Film History

Ken Burns’s Civil War

The following article ends up by making an important point regarding the famous Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War:

“Watching the film, you might easily forget that one side was not fighting for, but against the very things that Burns claims the war so gloriously achieved. Confederates, you might need reminding after seeing it, were fighting not for the unification of the nation, but for its dissolution. Moreover, they were fighting for their independence from the United States in the name of slavery and the racial hierarchy that underlay it.”

Ken Burns’s history is corrupted by relativism. He cannot accept the idea that one side of a conflict which tore America apart could be decidedly wrong while the other one right. At the same time, his liberalism prevents him from accepting the cause of the South (secession) and the institution it chose to fight for (slavery). To resolve this tension Burns must fall back on sentimentality, portraying the war as a great waste of human life and all its participants as unsung heroes. Unable to make distinctions between good and evil, Burns considers all those who fought as hapless victims. The Civil War was a tragedy, Burns turns it into a melodrama. By sidestepping the actual reasons for the war, he undermines all the efforts of those who fought and died. Those men and women did not die for “nothing”, a thesis famously expounded during the Vietnam war, the generation of which Burn is unmistakably part of. Rather the war occurred because of a fundamental disagreement between the North and the South. It is unfortunate it had to be resolved by guns but when ballots fail–as when the South refused to acknowledge the presidency of Abraham Lincoln–then war is unfortunately necessary.

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