Ken Burns Revisits 'The Civil War' 25 Years Later

Credit: Tood Oren / Getty Images

There have been hundreds of books written about the Civil War, and if time allows there will be hundreds more. But none will ever capture America's defining turning point from a young, torn country to a united nation like Ken Burns did in his groundbreaking 1990 film. His ability to inform and entertain, to tell the truth, to find the small stories, the images, the voices, the battlefield letters that explain those men and moments generations later are why we sit glued to the TV for nights on end each time it's broadcast. He's usually sitting there, too.

"I want to watch when everyone else is watching," Burns says. "There's something meaningful about the kind of collective experience that takes place… I wear a lot of hats, but my main job is to be the audience's representative in the editing room. That means trying to see something completely fresh and new each time."

While working on "five, six… seven" projects concurrently, including a four-hour series on Jackie Robinson he just locked, and an 18-hour epic on Vietnam slated for 2017, Burns and his team remastered The Civil War for its 25th anniversary. Ahead of it's Labor Day premiere on September 7, we chatted with the iconic filmmaker about why history resonates with us, its patterns through time, and how he knows when an 11-hour film is finished. 

Similar to Baseball's Tenth Inning, do you wish you had that extra hour to add to The Civil War with its remastering and rerelease?
No. I love the game of baseball, and since it carries on, I think I'll carry it on. And if the Cubs win the World Series, then I'll do The Eleventh Inning. Or if hell freezes over, whichever comes first. But I feel like it's very popular to say history repeats itself. It's very common for people to quote George Santayana and say "You're condemned to repeat what you don't remember." I actually think that that's hogwash, both of those things. I do believe that human nature never changes, therefore human nature superimposes itself on the random chaos of events that take place, and so what you can perceive after a while in my business is that there are patterns. You look at the United States and you see age-old struggles over the meaning of freedom, age-old struggles over the issue of race. They replicate themselves all the time, and in each film that I do there's a resonance with the present, which is unintentional.

But aren't your documentaries still a reflection of those patterns?
I'm not trying to say in The Dustbowl, "Aha, see, here's an example of climate change and what a man-made ecological disaster looks like." I just want to tell you what a man-made ecological disaster in the late-1920s and 30s looked like. That's it. And the fact that it resonates is the gift of history, is the gift of human nature, in so far as we don't change. Were we racist when we founded this country? Yes. Were we racist when the civil war went on? Yes. Are we racist? Yes. We've also made enormous progress. We started a country that actually gave us the tools to begin to escape that racism. They weren't enough. We fought a Civil War and killed 750,000 of our own people to do it, and we're still faced with a Trayvon Martin, a Michael Brown, a President who's beset because of the color of his skin by the needless criticisms that are launched on him for only that reason. It's a complicated dynamic, and of course we have to argue about the Confederate flag.

How much time and distance do you need to look back on a moment?
There's an honorable tradition of documentary. Most are sort of about "The Moment" and contemporary issues, whether it's Edward Snowden or Harlan County, Kentucky back when Barbara Kopple made her epic film in the 1970s. In history, I tend to say you need about 25 or 30 years to get real perspective. In terms of pure history, true history, you need some time. It's funny, we got a lot of criticism for the Jazz series in 2001 because we left this person out and this person out. And I'd say to them, "Okay, tell me who among these contemporary players is the equal of Armstrong and Ellington and Parker and Gillespie and Coltrane and Davis." And they'd say, "Well we won't know for 20 years." Exactly.


What's happening now that you would like to touch on if you have that opportunity of looking back 25 years from now.
Since I think race is one of the determining characteristics of the United States – people have called it our original sin and it keeps popping up and begging for treatment and begging for understanding – I guess I might look back at the presidency of Barack Obama and try to see it in the question of what he actually accomplished versus the resistance. You might remember The Onion headline when he was inaugurated that said "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job." That, to me, has always resonated. And when everyone was trying to convince me at his election that everything was going to be milk and honey right now, I said, "No it's not, just watch." And certainly we've watched what's happened. Or to look at Black Lives Matter, the idea that Jim Crow persists in so many pernicious ways, still. Look at a municipality like Ferguson, which you'd think would be an enlightened place as a suburb of one of our great cites, St. Louis, and it's being run like the company store, or a plantation.

But similarly something like Occupy Wall Street, which is almost five years old now, seemed big at first but has maybe lost its momentum.
But there's still a manifestation of Occupy Wall Street. There's an impulse that something is imbalanced. If even republicans talking about the need to come to terms with the discrepancies between incomes and how much that's grown, to where we've approached a new Gilded Age of disparity, then you realize that many of the slogans and the objectives and the moments of Occupy Wall Street are actually in a new form. That's what happens, and it's not necessarily the journalist's job to connect the dots. It's in fact the same old thing. Trayvon Martin was 2012. That's now way gone. But we're connected back to Trayvon Martin by a whole string of things: Michael Brown, Ferguson, Charleston, and practically everywhere else in the country. We can perceive, perhaps, a little bit better the continuum. But I wouldn't say Occupy has gone away. It's just in a different state.

Do you like connecting those dots?
No. My job is to tell history, to tell a good story. I do know when a good story has been told, and then I notice there are many dots that connect to the present. I didn't make this film on Vietnam saying, "Oh, this will be a good commentary on Iraq and Afghanistan." It just is. It can't help but be regardless of your political persuasion, because we human beings make the same mistake over and over again, or do the same good things over and over again.


When do you know an 11-hour film is done? When all the stories are told?
[Laughs.] Well you know a story has a beginning, middle, and end, and it has a denouement, and it has a characters and they should have some development and there's a climax, and all that sort of stuff. You sort of work at your trade day by day, month by month, and, in the case of The Civil War, year by year. Suddenly you realize this particular episode has it's own arch and it exists within a larger arch. The thing that I've been trying not to say but will inevitably say is that you never finish a work of art, you just abandon it. We're doing a two-part, four-hour documentary on Jackie Robinson, a very complex biography, and we locked it last week. That was just basically saying, "Enough." We've got a rhythm, we've shown it to people who have no knowledge of Jackie Robinson and they've responded and liked it, and we continue to see little nits and picks and fix those, and then finally it's like, "No mas. We're done."

What's the process of choosing the opening Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. quote as the entry point of The Civil War for your audience?
You've asked the $64 million question. That quote was put in in just the last couple months of editing. Up until that point, for two or three years of editing, we had another quote: "Future years will never know the seething hell, the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the Secession War. And it is best they should not. The real war will never get in the books. Walt Whitman." It's fantastic, but then we got to thinking, "Are we trying to say that it may not get in the books, but it will get in the documentary? That we know better? Have we really solved the inscrutable mystery of the Civil War?" And of course the answer to all those questions is no. So we replaced it: "We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life at its top. In our youths our hearts were touched with fire. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr." That does another thing, which says there's an extra something, an extra vivifying-ness to war, unfortunately, and we will try to explore that for you in the upcoming hours. And that is what stayed. I thought, "Well we'd put Walt Whitman in the last episode." Never found a place for it. Ever. It's a classic example of something that is so much better than almost any other quote that's in the film, but actually there was no other place to put it once we took it out of that first position. You know the adage that you kill all your little darlings? You may think it's great, and it probably is great, but it's not going to be in your piece. Goodbye. And it was a good choice. It was an important decision.


Can you see the flaws, or after hours and years can you make a perfect film?
It's always imperfect, but I'm not bothered by the flaws. It's sort of like an old family album where you might notice the picture of you with the paisley shirt and the large, wide collar from the 1970s. You don't tear that picture up. It's just true. It's what it is. So I notice things. Even in my first film, The Brooklyn Bridge. It's a really good film, I really like it. It was nominated for an Academy Award. But I look at it and understand how I have grown as a filmmaker. So yeah, you may say, "Oh there's too many fades here," or you did this too much or this too little or whatever it is, but it's not a negative thing. If you see problems pejoratively then you're lost. But if you see them as something that need to be worked out, than you have the essence of process, you've got the essence of what you've got to do. So as a writer, you face the uphill of the blank page, and then it gets filled. I'm interested in all those fractions, all that resistance. Making a film is filled with that, and I love nothing more than a day when I've made a film I'm working on better.