Ken Burns Returns


It’s been 25 years since PBS first aired Ken Burns’ film, The Civil War. It was quite possibly the most successful documentary of all time. In many respects it was groundbreaking. It introduced the Civil War to millions of viewers who hadn’t considered the war since their school days. It made looking at period pictures while period music played compelling television, while a diverse group of commentators and the authoritative voice of David McCullough as narrator provided varied perspectives and context. It had its problems, yes. I cringe every time I hear Shelby Foote, in many ways the voice of the lost cause mythology, make another claim. The narrative is oversimplified. There are some factual errors. Nevertheless, overall it was a huge positive for historical understanding.

Mr. Burns and his team have been hard at work and have re-released the film in high definition. It will air this coming week on PBS, September 7-11, 2015, at 9PM Eastern. You can check out the website here. It’s a timely release, considering recent events surrounding confederate iconography. You can read stories on it here, here, here, and here.

As many times as I’ve seen this series, I’ll be watching again [Well, Monday night I’ll record it to watch later]. And I’ll still be cringing every time Shelby Foote talks. How about you?



  1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    My DVR is set to record. While the series does make a lot of errors and I think edited Foote to come across the way he did for ratings purposes, it did serve as a vehicle for people to study the war. I really think we need to pay attention to what Mike Musick said on Kevin’s blog about Foote. That was a pretty heavy statement and one that should have been said 25 years ago.

    1. I agree, Jimmy.

  2. Goes to show what a difference a quarter century makes. 😉 I thought the Burns series was impressively detailed at the time and now find it somewhat superficial (yet still enjoyable). That it inspired me (and thousands like me?) to read/learn enough for that turnaround to eventually occur may be one of his great contributions.

    I have mixed feelings about Foote. I think the claims that he has a “southern bias” are almost certainly true, but I feel he is more reconciliationist than lost cause in orientation. His beautifully written (while certainly flawed in its details) trilogy is an arguably great starting point for folks interested in the ACW.

    Thanks for the tip. I have just set the DVR to capture the series with voices as diverse as Morgan Freeman, Jason Robards, and Kurt Vonnegut. 😉

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