- Historic Sites
“The Great Arrogance of the Present Is to Forget the Intelligence of the Past”
The maker of a fine new documentary on the Civil War tells how the medium of film can evoke the emotional reality of history
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
Ken Burns is no stranger to me. We first met in 1983 at a party that the historian David McCullough gave at the Yale Club to wish a happy hundredth birthday to the Brooklyn Bridge. If David had not introduced Ken to me as the maker of an acclaimed film about the bridge, I would have mistaken him for a high school student—perhaps the older brother of the infant he was holding in his arms. It was actually his daughter Sarah, and Burns was then thirty. Seven years later the baby face is a little more seasoned, and there is another daughter, Lilly, and five more prizewinning historical documentaries—on the Shakers, the Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, Congress, and the artist Thomas Hart Benton.
By now Ken and I have become friends, and I have helped write two of the films (along with McCullough, Geoffrey C. Ward, and others). When we met for this interview, 1 had recently seen the ten-and-a-half-hour film on the Civil War that he had just completed after five years of work. It will be a major nine-part public-television presentation beginning September 23 and is certainly, as a PBS brochure declares, “the most ambitious, comprehensive, and definitive history of the war ever put on film.”
Ken lives in a venerable, calendar-photo frame house in Walpole, New Hampshire, along with Sarah, Lilly, and his wife, Amy. She is his collaborator when her schedule allows. They both are graduates of Hampshire College, and she was a charter member of Florentine Films, the youthful and impecunious production company that he formed soon after graduation. There is a newly built editing studio and office attached at the rear of the house, for though Burns still must commute to New York fairly regularly, he deliberately keeps his headquarters in this country setting. The decor is dominated by film posters, old pictures and furniture, toys, and a large, grave black-and-white cat. We chat for a while in the kitchen with Amy and the girls and then adjourn to the studio office to talk history.
How did you get into something as big as the Civil War?
Well, it almost literally beckoned, called, insisted that it be treated. The subjects of all my other films, chosen randomly and intuitively, had as a major force or determining aspect this cloud hovering over them, this event called the Civil War.
Like most Americans going through our school system, I had been led up through the causes of the Civil War, then jumped over it to its “effects” without learning anything about what had happened during those four years. But I came to find out that the Brooklyn Bridge wouldn’t have been built without the new material, called steel, that the war helped promote. The man who ultimately completed the bridge, Washington Roebling, learned his art not only from his father but as a bridge-building engineer in the Union army. Then there are the Shakers. They wouldn’t have declined so precipitously without the war—not just because of its economic results but because of the spiritual and psychic changes in a country that had slaughtered some 650,000 of its own people. The Louisiana parish that Huey Long came from refused to secede; its leaders said the Confederacy was only a rich man’s cause. The place became a hotbed of populism and finally produced the swamp thing we know as Huey. The Statue of Liberty, you know, was originally intended as a gift from the French to Mrs. Lincoln to commemorate President Lincoln’s assassination and also to celebrate the preservation of the Union. Then it turned into a part of the centennial celebration and finally a technical “spectacular,” all through the entrepreneurial spirit that the war helped unleash. Even the man who built the pedestal, Charles P. Stone, was a Union general unfairly imprisoned at one point in a fort in New York Harbor almost within sight of Bedloe’s Island, where the statue was finally erected to celebrate the rights he had been denied. I could go on tracing the roots of each of my subjects back to the war. It got to a point where I couldn’t put off my investigation of it any longer.
That’s great in terms of your self-education, but is the war important enough now for a film so ambitious?
I think we continually need to understand how important an event the war was—how defining, how central to who we are. Everything that came before it led up to it, and everything of importance to this country—at least up to 1940- was a consequence of it. Even now there’s an echo of the war, however faint, in almost everyone’s life.
Was it more important than such dramatic themes and subjects as the frontier, the city, immigration, industrialization?
Those things became possible—or continued in the particular way that they did—because of the kind of country that was defined by the outcome of the war. I’m speaking poetically more than statistically, but there are battlefields of the mind in the Civil War where we’re still fighting. The Civil War has elements of women’s liberation, the issues of greed—scandals involving unscrupulous military contractors that could have happened yesterday—and all the unsettled questions that derive from black liberation.