It might sound like a fraternal challenge. Ric Burns, the co-writer and co-producer of his brother Ken’s blockbuster PBS documentary, The Civil War, returns to America’s bloodiest war, focusing on its gloomiest aspects. Yet, Burns’ approach yields up some fascinating and under-reported episodes of American history in Death and the Civil War (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of American Experience.
Every war invariably and unavoidably involves death. However, by any objective standard of measurement, the Civil War claimed more American lives and caused more damage to infrastructure than any other war our nation has fought. Burns’ on-camera historians argue the shockingly high death toll forced nearly every American to come to terms with death, often changing their conceptional framework as a result. Frankly, the talking heads veer a bit into cultural-historical pop psychology, fixating on the notions of a “good death” that grew out of the Great Awakening.
In contrast, DCW is something of a revelation when explaining how ill-prepared both the Union and Confederate Armies were for dealing with mass casualties. Basic military functions like official death notices and an ambulance corps were only instituted late in the war. If buried at all, bodies were often interned in unmarked makeshift graves. There were no military cemeteries, until the grounds of Gettysburg transformed for that purpose. The occasion happened to be marked by a rather famous speech. Oddly though, the film only mentions the Lincoln assassination in passing, despite frequently exploring mid Nineteenth Century American attitudes towards mortality.
DCW’s battery of talking heads display the appropriate authority and sensitivity for such a heavy subject, particularly David W. Blight, the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition, and poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch. Unfortunately, Pulitzer Prize winner George F. Will’s commentary was treated rather severely in the editing bay.
Burns follows roughly the same template of the family’s predecessor Civil War documentary and his New York: A Documentary Film, employing archival photos, voice-over readings of primary sources, and a reassuring sounding narrator (Oliver Platt in this case), but with good reason. There is no reason to radically change a successful formula.