Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Legacies of Civil War Journal




Producer Craig Haffner and actor Danny Glover.

Let’s face it. There are not many places to seek out quality historical programming on television anymore. PBS has emerged as the prime outlet to seek excellent documentaries. Turner Classic Movies shines in this regard as well to some extent. Twenty-five years ago, however, the likes of A&E and the History Channel proved their mettle with one stellar series after another. One show that especially captured my interest while in grade school was Civil War Journal. While the series aired originally from 1993-1995 on A&E, reruns of the show on the History Channel were immensely popular in an era of historical study also defined by Ken Burns and Gettysburg. Watching the daily 10 am and 3pm reruns at my grandmother’s house was a staple of my childhood summers. I recently had the opportunity to converse with the show’s executive producer, Emmy Award winner Craig Haffner, who has vividly brought many historical eras to the small screen. In particular, we talked about the making of and legacies of his celebrated Civil War Journal:

JF: How did Civil War Journal come into being? It debuted around the same time as other popular Civil War films. Did that make it easier to pitch this show?

CH: My company, Greystone Television & Films, had two series on A&E—Brute Force—hosted by George C. Scott, and The Real West, hosted by Kenny Rogers. Prior to PBS’s Civil War project with Ken Burns, A&E had asked for proposals for a Civil War series and the American Revolution. Brute Force and The Real West had very strong ratings and thus Civil War Journal was green lighted.

Actor Danny Glover had a very impressive presence as the show's host and narrator. How was it determined that he would be "the voice" of Civil War Journal?

As we we’re in the development period, Danny had a worldwide popularity based on the Lethal Weapon films. I suggested to A&E that casting Danny Glover instantly transmitted that this was not going to be a retelling the viewer had already seen. 

The show had an equally stellar lineup of historian talking heads: Brian Pohanka, William Davis, James Robertson, Gary Gallagher, and many more. How did these historians help mold the show? Also, how was the subject matter for individual episodes chosen?

From the age of 8, I read everything I could about the American Civil War. The experts in this (and all our projects) were based on great scholarship and sparkling camera appeal. I wanted everyone in the audience to wish they could have dinner with every one of our “professors.” Subjects we’re chosen by me. Broad appeal and unknown stories were a contributing factor.

Going beyond what Ken Burns did in The Civil War, this show utilized reenactors to recreate many vignettes of the war. What did these scenes add to the show? Did they present challenges?

Ken Burns and PBS had years and millions of dollars to create their project. That was not the model in basic cable. We had months and a fraction of the PBS funding. I had been exposed to the Civil War living history community and was impressed with several groups who appeared to have walked out of 19th century paintings. I suggested to the network that for very controlled costs we could add a very nice production element to our series. They supported that idea and it grew from there.

What was the most satisfying moment of production?

Working with all the scholars and Danny Glover.

What was the reaction to the series when it aired?

Season one was not as strongly rated as Brute Force and The Real West had been. Season two was stronger, but the network decided they wanted to rethink how this subject was presented. That desire would push us to pitch some specials as well as a series focused on battles.

How many episodes were there in total? It seems that many of these are still not on DVD.

There were 52 hour-long episodes and several multiple part specials. Additionally, we produced a series entitled Civil War Combat, which had 26 hours.

What projects have you worked on since? One that I am aware of is the very impressive Fields of Freedom, which I would also like to see on DVD someday.

Fields of Freedom was followed by We Fight to be Free, the opening film that greets visitors at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. I currently have a WWII scripted series in final stages of development, plus five Broadway Projects. Joan of Arc: Into the Fire is currently having it’s development run at The Public in NYC. I am also developing a musical based on John Berendt’s bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Why do you think A&E and the History Channel have strayed from their origins--now doing more reality shows without evident historical themes? 

Follow the money. It’s all about ad dollars. They have grown in an amazing fashion.

Many millenial-aged Civil War scholars who now teach history and help run national parks grew up watching this show. Recognizing that, what do you think are some of the show's lasting legacies?

The single thing I am most proud of throughout the hundreds of hours of content I produced was to prove to viewers who thought otherwise that the four letter word “history” could be entertaining and informative. I wanted to open a window for those who did not know, with my hope being they would then pick up a book, fill in the details and be hooked forever, just like me.

 The show's opening credits and introduction.

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