When it comes to documentaries about the American Civil War, it's pretty much acknowledged that the gold standard was set with Ken Burns' acclaimed 1990 PBS series. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss other filmmaker's take on the conflict. One of the most impressive documentaries we've seen is producer, director and writer Chris Wheeler's "Civil War: The Untold Story", a five-episode series presented on two DVDs through Athena Home Video. The series is impressive on every level and rivals Burns' film in terms of educating viewers and providing emotional impact. Whereas Burns relied entirely on photographs of the period and location photography, Wheeler delves into the risky realm of using re-enactments of famous battles. If such sequences are not up to par, the effect can look cheesy and distracting. However, in "Civil War: The Untold Story", Wheeler was obviously working with a very substantial production budget. The battle sequences are meticulously staged and take on the feel of an epic, often evoking the grandeur of the big screen feature film "Gettysburg". The title is a bit misleading. There really isn't much here that has been "untold" but there is plenty that has not been covered in the detail Wheeler goes into. The series begins with a look at the plight of black slaves in the old South and poignantly shows the horror of their living conditions. The show then delves into the complex socioeconomic and political factors that brought about secession and the start of the war in 1861. As with most such series, this one is peppered with plenty of scholarly talking heads, each of whom adds immeasurably to one's understanding of the conflict. I did learn a great deal from the show, including how some famous generals were known to have made enormous military blunders such as ordering frontal assaults on embedded enemy positions, thus resulting in mass casualties. Wheeler's literate script also details how fragile American democracy was by 1864. With President Lincoln's popularity at its lowest point, war-weary northerners were more than willing to make peace with the south. In fact, Lincoln suffered the humiliation of having one of his former top generals, McClelland, nominated to be his Democratic opponent in the election. Violent and deadly riots had already torn apart New York City in protest of the draft. Lincoln had to pull off a major victory or America, as we know it, would have been confined to the dustbin of history. In fact, democracy itself as a form of government would have been doomed. Although we know the outcome of all this, Wheeler skillfully builds these crisis to the point of considerable suspense. He also manages to tell the story of the war through focusing on individual soldiers from both sides as well as freed slaves who found emancipation to be a crisis in and of itself. Where did these poor souls go? With no education, money or support structure, many ex-slaves traded one hellish life for another. Wheeler also points out the the legacy of the Civil War still permeates North/South relationships today. Indeed, even some elected officials call the conflict "The War of Northern Aggression".
The series, wonderfully narrated by Elizabeth McGovern, is completely addictive and you'll find yourself on a viewing binge, looking forward to each successive episode. The only downside is that one would have hoped that Athena had included an interview with Chris Wheeler about the making of this remarkable show. The only extras are some silent WWI-era newsreels that show fascinating footage of Civil War veterans from both sides attending "Peace Jubilees". It's truly surprising how many thousands of these veterans were still alive and well in the era of the automobile. The set also includes an instructional booklet of historical biographies and facts.
"Superb" is not a word one throws around casually but "Civil War: The Untold Story" is a superb achievement.