CW & Pop Culture: Civil War Media—Ken Burns’ The Civil War

Ken Burns’ The Civil War changed my life. I was a college senior in September of 1990 when the series premiered on PBS. I was a double major, History/Political Science and Broadcast Communication, and was way too busy with my classes to spend 11 1/2 hours watching it, but that’s exactly what happened. Several of us actually cut our history classes to stay in our rooms and watch it.

Not only did I find it compelling storytelling, but the way he used the visuals, how he could bring still photographs to live with a slow pan or zoom, was just as much what made it compelling to me, as the narrative. David McCullough’s deep voice provided the through thread and the use of actors to read primary sources, in character, was a new idea to me. The sprinkling in of the interviews with Shelby Foote, Stephen B. Oates, Daisy Turner, and all the rest tied it all together in ways that made one of my personal passions, history, accessible to my friends and family who didn’t understand my interest in the past. It started an interest specifically into the Civil War, that I did not have before, and continues to this day.

As a piece of video production, I absolutely tried to copy the style for my final project in my Senior Video class. With my production partner, we produced a 5 minute video about the history of oil discovery in the Bradford PA. region. It included all the tricks we learned from watching the series. We had the slow pans, and zooms, on historical photos and artifacts, had clips form an interview that we did with a local expert on the history of oil in the area, some shots of the current landscape of the region as well as a reproduction of a period oil rig. We found our own deep voiced narrator to read the script we wrote and provide the through thread.

I have not missed watching, and buying the Ken Burns series as they come out. I also find myself being able to sit down and watch them whenever I come across them n TV. From time-to-time I will pull out my set of Civil War DVD’s to watch. The series still holds my attention that way that it did almost 30 years ago.

3 Responses to CW & Pop Culture: Civil War Media—Ken Burns’ The Civil War

  1. I feel the Ken Burns docs are a great introduction to the subject, and it definitely inspired me to learn more. My step-dad had the VHS series and I’d binge-watch them all when I should have been sleeping.

  2. I enjoyed it very much too at the time, though I think some parts haven’t aged well. And there were parts I never liked, such as dismissing Stonewall Jackson as a “cold blue eyed killer” while panning over a profile photo of someone who had a superficial resemblance to him.

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