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Civil War, The: A Film by Ken Burns — 25th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

9 Oct, 2015 By: John Latchem

Street 10/13/15
6-disc set, $99.99 DVD, $129.99 Blu-ray
Not rated
Narrated by David McCullough. Featuring the voices of Sam Waterston, Jason Robards, Julie Harris, Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor, Arthur Miller, George Plimpton.

Aside from the technological upgrade and the preservation aspects, there isn’t much that a high-definition remastering of Ken Burns’ landmark documentary The Civil War can do to enhance the experience of watching the film.

The film is already a masterwork recounting of a crucial turning point in U.S. history, and will always be relevant as long as we continue to deliberate on what it means to be free or what it means to be an American.

Burns and his team spent the latter part of the 1980s gathering the photos and interviews needed to tell the story of the 1861-65 war, presented in nine episodes running 11 hours. The narrative covers the causes of the war, political strife on both sides, the key battles and the aftermath, expertly setting up key characters while giving viewers a sense of the impact of the war on different parts of the country.

While it’s nice finally to have the film in high-definition, it’s certainly not a requirement to enjoy it. So much of the power of the piece comes through David McCullough’s concise narration, the re-created memories of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln (voiced by Sam Waterston), interviews with modern historians and political figures who put the events in context, and countless historical photos.

Interestingly, Waterston voices Lincoln with a refined tone that is a far cry from the accent he used to play the 16th president in the 1988 TV miniseries adapted from Gore Vidal’s book Lincoln.

Among the Blu-ray extras are a featurette about the restoration of the film, which gave the filmmakers a chance to clean up the images and reduce vibrations from the original camerawork.

And it does look fantastic in high-definition. Certainly many of the period photos aren’t of the resolution that an HD upgrade would give much of a boost, but it doesn’t hurt. The impact of the HD is more evident in the modern footage shot by Burns. One of his editing tricks is to use new footage of Civil War locations to draw out the narration, leading to some beautiful shots of rolling hills, lush trees and solemn graves.

The Blu-ray also includes a new retrospective with Burns and his team, looking back at the impact the show has had since its 1990 debut. This is on top of other extras from earlier DVDs in which the filmmakers looked back on the making of the film.

Of particular note is a 2002 reflection from Shelby Foote, who is the primary historian around whose anecdotes most of the film is structured. Foote praises the historical value of the film (barely more then a decade old at that point), though he does suggests that it focuses more on slavery as a root cause of the war than he would agree with, and it neglects a number of military campaigns for which photos weren’t as abundant.

Another extra, new to this re-release, is a four-minute featurette about how The Civil War can be used in classrooms.

It’s a well-assembled package, and highly recommended to anyone who doesn’t already own the film on disc.

Now maybe they’ll get to putting all of Ken Burns’ Baseball on Blu-ray.

About the Author: John Latchem

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