Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”: Parts 6-9

Dir. Ken Burns, Est. 360 min., on PBS

So last time, I said I would talk about the film’s best and worst aspects.


  • Stirring Letters
  • Letters from persons in the war to their families, especially Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, are tear wrenching.

  • Fabulous historical details
  • Among my favorite: Abraham Lincoln handing out presidential appointments after the 1860 election and saying there are not enough tits on the pig to feed the piglets

  • The impressive array of photos
  • Whoever did the job of assembling images is to be commended, as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of stunning images compiled in this film.


  • The range of voice actors
  • With the budget of this film, the number of actors included could have potentially been expanded. Morgan Freeman and Garrison Keeler were forced to do triple duty in some episodes.

  • The soundtrack
  • Viewed with intervals between episodes, “Ashokan Farewell,” the title track and outro music, would be charming and unique. Viewed in sequence without breaks, it looses its effect after the sixth time, and becomes annoying after the sixteenth time. A sad truth for a beautiful composition.

  • The Ken Burn’s Effect
  • I know I lauded it in the last review, but it does become a tiresome, predictable strategy, especially in the instances when photographs are reused (in the cases of the major players).

The conclusion was somewhat bittersweet, and from a historical point of view, focused entirely too much on the great men of history and all but forgot the former slaves. The resolution and much of the introductory portions of the episodes focused on reunion filmstrips and newsreels. While this is fascinating video, the question is justifiably raised: where is the discussion of race and the inequities that persist until our present day.

I’ll stand in the camp that this film can’t be all things to all people and shouldn’t try to treat every aspect of the war, but it still has some notable gaps and omissions.

However, I feel that much can be excused by the fact that this film serves as a progenitor of many modern documentary series. A good question is raised as to whether a film of this length should be expected to address all aspects of an issue; I would argue no. The discretion of the filmmaker is to set the scope, but a justification should be present to defend the scope (in my opinion). We are rarely privileged to enjoy such a justification, and this is no exception.

As a historical primer and stirring film, this film has great merit. For those who argue comprehensiveness of large historical film tomes such as this, I think that this serves as a relic of what was once considered the comprehensive treatment of a subject.

Film (or television miniseries in this case) is no longer king for a treatment of such a large topic. For Burns’ upcoming Vietnam war documentary, I hope for much more than a one dimensional approach: utilize the advances in technology to put your message in a more comprehensive domain. Granted this was not possible for this film, but hopefully Burns will advance with the times and deliver his masterpiece in his next work, as this film does not do justice to the potential that he possesses as a filmmaker and “compendiumist” (or whatever word you will use for that function, I couldn’t find a better one at this time of night).