TV's Varied Versions Of the Civil War: Is It the Same Event?
Nevermind the way some diehards, North and South, keep memories of the Civil War alive. It isn't over as far as TV is concerned, either. The conflict was relived by Ken Burns in his evocative 1990 PBS-TV series ``The Civil War'' and has raged intermittently on the tube ever since.
For instance, ``Gettysburg,'' a historical film starring Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen, aired around the same time as ``The Civil War,'' and certain episodes actually ran opposite Burns's film in some cities. Beginning Jan. 1, the new History Channel will keep the conflict alive indefinitely in formats ranging from lectures to films and miniseries. On the commercial networks, the Civil War theme appears less frequently and in what tend to be less worthy forms - like last month's miniseries ``Scarlett,'' a high-rated so-called sequel to ``Gone With the Wind.''
Meanwhile, the Learning Channel will jump forcefully into the subject with a major 13-part weekly series called ``Smithsonian's Great Battles of the Civil War.'' Debuting Monday, Dec. 26, from 10-11 p.m., a new episode will air each Monday through March 20. In a nod toward TV's current habit of bunching episodes, the entire series will also air Monday, Jan. 2, from noon until 3 a.m. (Happily, the ``Great Civil War Marathon,'' as the Learning Channel calls it, is being presented in addition to the weekly schedule.)
``The Civil War'' ran while writer-producer-director Jay Wertz was working on ``Great Battles'' and at first the possible redundancy worried him. But then it occurred to him how utterly different in concept and execution the two approaches were.
He was right. If anyone thought Ken Burns's ``The Civil War'' had predetermined the look of future TV documentaries on this subject, the Learning Channel series sets the record straight. Wertz is doing it his way, and his wise choice not to emulate Burns's style demonstrates how many ways TV can succeed in dealing with so rich and varied a subject.
Instructive and often highly watchable, ``Great Battles'' is a businesslike chronology of battlefield strategies and their context. Wertz does employ some of the things Burns did - like archival photos and famous off-screen voices reading the words of historical figures - but you are more aware of the production wheels turning. Narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss and drawing on the Smithsonian Institution's impressive resources, the program scrolls out lists of seceding states and uses other high-powered graphic screen devices. The Wertz program is less anecdotal, and it doesn't dwell on photos or let you breathe in their meaning the way ``The Civil War'' did. ``Great Battles'' almost seems impatient with screen images, as if Wertz doesn't want you to get caught up in any one facet of the story lest you become unwilling to keep up with the production's breathless pace.
``The Civil War'' was a lesson in how an epic experience can be explored inductively, by letting the look and feel of basically static materials govern the medium, instead of letting the medium turn them into production devices. ``Great Battles'' is like a thoughtful but ratings-conscious local or network newscast on a commercial station - busily dropping in data and full of colorful sound bites. At one point, for instance, James M. McPherson, a Princeton history professor, stands in shirt-sleeves at the battlefield of Manassas and talks - reporter style - about whether the war was inevitable as the union gained new territory. The status of new territory - slave or free - became an inflamed issue.
One advantage of the faster pace in ``Great Battles'' is sweep and drama, a sense of rushing toward catastrophe as the buildup to the early battles is carefully outlined. But you definitely see it from the outside, while ``The Civil War'' saw the subject from both the outside - facts, faces, dates, places - and the inside: You felt the impact of the terrible event on the soul of the nation and on the individuals involved.
That wasn't Wertz's job. His job was to get your attention and then inform you, and he does both well. .