There is a vast amount of materials dedicated to the Civil War, and movies occupy a prominent place among them. Although books written by renowned historians provide much data and evidence, it is much easier for the audience to perceive the events that happened in the past with the help of audio and visual techniques. Ken Burns’ The Civil War is a great example of a thoroughly constructed series of stories that help viewers to understand what happened a century ago, what causes led to the initiation of the war, and how people survived it. The present paper aims to outline the strengths and weaknesses of Burns’ The Civil War, but the main focus will be on benefits since limitations are quite a few.
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Probably the greatest asset of the series is its richness in documentary items. The director used a large amount of photographs, diaries, and original letters in the movie. Moreover, many speeches of people belonging to Civil War era were employed in the series (The Civil War). Burns understood the need to provide as many genuine details as possible in the film to make it the most impressive and persuasive. Thus, the director engaged not only the interviews with soldiers but also the ones with civilians. It was quite a good idea since both sides of war life should be reflected in order to present the complete picture of people’s life at the time. Therefore, the attention to detail and the inclusion of a vast variety of documentary items may be considered as the biggest advantage of the movie.
Apart from being rich in details, The Civil War has some other features that made it so popular and highly-esteemed. The important place in this respect belongs to music and visuals. The use of instruments of the war period was a rather wise decision. By exploiting the suitable musical background, the director made sure that the attention of the audience was not distracted. Rather, the concentration of the viewers is intensified because of the highly suitable choice of melodies supporting the storyline. Thus, the musical accompaniment is another strength of The Civil War.
One more advantage of the series is its duration. Burns divided the story into nine short episodes lasting between 60 and 100 minutes (The Civil War). Thus, the episodes’ length was sufficient to tell the story and, at the same time, not too long, which allowed the director to hold the viewers’ attention. Each part of the series is a logical continuation of the previous one, which creates the sense of the interconnectedness of the stories told in different episodes. The parts are arranged chronologically, thus providing the complete story of past events for contemporary viewers.
While the documentary was accepted rather warmly and is still considered as one of the best depictions of the Civil War, it is not void of some weaknesses. Probably the biggest one is that although the narrative is quite pathetic, it does not always reflect the events accurately. Some issues depicted in the movie lack criticism due to being focused on the fascination effect too much. Political and military issues are not given enough attention, the main focus being on the emotional emphasis.
Despite some limitations, Burns’ The Civil War has a number of advantages that allowed it to occupy a prominent place in the list of documentaries dedicated to this important period of the US history. The inclusion of original photographs, diaries, and interviews made the series exciting to watch. Overall, Burns’ documentary is worth watching by anyone who wishes to enrich their knowledge of the Civil War.
The Civil War. Directed by Ken Burns, performances by David McCullough, Sam Waterston, Julie Harris, and Jason Robards, American Documentaries Inc., 1990.