Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Civil War: The Untold Story

The Overshadowed Conflict

A scene from Civil War: The Untold Story - Confederates retreat from the Battle of Jonesboro.
"The world seemed bursting into fragments. Cannon and musket, shell and bullet, lent their several intensities to the distracting uproar. . . . I likened the cannon, with their deep bass, to the roaring of a great heard of lions; the ripping, cracking musketry, to the incessant yapping of terriers; the windy whisk of shells, and zipping minie bullets, to the swoop of eagles, and the buzz of angry wasps."  So wrote twenty-one year-old Henry Stanley nearly a decade before he uttered the famous words, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"  A member of the 6th Arkansas, Stanley was a reluctant rebel yet witnessed immeasurable horror near the banks of Pittsburg Landing in April 1862.  Shiloh was the bloodiest battle in American History until that point.  The clash claimed one of the Confederacy's most trusted commanders and set his opponent on the long term path toward fame and the presidency.

At the same time, this is not the battle or region that is swept into our collective consciousness when we consider the American Civil War.  The distant battles of Henry Stanley and Ambrose Bierce are seemingly far removed from the popular memory of our defining moment as a nation.  Granted, two-thirds of their generation's conflict was waged in Virginia--the capital and "breadbasket" of the Confederacy.  However, the war was also lost and won at landmarks not as celebrated or visited as Gettysburg or Antietam.  The confrontations at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Franklin have not been glorified in film or art.  Yet, as a whole, they carried as much weight as any fight waged by Robert E. Lee or George Meade.  A new public television documentary miniseries entitled Civil War: The Untold Story seeks to unravel the eclipsed series of events that defined a region and a nation.  (Watch some preview clips here.)

Federals hold during the Battle of Shiloh.
Producer/director Chris Wheeler was gracious enough to send me a preview copy of his forthcoming film debuting this week on various PBS stations throughout the country.  Being in closer proximity to well-known battlefields of the eastern theater, I was both eager and curious to see his interpretation of the 1860s.  I was not disappointed.  Focusing on the Civil War between the geographic scope of the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, Wheeler's vision of the conflict goes where few films have gone before.  Engagingly accurate in both its visuals and scripting, the documentary aptly utilizes authentically-clad reenactors (unlike the 2011 History Channel film Gettysburg).  Meanwhile, Downtown Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern helms the production's narration with gravitas and sincerity.

Beyond all the fine, aesthetic production values, the film's greatest merit is it's main theme: going beyond the traditional story of the war.  As Wheeler noted in an interview, "We want to tell the story that goes beyond military and civil war buffs.  It's been a generation since Ken Burns' Civil War. People need to hear this story again."  In this objective, too, the film succeeds.  Both realistic and brutal in its depictions of combat, the director's choreography equals most big budget Hollywood renditions.  Simultaneously, the documentary appropriately strikes an even balance between the military and social dimensions of the war in the west.  Less than three minutes into episode one, the implications of American slavery are brought to the forefront of the situation, revealing the "peculiar institutions" firm grip on American society.  This strain of narrative remains present throughout the entirety of the film, demonstrating the complexities of race and freedom within the context of the total war.  

Noted scholars such as Peter Carmichael, Eric Jacobson, and Steven Woodworth offer additional insight in conjunction with dramatic commentary and cinematography.  The combined affect offers a dynamic and relevant analysis that will surely keep your attention.  In what is the best series on the conflict since Civil War Combat, Civil War: The Untold Story serves as a solid platform for discussion and exploration of our crossroads moment.  Visit here to see when and where the documentary is playing in your area.  Enjoy!

Confederates dig in at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

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