Long before Ken Burns' PBS series on the national parks, the filmmaker produced another multi-program epic that features several NPS areas. THE CIVIL WAR, which first aired in 1990, remains the highest-rated series in the history of American public television. The series is being rebroadcast in early April to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of America's Civil War.
THE CIVIL WAR was a milestone in the history of documentary film and television,” notes John F. Wilson, chief TV programming executive at PBS. “When THE CIVIL WAR premiered, the nation became increasingly riveted by the story and the filmmaking. Twenty-one years later, the re-mastered film remains relevant and modern. The storytelling and use of music, experts and personal narratives, along with a stunning collection of period photographs, are just as poignant today as when it premiered.”
The title of the series was intentionally written all in capital letters by Burns and his team, a style that in today's digital vernacular usually indicates a shouted message. Given the impact of the Civil War on our nation, that's not inappropriate, and TV viewers twenty years ago apparently agreed.
THE CIVIL WAR attracted an audience of 40 million during its premiere in September 1990. Tom Shales of The Washington Post said, “This is not just good television, nor even just great television. This is heroic television.” The columnist George Will added, “If better use has ever been made of television, I have not seen it and do not expect to see better until Ken Burns turns his prodigious talents to his next project.”
The series has been honored with more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild, People’s Choice Award, Peabody Award, duPont-Columbia Award, D.W. Griffith Award and the Lincoln Prize, among dozens of others.
The project also marked a turning point in Burns' career. “Prior to THE CIVIL WAR, my colleagues and I toiled in relative anonymity,” Burns said. “While we still work as a small group in a small town in New Hampshire, THE CIVIL WAR created a new thirst for history and stories about America that has allowed us to explore a wide range of topics."
I think the interest in THE CIVIL WAR grew out of Americans longing to understand their past, the pretty and the ugly, and the desire to tap into the past to create a better sense of who we are as a people and a place," Burns said. "Today, as we reflect on the Civil War on the 150th anniversary of the start of battle, I’m very proud that our small film continues to help us understand the magnitude of that conflict, the impact it had on individuals, families and towns large and small, and the ongoing place it holds in our collective memory.”
Segments of the episodes were filmed in a number of NPS sites, including Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Fort Sumter National Monument, Vicksburg National Military Park and Gettysburg National Military Park.
The series will be shown at 8 p.m. EST each night from Sunday, April 3 through Thursday, April 7, 2011. You can view a guide to each episode at this link. As always, check your own TV listings to confirm stations and times.