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“The Great Arrogance of the Present Is to Forget the Intelligence of the Past”

July 2024
11min read

The maker of a fine new documentary on the Civil War tells how the medium of film can evoke the emotional reality of history

Ken Burns is no stranger to me. We first met in 1983 at a party that the historian David McCullough gave at the Yale Club to wish a happy hundredth birthday to the Brooklyn Bridge. If David had not introduced Ken to me as the maker of an acclaimed film about the bridge, I would have mistaken him for a high school student—perhaps the older brother of the infant he was holding in his arms. It was actually his daughter Sarah, and Burns was then thirty. Seven years later the baby face is a little more seasoned, and there is another daughter, Lilly, and five more prizewinning historical documentaries—on the Shakers, the Statue of Liberty, Huey Long, Congress, and the artist Thomas Hart Benton.

By now Ken and I have become friends, and I have helped write two of the films (along with McCullough, Geoffrey C. Ward, and others). When we met for this interview, 1 had recently seen the ten-and-a-half-hour film on the Civil War that he had just completed after five years of work. It will be a major nine-part public-television presentation beginning September 23 and is certainly, as a PBS brochure declares, “the most ambitious, comprehensive, and definitive history of the war ever put on film.”

Ken lives in a venerable, calendar-photo frame house in Walpole, New Hampshire, along with Sarah, Lilly, and his wife, Amy. She is his collaborator when her schedule allows. They both are graduates of Hampshire College, and she was a charter member of Florentine Films, the youthful and impecunious production company that he formed soon after graduation. There is a newly built editing studio and office attached at the rear of the house, for though Burns still must commute to New York fairly regularly, he deliberately keeps his headquarters in this country setting. The decor is dominated by film posters, old pictures and furniture, toys, and a large, grave black-and-white cat. We chat for a while in the kitchen with Amy and the girls and then adjourn to the studio office to talk history.


How did you get into something as big as the Civil War?

Well, it almost literally beckoned, called, insisted that it be treated. The subjects of all my other films, chosen randomly and intuitively, had as a major force or determining aspect this cloud hovering over them, this event called the Civil War.

Like most Americans going through our school system, I had been led up through the causes of the Civil War, then jumped over it to its “effects” without learning anything about what had happened during those four years. But I came to find out that the Brooklyn Bridge wouldn’t have been built without the new material, called steel, that the war helped promote. The man who ultimately completed the bridge, Washington Roebling, learned his art not only from his father but as a bridge-building engineer in the Union army. Then there are the Shakers. They wouldn’t have declined so precipitously without the war—not just because of its economic results but because of the spiritual and psychic changes in a country that had slaughtered some 650,000 of its own people. The Louisiana parish that Huey Long came from refused to secede; its leaders said the Confederacy was only a rich man’s cause. The place became a hotbed of populism and finally produced the swamp thing we know as Huey. The Statue of Liberty, you know, was originally intended as a gift from the French to Mrs. Lincoln to commemorate President Lincoln’s assassination and also to celebrate the preservation of the Union. Then it turned into a part of the centennial celebration and finally a technical “spectacular,” all through the entrepreneurial spirit that the war helped unleash. Even the man who built the pedestal, Charles P. Stone, was a Union general unfairly imprisoned at one point in a fort in New York Harbor almost within sight of Bedloe’s Island, where the statue was finally erected to celebrate the rights he had been denied. I could go on tracing the roots of each of my subjects back to the war. It got to a point where I couldn’t put off my investigation of it any longer.

That’s great in terms of your self-education, but is the war important enough now for a film so ambitious?

I think we continually need to understand how important an event the war was—how defining, how central to who we are. Everything that came before it led up to it, and everything of importance to this country—at least up to 1940- was a consequence of it. Even now there’s an echo of the war, however faint, in almost everyone’s life.

Was it more important than such dramatic themes and subjects as the frontier, the city, immigration, industrialization?

Those things became possible—or continued in the particular way that they did—because of the kind of country that was defined by the outcome of the war. I’m speaking poetically more than statistically, but there are battlefields of the mind in the Civil War where we’re still fighting. The Civil War has elements of women’s liberation, the issues of greed—scandals involving unscrupulous military contractors that could have happened yesterday—and all the unsettled questions that derive from black liberation.

My historian friends had warned me off: the Civil War was a black hole that had sucked in better men.

After the war there was a great tendency to sentimentalize it, to say that the North was fighting valiantly for the Union, and Southerners gallantly for their rights as they saw them, and everybody was heroic, and the blacks got shuffled out of the picture. How did you do justice to everybody without romance and roses?

It was a constant problem. When we started out simply to tell the military story of the war, we found ourselves perpetuating some of those myths like the glory of the Old South, blurring the issues for which my countrymen fought. Maybe the mythmaking was forgivable in the war generation; it was a kind of amnesia almost necessary to blot out the horror. But I couldn’t forgive myself as a film maker if we had perpetuated the mistakes created by sentimentality, the ones that begin with movies like The Birth of a Nation and continue today, I’m sorry to say. With the help of many, many scholars we try to remind people of the basis of the war as a fight against slavery and of the activity, not passivity, of blacks before, during, and after the struggle. I think that a black man or woman looking at this series will be awakened to the story of their own people’s extraordinary struggle to force the issue of liberation on their white masters. And that’s important, too, because as Barbara Fields, one of the historians who appear in the series, says, if we let ourselves forget, “the Civil War can still be lost.” I think it’s Faulkner who says somewhere that things in the past aren’t over and done; they’re always present.

How did you decide where to put your focus, considering the gigantic range of the subject?

I have many friends who are professional historians, and those closest to me all advised strenuously that I shouldn’t get into it—especially with our first, ambitious plan to tell the whole story as a narrative, not isolating themes but going straight from the first causes to the final effects. They said the Civil War was a black hole that had sucked in better men. But we went ahead. I think that my friends were unaware of the power of film to digest and synthesize.

How so?

Film goes directly to the emotions without translation. We tell the story in a combination of archival photographs and lithographs and paintings, a soundtrack filled with the noises of battle, and first-person voices from Lincoln and Jefferson Davis down to privates like Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2d Rhode Island and Sam Watkins from a Tennessee regiment. More than forty actors and actresses read those personal impressions, plus a strong third-person narration, written by Geoff Ward, my brother Ric, and me and read by David McCullough. It’s the glue that holds it together. When it all coheres and works, you feel at times as if you’re there. You’ve suspended your knowledge that, for example, you’re looking at photographs taken days after the battle. Instead you are actually crouching on Little Round Top or standing with the crowd watching Lincoln’s funeral procession pass.

Film brings you closer to the subject than a book?

No, film is not equipped to do what a book does, which is to attain profound levels of meaning and texture. But film has the power to reach profound levels of emotion, and I can’t be interested in a piece of history unless there’s something I can loosely describe as emotional about it. I think the ordinary person feels that way too. I think that in allowing history to be defined and presented exclusively by the academy, we’ve bled it of its powerful emotional aspect. My goodness, the Civil War is history running on all cylinders, a mighty engine that doesn’t misfire, and I believe film is uniquely equipped to transmit that kind of power. It can be our Homeric form, and we’ve tried to tell this particular Iliad , our Civil War, in a Homeric way, not only from the aerial perspective of the gods and kings but from the level of the spear carriers as well.

But the original Iliad is an epic, a legend; it doesn’t have what historians consider a decent respect for facts. Isn’t that a dangerous model?

Let me answer you with a quote from my favorite nonacademic historian, Francis Parkman: “Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.”

Too much of good factual history seems untrue because it doesn’t resonate, and all we’ve tried to do filmically is to be true to the spirit of Parkman’s plea.


What are your ground rules? If you had a good, strong photo of a corpse at Antietam, would you show it with a powerful quotation from a survivor of Gettysburg?

We’d be rigorous in attempting to find out whether the dead body was from Antietam or Gettysburg. As film makers we have to make hundreds of decisions like that, where in essence we’re balancing the science versus the art of history. Sure, we have ground rules—no re-creations, for instance; no overweight folks in Reeboks and uniforms charging across the fields. That’s fun when you’re there, but it’s no way to pass on information about the Civil War; it would be violating a trust. On the other hand, we don’t illustrate. When we say “Lincoln,” we don’t necessarily have to show Lincoln. I look for what 1 call an equivalent—that is, an image that may not be what an expert would certify as belonging to the precise moment I’m describing, but that combines with the narration to make a synthesis that’s good history, so that you say, “My God, I hear that. I know what they must have felt.”

Consider the poignancy of a young man’s death, for instance. The question for a film maker is always “How far do you go?” If you hear a young soldier’s voice on the soundtrack talking about what it’s like to skim weevils off the top of his morning coffee, and you’re showing a picture of a different soldier holding a tin cup, that’s a perfectly acceptable marriage. But if, down the line, a shot that works in Vicksburg also works in Petersburg, do you use it again? I’m not sure. There’s such a dangerous power to manipulate in film. Jean-Luc Godard, one of the fathers of new-wave films, was famous years ago for saying that film was the truth twenty-four times a second. But I think it can also lie twenty-four times a second.

How do you separate them?

What keeps you straight is your sense of honor. It’s the guiding light. I don’t quite know how to define it, but I look to the nineteenth century for examples of it—to people like Sam Houston, for instance. I know that if a film maker doesn’t have it, the manipulations show all over the screen. You know, if academic history is too abstract, the other end of the spectrum of misusing the past is the Madison Avenue approach—the kind of spectacle that was put on during the Statue of Liberty centennial. You don’t want that. I hope that in this series our honorable intent shows.

Of course, you had expert advisers to keep you honest too—and they were from the “academy.”

Absolutely. Look, when I knock the academy, I’m only thinking of a kind of nineteenth-century Germanic formalism that keeps us from celebrating history in the way we should—or the kind of contemporary arrogance that led some social historian to say once that “one could do a history of Illinois without mentioning Lincoln,” as if you couldn’t combine the social context of history with the traditional political and biographical forms and appreciate them both. The fact is that I’ve had the most satisfying friendships of my career with members of the academy. I don’t think that historical films can or will or should replace books. I don’t want to oversell my medium, because it’s so easy for it to fall into irresponsible hands that would promote our dangerous national addiction to images designed to manipulate us. All I am saying is that film has special power to remind us of what an extraordinary tonic history can be, to evoke in people the emotional power of a Shaker chair that’s designed by someone who believes, in Thomas Merton’s words, “that an angel might come and sit on it,” or to make them understand that Huey Long was like a volcano.

We had the final sentence of the Gettysburg Address read the way Lincoln must have delivered it.

Any special pains and pleasures in making this series?

You have to drop so many things you like. I often felt, when I cut something out, like Lee complaining after Jackson was wounded at Chancellorsville, “He has lost his left arm; I have lost my right.” One laments a medium so insensitive to and intolerant of diversions, digressions, and anything that supposedly jeopardizes the attention of the audience. Ten and a half hours allows us to be very dense for a film study of the war, but all the same we regret the stories left untold and the speeches not complete.

But the good stuff? Partly making the acquaintance of a generation that was so wonderfully literate from top to bottom. There is Lincoln, of course, and by the way, we think we’ve scored a beat in having the final sentence of the Gettysburg Address read in the way that I believe he must have delivered it to be consistent with the meaning of the piece—that is, not with the usual emphasis on the prepositions of , by , and for , which are unimportant, but on the subjects and actors of the war: “of the people , by the people , for the people .” And the eloquence goes all the way down the line to a farm-owning veteran who describes coming home on the first day, taking off his uniform, and proceeding to “wage war on the standing corn.”

A real pleasure of the whole project was finding our principal on-camera interviewee, Shelby Foote, who is a true witness in the sense of understanding the war and bringing it alive. These are things that happened to real flesh-and-blood people. They lived, they loved, they hated in the same fullness that we do today. I don’t need to remind readers of American Heritage of that. But too many of us suffer from the modern conceit that people who lived before we did were somehow lesser because they “knew” less. Well, they may not have known how to access a personal computer, but they certainly knew how to do other things. The great arrogance of the present is to forget the intelligence of the past.

Are there more historical films in store for you, or will you try other varieties—say, feature films?

I don’t know. I’ve been driven all my life by an interest in American history—you know the old cliché, “You can’t tell where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been” though I’ve taken only one formal history course, and that in Russian history. In film, documentary is supposedly a lower rung on the career ladder from which you climb up, if you’re good, to features. I reject that categorically. My gospel says that what actually happened is as dramatic— if not more so—as anything conceived by human imagination. On the other hand there are the geniuses like Shakespeare who remind us of the power of imaginative work, so I’m tempted to experiment. But for the time being, I’m still exploring the possibilities of historical documentary. I’m working on a film on early radio pioneers. I’d like to start a series on American lives—Lewis and Clark, Jefferson at Monticello, Twain, Lincoln, FDR—men and women to add as patches to the crazy quilt I’ve been making, with the Brooklyn Bridge in one corner and a Shaker in the other and this outsized piece on the Civil War in the middle and Huey Long off to one side. They all help to cover the territory. My immediate interest is a series on baseball. I think, like the Civil War, it’s a Rosetta stone of American values—written smaller, of course, but giving some digestible sense of the American soul.

You’ve said that all your subjects somehow meet on the ground of the Civil War. I hope you won’t give us that old chestnut about the Union general Abner Doubleday inventing the game at Cooperstown.

Listen, Bernie, there really is an intersection of baseball and the war. We found this marvelous photograph of Yankee soldiers playing baseball at Fort Pulaski, while waiting to capture Savannah. I believe it’s one of the earliest photos of people playing the game, rather than a posed team photo. But no, the Abner Doubleday myth won’t make it into the film.



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