In late 1990, the BBC aired an American documentary series made by brothers Ken and Rick Burns. The subject was The American Civil War (1861-1865), something I had always been interested in. Unlike some dramatised documentary films, Burns took a completely different approach to the production of this ten-hour epic series. There was no reconstruction, no film clips, and no sign of any reenactors. Instead, he used a huge archive of contemporary photographs, diaries written at the time of the war, and the occasional interview with an expert on the subject.
This approach was stunning to watch. As a fine narrator talks over photos that are lingered upon, zoomed into, or simply stare out of the screen at the viewer. The voices of the characters of the time, politicians like Lincoln, or generals Lee, Sherman, and others, are voiced by some of the finest actors of the day. These include Morgan Freeman, Derek Jacobi, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, and Jeremy Irons. When experts are called upon to expand on an incident, or comment on the feelings in the country, only the most informed and experienced are used. Shelby Foote, Ed Bearss, and Barbara Fields, among others. There are also music and songs, perfectly in keeping with the mood of the programme.
The series takes no sides, and makes few judgments, simply presenting the facts as seen by people at the time, on both sides. It examines every aspect of the war, from the numerous significant battles, to the bitter border wars, as well as the impact on the many civilians caught up in the war in both parts of the country. Listening to excerpts from the diaries being read, whilst watching the photographs come and go on the screen was completely hypnotic, and something groundbreaking in television back then.
I was completely hooked on this series, and as soon as I could, I bought the nine-part box set on VHS, then watched it all over again. Later, I was given the DVD box set as a gift, something I still treasure to this day. If you are interested in history, great documentary film-making, or even the history of television, then this is something you must try to see. Don’t be put off by thinking you have no interest in that war, as this series will send you back into the period like nothing else you have ever seen.