'The Civil War' all over again

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Oct. 10, 2002 at 6:45 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 10 (UPI) -- Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is enjoying a new round of popularity without even making a new film, because his catalogue of projects -- including "The Civil War" -- is getting a new life in video and on PBS.

Twelve years after it made Burns a household name, "The Civil War" was recently rebroadcast on public television, attracting more than 27 million viewers over five nights. At the same time, when PBS Home Video and Warner Home Video released a digitally remastered version of the film on DVD the item became an instant bestseller in stores and online.

The rebroadcast also coincided with the launch of the PBS Program Club (pbs.org/programclub) -- the functional equivalent of book clubs -- which brings viewers together for discussions about public TV programming.

"The Civil War" DVD features commentary by Burns and additional interviews with participants in the original project -- including historian Shelby Foote and social critic Stanley Crouch. Burns said the newly added ability to offer such extras is nice, but he doesn't think of the release as a "director's cut" -- because his relationship with PBS allowed him to make the film he wanted to make in the first place.

"It is important to add some of these extra things," said Burns. "I already had the great good fortune to make my director's cut."

However, Burns was very excited about the opportunity to exploit new technology to present sharper images and sound.

"The film was made in 1990," he said. "Producing the DVD at this time allowed us to go back and literally frame by frame make this film look and sound better."

Burns said the up-to-the-minute look and sound of the film might also help it find a wider audience than it already had.

"The important thing is to get it out to people who can avail themselves of this new technology," he said.

In its first run on PBS, "The Civil War" not only attracted huge audiences -- it also became a main topic of watercooler conversation. With that many pairs of eyes viewing a historical project, Burns admitted that in a few rare instances he had to correct the record.

"We missed Lincoln's age of death," he said, "so we went back and corrected that."

Both Burns and PBS president and Chief Executive Officer Pat Mitchell have noted that the rebroadcast of "The Civil War" came as Americans debated the relative merits of going to war in Iraq. Burns said public interest in the documentary is evidence that the public desires television that affords exploration of the complexity of U.S. history.

"Twelve years ago when 'The Civil War' first aired we were debating whether to enter into war with Iraq," he said. "Especially at times like this, I believe people are looking to better understand where they came from in order to make better decisions about where they are going."

Mitchell said the broadcast came at "a seminal time" for America.

"We are weighing the core issues of unity, security and war," said Mitchell, "and no film does more to illuminate America's character as we face these difficult questions and challenges than 'The Civil War.'"

After the rebroadcast of "The Civil War." PBS launched a new series, "Ken Burns American Stories." The weekly series will feature other Burns projects -- including parts of "Jazz" and documentaries about Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain.

Plans call for PBS to rebroadcast Burns' acclaimed "Baseball" documentary series in the spring of 2003.

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