The Civil War

The Civil War (1990)
Warner Home Video
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Interviews, Battlefield Maps, Trivia

Filmmaker Ken Burns has long established himself as one of the preeminent film documentarians of American history in all its forms. One of his most acclaimed works is "The Civil War, " an 11-hour feature that covers the American Civil War from its foreshadowing tremors to its closing coda. AS with his previous films, Burns exhibits an impressive eloquence when covering the material, always trying to remain faithful and a neutral observer to paint an image of the events that is balanced. Now, I am the first to admit that I am no Civil War expert but after watching Ken Burn’s extensive documentary, it is easy to come away feeling like one. We walk away with a sense of knowing Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and many of the other key players.

Coming on 5 DVDs in a beautiful box set, that also contains a number of bonus features. Each disc contains two of the nine episodes that make up the entire film, while the first disc also contains the bonus materials.

The film itself is presented in a very clean <$PS,fullscreen> presentation, but although the film is free of speckles and dust, there picture jitters quite a bit throughout, seemingly as a result of registration problems of the print. Other than that the video presentation is basically flawless. Colors are well rendered, and the picture always has good contrast with well-defined blacks and shadows, and whites that are nicely counter-balanced.

The DVD comes with a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track. Being a documentary, not surprisingly the audio is quite restrained however, hardly ever making use of the surround channels at all. Narration and interviews are mixed to the front channels and rears are engaged only sporadically. Frequency response and dynamic range are good and create an audio presentation that sounds natural and balanced at all time.

As one of the bonus highlights on the release Warner Home Video has added a <$commentary,commentary track> by Ken Burns to the release. Covering all episodes, the commentary is very insightful and adds even more information on the subject matter itself. He comments on events and characters that we learn about in the film itself, turning the commentary almost into a documentary within the documentary.

Each disc also contains beautiful battlefield maps that also contain a direct link to the segment of the documentary that covers that particular battle. Though a seemingly simple addition, it makes those maps so much more valuable, especially for reference purposes outside the context of the documentary as a whole. Apart from the link, the maps also contain text information about the battle as well as some statistics about the casualties on each side.

"Civil War Challenge" can also be found on each disc. It is a brief trivia game that covers some of the lesser known, but nonetheless exceedingly interesting, facts about the particular period covered in the episodes on the disc.

Although "The Civil War" is a fairly recent production, Warner Home Video remastered the entire film and gave it a new transfer. The featurette "The Civil War Reconstruction" takes you behind the scenes and shows you how the film was restored from its original print to what you see on your screen. It is an educational and informative featurette that gives average viewers an idea of what it means to remaster a film for release on DVD. It may be slightly exaggerated in terms of the achieved quality improvements that were accomplished – especially in the light that essentially every DVD release undergoes this very same procedure – but in essence it is an informative addition to the technical aspects of a DVD release.

The DVD also contains interviews with the filmmaker and participants of the documentary. Personally, I found Ken Burns’ interview the most intriguing as he always tries to keep a somewhat anonymous existence outside the eye of cameras. But don’t mind my words, the other interviews are just as exciting and informative, allowing viewers to understand how something that is typically "impersonal" as a documentary to take on a life and character of its own, and how the involvement of these people has helped establish "The Civil War" as the reference it has become.

"Making History" is a featurette that allows us to watch Ken Burns at work. We follow him to real shooting locations, through staff meetings and going through photo archives in search for his material.

"A Conversation With Ken Burns" is also included on the release, a TV interview in which he talks extensively about how he created this film. It shows a lot of the passion that transpires all his films and helps us understand why Burns is such an important documentarian.

On a sidenote, I feel the need to point out that the audio levels on this release are very inconsistent. Some of the features are unfortunately undermixed and will require you to turn up the volume while other elements are clearly overmixed, blaring out of your speakers infernally – especially the non-skippable logos for Warner and PBS that open every episode fall into that category.

Warner Home Video and PBS have put together a very nice packaging for "The Civil War" with a good number of informative supplements that will certainly satisfy even the most hardcore fan. It makes you wish Warner would pay thoughtful attention like this to more of their titles. "The Civil War" is an incredible movie – and an incredible touching one at that – and Warner Home Video and PBS have made sure to pay proper tribute to a film of this caliber. There can be no question that this is a must-own DVD set for any serious Civil War buff or anyone who would like to educate himself on the subject matter. History doesn’t get any more engrossing as this one.