Civil War, The (Blu-ray) (1990)

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Released 8-Nov-2017

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category TV Series Audio Commentary-Ken Burns on selected segments
Featurette-Making The Civil War: 25 Years Later (28:20)
Featurette-Restoring The Civil War (13:57)
Interviews-Cast-Complete Shelby Foote Interviews (194:32)
Interviews-Cast-Additional Interview – Shelby Foote (2002) (10:19)
Interviews-Crew-Additional Interview – Jay Ungar & Molly Mason (2002) (9:48)
Interviews-Crew-Remembering The Civil War - Interview with Ken Burns (14:36)
Featurette-The Civil War in the Classroom (4:47)
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1990
Running Time 694:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Multi Disc Set (6)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Ken Burns
ViaVision Starring None Given
Case ?
RPI ? Music Various

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Unknown English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
English DTS HD Master Audio 2.0
English Audio Commentary DTS HD Master Audio 2.0
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.66:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 1.66:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

     Ken Burns is a skilled documentary filmmaker with some compelling work on his CV including The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Dust Bowl (2012). However, his crowning achievement is still 1990’s The Civil War, a monumental work running over 11 hours which took five years to make.

     Burns’ technique in The Civil War, as elsewhere, is to avoid flashy graphics, reconstructions and, mostly, talking heads. Instead Burns seeks to reduce the momentous events and the huge scope of the war to a personal level by utilising archival materials including photographs and paintings, contemporary newspapers and the diaries and letters of individuals who were there, both the leaders and ordinary men and women caught up in the events in the North and South, whose words are read by actors including Jason Robards, Sam Waterson, Morgan Freeman, Julie Harris, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons and Kurt Vonnegut, supported by traditional music, sound effects and modern cinematography of the Civil War sites. Burns also integrates some Library of Congress audio recordings of ex-slaves and 1930s newsreels. The result is dramatic and tragic as the camera pans across the black and white photographs, including pictures of those killed in the battles, or zooms in to record a particular important detail of the picture. There are occasional talking heads, including the knowledgeable and delightful Shelby Foote, writer and raconteur, and the series is narrated by David McCullough.

     The documentary style of Burns is opposite of sensationalism; it is balanced, sober and matter of fact, letting the archive material, especially the contemporary photographs, speak. As expected, Burns uses the words of the leading participants, Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant, Sherman, Frederick Douglas, poet Walt Whitman but he also, through their letters and dairies, tracks the thoughts and experiences of two young men, one northerner and one southerner, who fought throughout the war and survived. He also follows the impact of the war on two towns, one in Maine, one in Tennessee.

     The Civil War consists of 9 episodes spread over 5 Blu-rays. Disc 1 contains episode 1, discs 2-5 contain two episodes each. There are some extras on each disc and a 6th disc of extras.

Episode 1: 1861- The Cause (100:58)

     The conditions of slavery in the southern states, the abolitionist movement, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the election of Abraham Lincoln, the succession of the southern states to form the Confederacy, the first major battle of the war at Manassas and the appointment of McClellan as commander of the union army guarding Washington.

Episode 2: 1862 – A Very Bloody Affair (69:45)

    Self-interest and politics in Washington, McClellan’s static Peninsula campaign, advances in military technology such as the rifle and the Ironclads that overnight made all other navies obsolete, the early victories of Grant and the bloody Battle of Shiloh.

Episode 3: 1862 – Forever Free (77:33)

    The advent of photography on the battlefield, the character and valley campaigns of Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s appointment to his first major command, the bloodiest day of the war at Antietam and the greatest day of the war – the emancipation proclamation freeing the slaves.

Episode 4: 1863 – Simply Murder (63:32)

     Bookended between the Federal defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville which was Lee’s greatest victory but where Stonewall Jackson was killed. The food and conditions of the armies of both sides, reaction to the Emancipation proclamation, the problems facing Jefferson Davis as he tries to hold the Confederacy together.

Episode 5: 1863 – The Universe of Battle (97:04)

     The three days of the battle at Gettysburg, the most crucial days of the war, the opposition to the war in the north and the draft riots, the addition of Negro regiments to the union army, Grant’s success at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, and the Confederate victory at Chickamauga.

Episode 6: 1864 – The Valley of the Shadow of Death (71:01)

     For the first time in the war Grant faces Lee at The Wilderness; he loses, but advances rather than retreating. Grant’s campaign ends in trench warfare reminiscent of WWI at the siege of Petersburg. Biographies and the contrasting characters of Grant (who married the daughter of a slave owner!) and Lee, the horror of the hospitals and the treatment of the wounded, Sherman’s march to Atlanta.

Episode 7: 1864 – Most Hallowed Ground (73:31)

    In the summer of 1864 the war grounds to a stalemate with Grant bogged down outside Petersburg and Sherman outside Atlanta, Rebel Cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest’s raids. Lincoln faces defeat in the 1864 presidential election against George McClellan in what is effectively a referendum on the continuation of the war until Sherman captures Atlanta, which changes the tide. The horrendous conditions of prisoners of war, especially in the Confederate camp at Andersonville, and the creation of the Arlington National Cemetery, ironically in the grounds of the house owned by Robert E Lee!

Episode 8: 1865 – War is all Hell (70:22)

    The Rebel cause is falling apart. Sherman marches from Atlanta to the sea, employing a scorched earth policy to destroy the Confederacy, Grant finally captures Petersburg, then Richmond, which is abandoned by Davis. Lee is trapped and surrenders at Appomattox. In Washington, John Wilks Booth plots against Lincoln.

Episode 9: 1865 – The Better Angels of Our Nature (70:14)

     The assassination and burial of Abraham Lincoln, the capture and vilification of Jefferson Davis, the post war lives of the individuals, both high and low, the film has been following. The immediate, and long term, effects of the war and the conclusion that the slaves may have been freed, but the rift between the whites and negroes continued.

     The Civil War is a comprehensive, and almost definitive (as much as any account of these momentous events can be definitive), examination of the events of 1861-1865 which changed the US forever. Simply put, it is a masterwork.

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Transfer Quality


     The Civil War is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, in 1080p using the MPEG-4 code.

     The Civil War was shot originally on 16 mm film. The nine episodes were released on DVD some years ago in three parts. Our review, for example, of Part 1 here identified numerous marks and artefacts (the other two parts were no better). While there are still some minor speckles, and acceptable grain, the restoration of the film on these Blu-rays looks great. The colours in the modern segments are rich and detailed, especially when Burns visits Civil War battlefields and locations on the same day and month the events occurred in the Civil War. Of course some of the archival pictures, now over 150 years old, have marks, holes and scratches.

     Large yellow English subtitles are available.

     Given the source archive material, this is a very good print.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    Audio is English DTS-MA 5.1; there is also an English DTS-MA HD 2.0 track and the audio commentary segments are also DTS-MA HD 2.0.

    The narration by David McCullough, interviews and readings from diaries and letters are centred, clear and easy to understand. The effects, such as musketry and cannon fire, is mostly from the front, the rears used more for ambient sounds, such as voices, bird calls, insects, rain and the music. The sub-woofer mostly adds some depth to the cannon fire and explosions.

     The film consists of narration and direct to camera interviews so lip synchronisation is not a problem.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


     Each Blu-ray includes some extras and there is a separate disc 6 of extras.

Disc 1

Audio Commentary

    Each episode in the series has an audio commentary by Ken Burns on selected segments of that episode. The segments are accessed via the menu. Note that even in the selected segments there are lengthy periods without comments.

     There are 7 segments with commentary on Episode 1. Burns talks about how the series came about, his previous films, changes made in editing, his intentions in certain segments, the structure of the film and his techniques.

Making The Civil War: 25 Years Later (28:20)

     This consists of on location footage and film footage plus comments by Ken Burns, Ric Burns, principal writer Geoffrey C Ward, cinematographers Buddy Squires and Allen Moore and editor Paul Barnes. Items covered include the Burns brothers’ interest in the Civil War, writing, filming and editing the series and the reaction and legacy of the film.

Restoring The Civil War (13:57)

     Shows how the original 16 mm elements received a 4K digital restoration in 2015. The extra uses footage of the process, some before and after comparisons plus comments by a number of those involved in the restoration process.

Disc 2

Audio Commentary

     In the 3 segments with commentary on Episode 2 Burns discusses the choosing of representative events and individuals, walking the battlefield with Shelby Foote and the techniques he used to help the battles come alive. In the 3 segments on Episode 3 Burns discusses the myth and character of Jackson, and the various techniques used to try to explain the Battle of Antietam.

Disc 3

Audio Commentary

     In the 3 segments with commentary on Episode 4 Burns discusses the structure of the different battles covered in the series and the myths of a unified south. In the 4 segments on Episode 5 Burns mentions how The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara was his inspiration for this film, layering the sound effects audio track and how they decided to portray Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Disc 4

Audio Commentary

     In the 3 segments with commentary on Episode 6 Burns discusses aspects of the narrative drive of the film, 3rd person narration, 1st person readings and talking heads, as well as the film’s music and the theme song. In the 3 segments on Episode 7 Burns talks about his intentions in certain sequences, the horror of civil war and how in late 1864 the war turned even more nasty, with massacres and the deaths in the prison camps.

Disc 5


Audio Commentary

     In the 4 segments with commentary on Episode 8 Burns discusses the myths and untruths that have tarnished Sherman’s name in the South, he mentions various individuals who contributed to the film, highlights the contradictions within the south and mentions some ironies relating to the surrender at Appomattox. In the 2 segments on Episode 9 Burns talks about how events cycle back upon themselves and how they tried to do justice to the assassination of the President.

Disc 6

Complete Shelby Foote Interviews

    These are the full, unedited interviews with writer Shelby Foote, some with audio only when the video tapes run out. They are a delight: Burns asks questions and Foote, unscripted, replies. It was intriguing to see how and where Burns inserts these comments into the narrative. The interviews are in three parts:

Additional Interview – Shelby Foote (2002) (10:19)

     Foote talks about meeting Ken Burns, the interviews, getting history right, the reaction to the film and the pitfalls of a public profile. He is still forthright enough to say where he disagrees with Burns on a couple of points!

Additional Interview – Jay Ungar & Molly Mason (2002) (9:48)

     Jay Ungar and Molly Mason are musicians who recorded much of the soundtrack of the film. Ungar also wrote the film’s theme tune, the haunting Ashokan Farewell; he describes how it was written, reaction to the tune and the two perform it live.

Remembering The Civil War - Interview with Ken Burns (14:36)

     Burns recaps his filmography and his reason for doing the film, finding the photographs and Shelby Foote, experiences while shooting the film and the continued impact of the Civil War on present day America.

The Civil War in the Classroom (4:47)

    One teacher’s method of using the film in her high school class.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     This release of The Civil War is identical to the US version, except for a 15 page booklet.


     The Civil War, because of its focus on contemporary photographs, paintings and the letters and diaries of those who were there plus its concentration on both prominent individuals and ordinary people on both sides, becomes a very personal account of the war which divided America. The Civil War is compelling and may still be the definitive account of the conflict. Even more so, The Civil War is a masterwork that is as relevant now, perhaps even more so given the racial tensions that still exist in the US, than when it was released in 1990.

     The Blu-ray comes with restored video, lossless audio, and an extensive range of interesting extras. This is definitely worth an upgrade for anyone who purchased the previous DVDs of the series. For anyone interested in the Civil War, black rights or historical documentary filmmaking, The Civil War is a masterwork.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ray Nyland (the bio is the thing)
Friday, December 29, 2017
Review Equipment
DVDSony BDP-S580, using HDMI output
DisplayLG 55inch HD LCD. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderNAD T737. This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
AmplificationNAD T737
SpeakersStudio Acoustics 5.1

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
U.S. Flawed Initial Production Run - RichardP REPLY POSTED