Not only did the Civil War have enormous significance to history, it eventually had huge meaning to the history of Ken Burns,
The much-honored documentary maker had made films before 1990 — “Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Statue of Liberty” among them — but his profile of the critical mid-19th-century battle cemented his career and helped enable him to tackle such projects as “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The War” (World War II) and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” later. In a newly remastered version, “The Civil War” marks its 25th anniversary by returning to PBS in nightly telecasts Monday (Sept. 7) through Friday (Sept. 11)
“It’s really a goosebump moment for me,” the ever-pleasant Burns tells Zap2it, “because it was such a central part of my professional life. To have this new life given to these images … I’ve said it many times, but what I saw through the lens was not what came out on a tiny 16mm film image about the size of my thumb. And what we lost to grain and the fact of film, we’ve now been able to recapture as we’ve gone frame by frame through 11-1/2 hours and restored it
“All of a sudden, the iconic cannon in silhouette on the mountain is not just a smear of orange, but this complex thing,” adds Burns. “The images look as sharp and clear as I saw them through the viewfinder. I think this removes a few veils between the audience, including myself, and the subject of the Civil War that I would argue is still the most important event in American history. We live out every day the issues that came about because of the Civil War, and that have been consequences of since.
“The Civil War” set down the Burns technique that also employs a large voice cast as pivotal players. Sam Waterston and Jason Robards are heard as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant respectively, with Julie Harris, Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor, Jeremy Irons, Colleen Dewhurst, Derek Jacobi, Studs Terkel, Arthur Miller, Kurt Vonnegut and Horton Foote among other notables who lent their vocal talents.
“I had worked on a short film about Emily Dickinson, and Julie was the narrator and host,” Burns recalls of landing her participation in “Brooklyn Bridge” as “a first-person voice, this thing I’d been experimenting with. She did it, then when I told everybody else who’d been turning me down, they’d say, ‘Julie Harris? The five-time Tony Award-winning actress?’ I’d go, ‘Yes,’ then they’d say, ‘Well, OK. I guess we can spare a half-hour or an hour.’ Then ‘The Civil War’ came along, and people wanted to be involved.”
Burns notes the “Civil War” upgrade “wouldn’t have happened” without the financial support of Bank of America, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS itself. He says securing such funding is “still hard, it’s still crazy, it’s still tenuous, it’s still anxiety-producing — but I think the validation is that we’re hungry for content. We’re also hungry for meaning, and all meaning accrues over duration. The work you’re proudest of, and the relationships you care most about, are the ones that have benefited from sustained attention.”
The remastered “The Civil War” also debuts on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 13. Twenty-five years later, the program’s impact remains indelible for Burns as he readies such upcoming PBS ventures as “Jackie Robinson” (due next year), “Vietnam” and “Country Music.”
“I wear many hats on a production,” he reflects, “and the thing I’m good at is seeing something new in the editing room. When I see a cut and something isn’t really working, I see it the way an audience would, and that’s something this restoration has given me. It’s given back to me, in a very fresh way, this baby of mine that I love and cherish and worked so hard to bring into being.”