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Burns, PBS Revisit 'The Civil War'

16 Sep, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner


Time can be a filmmaker's worst enemy when it comes to committing a film to DVD: Materials can be hard to find, getting rights to those materials can be even harder and sometimes the talent is not interested or available to contribute.

For award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, the process was exactly reversed: finding materials to construct the film The Civil War was the challenge; by comparison, putting together the DVD boxed set that Warner Home Video will release next month when PBS re-airs the documentary was easy.

“I think it made it easier to have the distance, the perspective. I'm fortunate enough to be with PBS so I got my director's cut the first time,” Burns said. “What I was unprepared for was how powerful the material I thought I knew was when I went back and watched it.”

Through biographical sketches of heroes both revered and forgotten, uses the simplest of elements — still photos and paintings blended with location footage, letters and historical documents, interviews with historians — to tell the story of the only war ever fought on American soil. And Burns, who limited his commentary to an average of 10 minutes per segment, wanted to keep it that way.

“It was like a reunion with family members I hadn't seen in a while. I didn't want to have all these bells and whistles. I didn't want to have this blanket running commentary across the entire 11 hours,” he said. “I just want it to be like a really dry martini. I wanted what we did afterward, the bells and whistles, to be the vermouth. They say for the perfect dry martini, you just turn the label toward the glass.”

Besides adding commentary tracks and breaking out maps as a special feature, the discs have historical trivia quiz questions, which Burns personally vetted for accuracy.

“I went over every quiz question and tweaked them where they were not quite fair,” Burns said. “The world still has this view of the Civil War from Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation.”

It's no coincidence those films viewed the war as a black-and-white struggle between good and evil, but the reality is far different.

In fact, although Burns did a short documentary feature on the 9/11 events for the “Good Morning America" 25th anniversary show, he said he prefers the 20/20 hindsight that making films about more distant history affords.

“History is just like a painter choosing watercolor or oil, or choosing still lifes instead of landscapes. I need the perspective,” he said.

Although he can look back at his own past work and see how he might have approached something differently, Burns said he wouldn't change his earlier films because they were a reflection of his growth, the way a photo in a family album reflects a stage in the subject's life.

“You can't change the photograph and you can't rip it out of the album,” Burns said. “I know that I'm solving problems differently now.”

The freedom that working for PBS has afforded is a luxury isn't lost on Burns, who feels fortunate to have been able to build each film to his vision with little artistic sacrifice. “I can say with the utmost satisfaction, it's all my fault … If I put my name on it I'm saying this is the best I could do at that moment.” “I gave the full measure of my devotion, as Abraham Lincoln would say, to making the film.”

Warner Home Video is bringing Ken Burns' The Civil War to DVD for the first time in a digitally remastered version ($129.98 SRP, $99.95 MAP) that will include collectible packaging, a new 5.1 sound mix of the original mono soundtrack and exclusive special features. A compact VHS edition (five cassettes rather than the set's original nine) will also be available for $99.98 SRP. The VHS and DVD releases are timed to coincide with PBS' Sept. 22 to 26 rebroadcast, which is expected to boost sales with an anticipated audience of 17 million viewers.

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