When I was about ten I saw a movie about the Donner Party on the PBS show American Experience. A hauntingly narrated story about being lost on a mountain and resorting what you would have though impossible, it was told with photographs and letters. No actors, no special effects. Just shots of beautiful country with the words of people who suffered there read aloud. This, I would learn, was the method of one Ken Burns. He’s made movies about all kinds of things and most people in the States have been put to watch at least some of his work (although it might have been in a history classroom). Living in Canada now, these letters and stories have returned in my imagination. Not only do people here not know who Burns is, they often don’t have tangible understanding of some of my favorite things about good, old ‘MeriKa.
Maybe it was all that public television (read: cannibalism-documentary-viewing) at a young age but I’ve maintained a keen interest in what most will shirk away from (favorite photographer, favorite movie to watch at Christmas, I could go on…). Here the worst thing you’ll hear on the news is, well, I can’t even think of anything that I’ve been really upset by lately. So maybe it’s that. Whatever started it, I now stand by a tradition of watching 1990s “The Civil War” start to finish every year at about this time of year.
Last night I finished episode 5, “The Universe of Battle.” Here’s a clip from the discussion of Gettysburg. By now Grant is leading the charge and progress has been made against the unknowable Lee and the southern Confederates. Sherman has yet to march to the sea and Lincoln’s fate us yet unforeseen.
After three years of this you might think I’d be as good as a war historian, but each time I’m picking up something new. It’s a chronological film, but there’s more than ten hours of it and, just like for the rest of us, hindsight in 1863 was 20/20; seeing the end first helps shape an understanding of the beginning. Plus there’s a good bit of commentary from one my my favorite Americans, Mr. Shelby Foote to whom I will never grow tired of listening.
This is strictly a weekend evening adventure so I’ll have a the rest of the month to go. There is, after all, no need and no good to come from rushing a chance to feel connected to a place you knew and a people you were.