TV Series Review: The Civil War (1990)

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.

46 thoughts on “TV Series Review: The Civil War (1990)

    1. Lots of coverage of the slavery issue of course, right from episode one. (John Brown, etc.)
      It’s free to watch on You Tube too! Wonderful narrator, cool experts, and breathtaking style.
      Need I say more? 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I am a veteran of the Vietnam Era and I want to say that ever since the producer you mentioned (The one who did “The Civil War” ) made the one on Vietnam, I haven’t been much of a fan because I felt the series glorified the enemy and made the Americans look like fools and demons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember your thoughts about his Vietnam series, John. I am not American of course, so found it informative, and compelling to watch. His treatment of the Civil War was very different in tone and presentation to that recent work.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Writing this post made me start watching it again. I watched part one early this evening. Never gets stale. When I bought the VHS tapes, I watched the whole thing in one day, from 10 am, until 8 pm!
      Best wishes, Pete. x


  2. I was equally impressed by this documentary, which aired on Canadian TV many years ago. The new technique of turning still images into moving objects by panning and zooming in and out is known as the Ken Burns effect. Have a great weekend, Pete!

    Liked by 1 person

All comments welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.