account Amazon's discount. That's not worth the upgrade.

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