The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How two very different historians defined Ken Burns’ ‘The Civil War’

The 107th Colored Infantry. Courtesy the Library of Congress and PBS.

A remastered version of Ken Burns’s masterful documentary, “The Civil War,” began airing on PBS on Monday to mark the 25th anniversary of the film and the 150th anniversary of the end of the conflict. I wrote about the process of remastering the film, and Burns’s opportunity to make the movie he always dreamed of, on Friday. All week, I’ll be running excerpts of a long conversation we had about “The Civil War,” race, violence, photography and historical scholarship. The first installment appears here, the second appears here, and the third appears here.

When Ken Burns and I met in New York in May to discuss the process of remastering “The Civil War,” his nine-part documentary about the conflict that aired on PBS for the first time in 1990, Burns kept emphasizing how remastering had improved the film, making historical artifacts sharper, changing the way landscapes functioned in the movie and forcing audiences to grapple with the cost of war.

But as restoration artist Daniel J. White had emphasized to me, one of the greatest challenges of remastering a movie is to avoid changing it in a fundamental way. So when Burns and I sat down for an in-depth interview, I was curious about whether there were ways he might have changed the film if he were to make it again; specifically, whether he would have used historians Shelby Foote and Barbara Fields in the same proportions. I asked specifically because Columbia professor Fields’ historiography — which treats the Civil War as simply part as a longer struggle for black equality in America — seems more in keeping with the present mood than Foote’s, which treats the Civil War as the conflict that “made us what we became, in good and bad ways.” Given all the ways in which the conflicts that animated the Civil War are still convulsing the United States, I wanted to know whether Burns felt the same way about their presence in the movie.

His answer was swift and unequivocal.

Follow Alyssa Rosenberg's opinionsFollow

“Yes,” Burns said when I asked whether he would use the same clips of each person if he were remaking “The Civil War” today. “Because what works, works. And I think Barbara, in nine, 10, 11 times, next to Shelby’s 89 times — some intern counted, and I’m trusting the number — you’re absolutely right [that her history prevails over Foote’s] … If you read Shelby’s writings, it’s possible to understand that he shares the very same things. He just approaches it with the perspectives, as a white Southern male, that he has, as opposed to a black woman, that Barbara has … Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow love Abraham Lincoln, genuinely. And that suggests to me that history could be a table around which we could still agree to have a civil discourse.”

But isn’t there some tension, I pressed Burns. If Foote sees the Civil War as a discrete process, while Fields sees is it as part of a much larger and still ongoing narrative, whether that process is finished or ongoing is not an easily reconcilable position.

“I would suggest that Shelby wouldn’t in any way suggest that we had somehow been arrested in that. The Civil War made us what we became, that is true. But we are in the process of becoming always, as Barbara suggests,” Burns answered. “The Civil War, as she says in the very last episode, is not only still going on, it still can be lost, which is a hugely important thing. Now Shelby wouldn’t have put it [like] that. But if you read his novels and you understand the 20 years that he gave up of his peak professional performance to dedicate himself to this, you understand that his motivations are not so different than, say, Mark Twain’s [in ‘Huck Finn’]. And it’s born out of the frustration of the collapse of Reconstruction and the fact that everything the Civil War had spent had not yet come into place. I think if he were still alive, he’d be incredibly shocked.”

As much as anything else, Foote and Fields serve different functions in “The Civil War”: Foote is a font of anecdotes, while Fields provides a big intellectual framework the audience can use to understand the war.

“Shelby sees this narrative going on, and he gets granular with it, and he understands human beings, like us, who like a certain kind of breakfast, or move in a certain way when we’re hyper-concentrating. [Union General Ulysses S.] Grant, he said, had 4 o’clock in the morning courage. You could wake him up and tell him that the enemy had turned his left flank, and he’d be as cool as a cucumber,” Burns explained.

By contrast, Fields is “saying, part of the subscription to the particular school of historiography she subscribed to, that it’s not about weapons and battles. Which I disagree with! It’s very much about weapons and battles. If Gettysburg is the biggest battle ever fought in North America, we ought to know what happened there. But she says that we get distracted by that, and she’s absolutely right. We do, we get into the mythology and the sort of loveliness of war and forget its terrible consequences, and she’s saying it isn’t just the badness of war, it’s also that war has larger effects. … Now, that’s not in opposition to Shelby’s saying. It’s only saying that there’s a much richer picture if you fill in lots of different spaces.”

Burns returned to the idea of tension between individual experience and broader ideas later in our conversations.

“There is always an extraordinary tension between what occurs at an individual level and what occurs at a national level,” Burns said. “The national level presupposes, correctly or incorrectly, a kind of collective sacrifice, a collective sense of freedom that would say, ‘If we all give up this,’ gasoline, rubber at the time of the Second World War, ‘We’ll all be in better shape to do this thing we have to do.’ As opposed to an individual tension, ‘This is what’s so great about the United States, it’s about what I want, it’s about my personal freedom.’ They are not compatible. There are places in which there is compatibility. But for the most part, there is a superb tension. And I think the main story, even more than race, is the story of that tension. And then when you superimpose race, then you’ve got an even more volatile mix, an even more combustible mix in the individual and the collective.”

But ultimately, those individual stories can be key to getting broader ideas a big, public airing. In addition to his other contributions, Foote gave Burns the phrase he ultimately needed to secure financial support to get “The Civil War” made.

“As Shelby said in the film and gets it better than anything else, we said ‘The United States are’ plural. After the war we began to say ‘the United States is,’ which is ungrammatical,” Burns recalled. “I was pointed by someone who was going to support us at General Motors, we needed, desperately needed underwriting, and I slipped this two-inch-thick proposal that we’d successfully submitted to the NEH, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and his eyes glazed over, and he pushed it back and said, ‘What’s it about, Ken?’ And I said, ‘Well, here’s our submission to [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting], it’s only 25 pages, not 200.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘What’s it about?’ And I said, ‘Before the war, referring to our country, Americans said “The United States are.” After the war, they said “The United States is.” I want to make a film about how that are became an is.’ He said, ‘How much do you need?’ It came to me at the moment. My heart was pounding every time he said, ‘What’s it about?’ “