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Ken Burns's 1990 Civil War documentary makes a strong case for preserving public humanities funding

The nine-part documentary attracted 40 million PBS viewers when it premiered.

Ken Burns’s The Civil War
Ken Burns’s The Civil War
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for March 18 through 24 is The Civil War (1990), which is available for digital purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and iTunes.

Ken Burns is probably America’s most well-known documentarian, making traditional, history-rich multi-part films about important periods in American history and facets of American culture. Anyone who’s watched PBS has probably watched one of Burns’s documentaries, which span topics ranging from jazz, baseball, and the national parks to Prohibition and the Roosevelts. At this point, “PBS documentary” is basically synonymous with Burns’s name.

Burns’s films have also received a lot of funding from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, both of which were targeted for elimination (along with the National Endowment for the Arts) in President Trump’s budget proposal. The Jazz series received funds from the CPB, NEH, and NEA, in addition to private, corporate, and foundation funding. Jackie Robinson received a grant from the CPB alongside other sources of private funding. Prohibition received funds from the CPB and NEH.

2016 Winter TCA Tour - Day 14
Ken Burns speaking during the press tour for Jackie Robinson in 2016.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In 2016, Burns was selected to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He used the platform to deliver a rousing defense of the humanities, which in the NEH’s definition include history, philosophy, religion, and more:

Somehow, in recent times, the humanities have been needlessly scapegoated in our country by those who continually benefit from division and obfuscation. Let me make it perfectly clear: the United States of America is an enduring humanistic experiment. That fact does not preclude or exclude--indeed it is the exact opposite of those limiting words--the full expression of religious freedom. In fact, it strengthens an understanding, promoted by our founders, of tolerance and inclusion. What could be more faith-based than that? Where we get into trouble is when our arrogant certainty suggests that only one point of view, perhaps only one religion, is “right.” “Liberty,” Judge Learned Hand once said--and can there be a better name for a jurist than Learned Hand--“Liberty,” he said, “is never being too sure you’re right.” Doubt—healthy, questioning, experimenting, perfecting doubt—is critical to the humanities and the health of our still fragile Republic.

But in our media and political culture, we don’t disagree, we demonize, condemning us to a kind of partisan purgatory. Our trade is now tirade, but that righteous indignation only lasts until the next drug commercial for diseases we didn’t know we could have or even get—restless leg syndrome? Dry eyes? The humanities provide us high ground and perspective to see with clear eyes these fads and trends and unnecessary conflicts for what they are. Yet we still seem allergic to civil discourse—and just plain civility—which could lift us out of our dyspeptic tantrums.

. . . Our religious traditions suggest that we human beings are made in God’s image. There is almost nothing, ladies and gentlemen, in our collective behavior that suggests that that is true. But every once in a while, we are permitted a glimpse into possibility, into circumstances where human nature changes just a bit, where the hellhounds at our heels seem at least tired, if not tamed, where we live in Bedford Falls, not Pottersville. That’s the humanities.

Thanks to funding from the CPB, NEH, and NEA, Burns’s documentaries are widely available to watch. A good place to start is with his seminal 1990 nine-episode documentary series The Civil War, which was restored and rebroadcast in high definition in September 2015.

The film took five years to complete, and 40 million people watched it when it was first broadcast in 1990 — that’s roughly equivalent to the number of people who watched Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. It won 40 major film and TV awards, including two Emmys and two Grammys. Both the CPB and NEH contributed funding for the project.

The film is credited with an uptick in public interest in the Civil War — though some historians have found the account of the war presented in the film by historian Shelby Foote to be romanticized and reductive. Commemorating the restored edition in Time, Jeffrey Kluger wrote that it “explained an incalculably important chapter in American history to a generation that needed the tutorial.”

A photo of three Confederate soldiers taken by Mathew B. Brady shortly after the end of the Civil War.
A photo of three Confederate soldiers taken by Mathew B. Brady shortly after the end of the Civil War.

It’s also considered a strong influence on the traditional documentary form — for instance, Burns perfected his now-signature technique of zooming and panning across archival photographs to add visual interest to the documentary, an especially necessary technique for a documentary about a time in which archival video footage is not readily available. (It’s now called the “Ken Burns effect.”)

But it’s also the subject of the film, not just its funding sources, that makes it so timely. As Burns himself said in his lecture, the Republic is fragile and divided — and his film documents another time when that was strikingly, searingly true.

But, as he says, “the humanities provide us high ground and perspective to see with clear eyes these fads and trends and unnecessary conflicts for what they are.” With the NEH, CPB, NEA, and other humanities-focused agencies on the budgetary chopping block, The Civil War is a good reminder of why a little bit of America’s public dollars have been invested in its culture for the past half-century.

Watch the trailer for The Civil War: