Ken Burns Marathon

Yesterday I returned from two days in Richmond with a fellow historian to begin work on our Ken Burns project.  We are writing a book that is centered around the script of the Civil War series.  Our plan is to edit the entire script for publication along with an extensive introduction that places Burns’s interpretation within the historiography of the last 20 years.  In addition, we will be including extensive tables that address such issues as the number of words spoken by the talking heads and the amount of time spent on various subjects and themes.  The book will hopefully be ready for the twentieth anniversary of the release of the series in 2010 and should be attractive to general readers, scholars, and teachers. 

We spent the last two days viewing the entire series and checking the script against the spoken word on the video itself.  Burns donated a number of scripts and other records to the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection (Florentine Films Archives Inventory).  It was incredibly draining as we had to fit in 12 hours of video in two days and leave enough time to discuss various issues that will be addressed in the annotations and in our introduction.  We are going to identify the sources for all of the historical references, which should not be too difficult, as well as specific factual claims made by the talking heads and the narrator. The tedious part will be the identification of every visual used in the film; Episode 1 includes 365 images alone. 

I’ve never viewed the entire documentary in its entirety in this way and I suspect that most people have not.  After all, who has 12 spare hours these days?  I have to say, however, that viewing it in this way has given me a very different perspective on the interpretation as a whole.  In short, I am much more impressed with it.  Burns addresses a wide range of topics and he does so in a very sophisticated way.  For example, the theme of emancipation and the role of African Americans in bringing it about is much more apparent than if you were to only view specific sections, which I am no doubt guilty of doing. As an example of popular memory of the war Burns is well ahead of the curve.  This is not to deny that there are no interpretive issues that need to be addressed and many of them were analyzed in a book edited by Robert Brent Toplin.  Eric Foner does an excellent job of analyzing the reconciliationist theme of the film which the documentary clearly leans towards.  Foner’s concern is that the emphasis on emancipation ignores the extent to which African Americans struggled both during Reconstruction and in the years to follow.  I’ve noticed a similar tendency in the past, but this time around I concentrated much more on the script and not as much on the images which in this case includes extensive video of both the 50th and 75th anniversaries of Gettysburg.  Those images of the veterans in various acts of friendship and camaraderie works to drive home the theme of reconciliation.  The absence of any substantial commentary on politics and ideology is striking.  While I understand that Burns did not want to address Reconstruction in his film he could and should have spent some time on wartime Reconstruction, including Abraham Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan and Wade-Davis Bill – at least as much time as he spent on "shoddy." 

Finally, having the script in hand places the talking heads in their proper perspective.  It is easy to magnify the importance of individuals like Shelby Foote who – depending on your perspective – either makes or breaks the series.  While I find him to be a colorful character much of what he says falls flat in terms of its scholarly import.  One wonders whether Foote has any conception that not all "southerners" were white.  Barbara Fields, Stephen Oates, and James Symington are much more impressive.  Following along with the script, however, reveals how little they actually contribute to the overall interpretation and this is one place where our tables will be useful.  Shelby Foote makes 97 appearances throughout the 9 episodes for a total of 7,771 words (71.6% of all words spoken by talking heads) while Barbara Fields comes in a distant second with 12 appearance throughout for a total of 1,109 words (10.26% of all words spoken by talking heads).  So, compared with the other talking heads Foote’s impact is apparent; however, taken together and compared with the overall narrative by David McCullough the amount of time devoted to the commentators is minimal.  Again, this emerges much more clearly when following the script.

Viewing the film in its entirety has made me much more sensitive to Burns as a documentarian than as a historian which he consistently maintains that he is not.  In fact, I need to read much more on the process and, more specifically, how Burns goes about constructing films.  I guess the historian in me is overly sensitive to distinctions as well as a certain analytical style. You can expect to hear much more about this project in the months to come.

WARNING: Viewing The Civil War in its entirety and in a short space of time can lead to the narration of dreams in the voice of David McCullough.

3 comments… add one

  • Woodrowfan Jan 5, 2008

    I didn’t mind Foote and wish Dr. Fields had many more comments. I HATED listening to Edwin Bearss though. His style makes me wince…..

  • Kevin Jan 5, 2008

    Yeah, I tend to agree with you. Bearrs is an excellent tour guides but his eccentricities of speech fail to cut in this documentary. More importantly, there simply isn’t much content.

  • Rea Andrew Redd Apr 14, 2011

    Kevin,
    In Fall ’11 I am presenting to two groups a review of the contents of Ken Burn’s The Civil War. Each group will meet 3 times in 2.5 hour segments. How are things coming along on your project?

    Years ago I read Toplin’s edited collection of essays. Has anything come out since then?
    I’ve ordered Gary Edgerton’s “Ken Burns’s America” book for the library and be reviewing it in May.

    Rea [Ray]

    Rea Andrew Redd
    Director, Eberly Library
    Professor, Waynesburg University
    Waynesburg, PA 15370

    rredd@waynesburg.edu
    reaandrewredd@yahoo.com

Leave a Comment