Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  David McCullough
Director:  Ken Burns
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros./PBS
Features:  See Review
Length:  Approx. 660 Minutes
Release Date:  September 17, 2002

“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war.”Oliver Wendell Holmes

Film ****

Public television is America’s great, and sometimes under-tapped, resource.  It was a staple of my childhood, with shows like Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company and Zoom making learning fun.  As I got older, it was shows like Nova for science and Masterpiece Theatre for art.  But even beyond that…my first glimpse of Buster Keaton came from PBS, as did The Beatles.

But in 1990, a public television event took the country by storm in the form of an 11 hour, nine episode documentary by a filmmaker named Ken Burns.  The Civil War was not only a pinnacle for PBS, but an apex of all modern television as well.

Burns quickly became a household name on the strength of this extraordinary series.  His artistic intuition and his sense of personal and emotional as well as historical detail made America’s greatest conflict come to life in a way that was far more involving than anything we learned in history classes.  Ken Burns delivers not only the who, the where and the when, but the how and the why.

Photography was becoming a popular medium in the days of the Civil War, and Burns has assembled a treasure trove of vintage pictures to use in telling his stories.  We see the faces, and we hear the names, then often, we get to listen to their own words as recorded in either personal letters or the history books.  A plethora of top actors lend their voices to the piece, as the likes of Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterston, Jeremy Irons, Julie Harris, Derek Jacobi and others bring the words of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee to life before our ears and eyes.

But Ken Burns’ The Civil War isn’t all about presidents and politicians and generals.  A good bit of it focuses on the everyday citizen of the time.  The young men who enlisted and fought for both the North and the South.  The slaves and the ex-slaves.  The nurses, wives, and mothers.  And so on.  Burns’ attention to detail sheds a new and humanistic light on the great conflict by making the people who lived in it and fought it more real than any text has every accomplished.  And ultimately, it makes the story of the war one of optimism, as the country eventually survived tearing itself in two to become an even stronger ONE that it was before.

It’s educational, but also entertaining, and because of the second, it becomes much more of the first.  I learned plenty from this extensive piece, and walked away with a much clearer understanding of the events and times than I ever had before.  I learned how the cotton gin, great invention that it was, helped pave the way for the war by making plantations more profitable and southerners less willing to part with their slaves.  I learned how the North, despite superior weaponry and numbers, almost lost the war because of military incompetence!  I learned about Yankee General McClellan, who molded the Union army into a superior fighting machine…then resisted taking his troops into battle!  I learned why Robert E. Lee is still considered one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, despite being on the losing side of the war.  And so on.

Truly, adjectives fail me.  This is a stunning film in every way, from its epic length to the fact that it never gets boring or too wrapped up in facts and figures for its own good.  The amount of research, pre-production and effort it must have taken to pull this off is almost beyond imagination.  Ken Burns did all of that and more, and American history is much better off because of it.

Video **1/2

The full frame presentation is okay, but with a few notable problems.  Modern color sequences that include interviews and present-day shots of historical location suffer from inconsistency in tone, which often give static shots the slight appearance of a “flickering” effect.  The black and white photographs, which comprise most of the viewing time, come across much better.  The print is fairly clean, with only a minor speck here or there…nothing particularly noteworthy.  The reconstruction demonstration shows that this DVD is still a marked improvement over the original broadcast version.  Decent marks.

Audio ***

The remastered 5.1 soundtrack is a nice touch, as the sounds of ancient battles come alive in your living room, using the rear stage for depth and the .1 channel for extra impact for the cannons and explosions.  Most of the feature is spoken-word oriented, and every bit of dialogue and narration comes through solidly.  The beautiful score, which contains multiple allusions to Civil War era songs, is an added plus (the CD soundtrack was quite successful in its day).  High marks.

Features ****

Ken Burns’ participation is all over this DVD release, starting with 5 hours’ worth of easily accessible commentary tracks.  Each disc divides his comments into specific index form so that you can listen to everything he has to say without worrying about gaps.  There are five interview segments with, respectively, Ken Burns, writer and on-screen commentator Shelby Foote, columnist George Will, Stanley Crouch, and musicians and composers Jay Unger and Molly Mason.

57 biography cards and 20 interactive maps add to The Civil War experience, allowing greater insight and instant access to corresponding parts of the documentary.  A running Civil War challenge tests your knowledge of history.  Finally, you can get up close and personal with Burns in two featurettes, one showcasing him in conversation, and one demonstrating him at work.  A terrific package of extras.


Fans have long waited for Ken Burns’ The Civil War on DVD, and it’s just as great as you remembered.  This modern staple of public television offers the most comprehensive and intimate look at our country’s deadliest conflict, brought to life by photographs, letters, maps and modern historical interpretation.  Whether you’re a history buff or a cinema lover, this is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.