Monday, November 14, 2016

'The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns' DVD review

Pros: Fine (if sometimes inaccurate) script, great narrator, and always-interesting presentation

"We have felt the incommunicable experience of war. We felt - we still feel - the passion of life to its top. In our youths our hearts were touched with fire." - Oliver Wendell Holmes.

On September 23, 1990, just as units of the XVIII Airborne Corps were taking up defensive positions in the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Public Broadcasting Service aired "The Cause," the first of nine episodes of director Ken Burns’ The Civil War.

It was an odd juxtaposition - as an almost unbelieving nation was sending the vanguard of what eventually became a 350,000-troop force to war against Saddam Hussein, millions of television viewers were watching what was to become the defining documentary about America’s bloodiest conflict.

Although Burns wasn’t an unknown filmmaker to many PBS viewers thanks to several shorter documentaries (Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God, The Statue of Liberty) his nine-part look at the conflict between North and South not only became the standard by which most television documentaries are measured, but also the most successful public television miniseries in American history.

Co-written by Burns with Geoffrey C. Ward and Ric Burns, The Civil War doesn't merely present the War Between the States as a merely political-military conflict, but as a mosaic of intimately personal observations by people who either lived through the four-year struggle to preserve the Union and wrote diaries, letters and memoirs or historians who have studied the war, its roots and its aftermath, all framed within the context of a historical overview.

When I first read about Burns' ambitious project to tell the dramatic story of The Civil War as a television miniseries a few weeks before it premiered, I wondered how he was going to achieve his goal without resorting to using footage of re-enacted battles and lots of "talking heads" commentary by historians and writers. After all, the war took place 30 years or so before cinematography began taking its baby steps, so unlike World Wars I and II, there weren't any newsreels to borrow combat footage from. Using still photos and paintings would work, of course, but wouldn't they be static and boring after, say, 30 or so minutes?

Feeling somewhat skeptical, I still decided to watch "The Cause," the series opener, on that late September night. After all, if I didn’t like it, I could always change channels and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation or something along those lines.

But after the obligatory PBS "funding was made possible by" spiels were done and the Florentine Films logo faded out and I saw the stark image of a Civil War cannon’s silhouette against a beautiful sunset (or is it a sunrise?), I was hooked.

Not only was that an unexpected beginning - with the sound of wind blowing and the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote read by actor Paul Roebling - but Burns then did something really clever.

Instead of a dry, general "the war started in April 1861" introduction, narrator/chief historical consultant David McCullough (a fine writer and historian in his own right) begins "The Cause" with a prologue that begins with the travails of Virginia farmer Wilmer McLean, whose farm near Manassas was one of the properties on which the First Battle of Bull Run was fought. After seeing a cannonball wreck his summer kitchen, he moved his family to a "quiet little crossroads town known as Appomattox Court House. And it was there in his living room," McCullough says, "that Lee surrendered to Grant.... So Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, 'The war began in my back yard and ended in my front parlor.'"

Because the war was fought “in 10,000 places,” Burns’ film can’t cover every battle or every Confederate or Union commander of note, not even within the 11-hour running time of The Civil War’s nine parts. It isn’t meant to be an encyclopedic study of the war, its weapons, tactics, or political/economical ramifications; it’s supposed to be a human story of the conflict, told in a very personal way that connects with the viewer in an intimate way that no mere “history” ever could.

Burns achieves this using several interesting techniques, not the least of which is the script he wrote with Ward and his brother Ric Burns. Although it has several factual errors – in one episode, the number of Union soldiers under the age of 16 is greatly overstated - The Civil War nonetheless is painstakingly researched, not only in the macrocosm of “the Big Picture” dealing with the issues of slavery, secession, and the campaigns that followed the outbreak of the war, but also the microcosm – the experience of war through the eyes of participants, ranging from Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to enlisted men such as Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins.

He also uses what’s known as the Ken Burns Effect: slow pans in and out over paintings and still photographs that, when coupled with the narration, music and sound effects, counteract the static nature of the graphics and add drama and emotional content.

In late September 1862, Mathew Brady opened an exhibition entitled "The Dead of Antietam" at his New York gallery. The photographs were made by Brady's assistants, Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson. Nothing like them had every been seen in America.

"The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams," wrote a reporter for The New York Times.

"We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type...We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door. It attracts your attention, but it does not enlist your sympathy. But it is very different when the hearse stops at your front door and the corpse is carried over your own threshold...Mr. Brady has done something to bring to us the terrible reality and earnestness of the War. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along [our] streets, he has done something very like it."
 - from Episode Three: “Forever Free”

Adding to the use of the Ken Burns Effect is the choice of historians, writers, and political commentators who offer their insight, expertise, and opinions on the Civil War. The one who stands out the most for the series’ many fans is the late Shelby Foote, who – despite having written a three-volume history of the war – was a relatively unknown poet and sometime historian until the premiere of The Civil War. His Mississippi drawl, his lively eyes, and his sometimes poignant observations are definitely noteworthy.

Along with Foote, viewers will hear from historian Barbara Fields, ex-Congressman James Symington, writer Ed Bearss, and other Civil War historians and ‘buffs.” Mainly, however, they’ll be treated to readings from letters and diaries written by such diverse individuals as Mary Chesnut, the wife of an ex-Senator from Georgia, Gen. George B. McClellan, the ineffective Union general who would later run as a Presidential candidate in 1864, and George Templeton Strong, a shrewd New York observer who didn’t exactly like Lincoln but didn’t like the secessionists much, either.

Then, there’s the musical underscore. From the poignant "Ashokan Farewell" (the signature theme of the film) to a beautiful choral presentation of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the songs and military marches from the period added their powerful emotional content to an already engrossing television event.

The 2002 PBS Home Video/Warner Bros. DVD set not only contains the entire nine-episode miniseries, but it’s also a digitally restored/remastered version. It hasn’t been expanded or rewritten, but flaws in the original print – scratches, dust particles, and even stray hairs that marred the images – have been painstakingly corrected. The sound, too, has been upgraded from 1990s-analog to 2002 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, which is nifty in home theater systems and the newer televisions with stereo capability.

The five discs contain the following episodes:

  • Episode 1: The Cause (1861)
  • Episode 2: A Very Bloody Affair (1862)
  • Episode 3: Forever Free (1862)
  • Episode 4: Simply Murder (1863)
  • Episode 5: The Universe of Battle (1863)
  • Episode 6: Valley of the Shadow of Death (1864)
  • Episode 7: Most Hallowed Ground (1864)
  • Episode 8: War Is All Hell (1865)
  • Episode 9: The Better Angels of Our Nature (1865)

This 5-disc set (which has been superseded by a 2004 set released by PBS and Paramount Home Video and a 2015 high definition Blu-ray set) also includes audio commentary by Ken Burns on some chapters of each episode, plus several featurettes about the 2002 remastering efforts to restore the series for its anniversary rebroadcast and the DVD set, Burns’ approach to filmmaking, and interviews with Burns, Shelby Foote, George Will, and Stanley Crouch. There are also battlefield maps, a “Civil War Challenge” trivia game, and biography cards of the various historical figures that shaped the war and its aftermath.

All in all, this is one of my favorite documentaries ever, and even though I am aware that there are several glaring errors in its narrative, Burns’ film is a masterpiece. It is a searing examination of what Shelby Foote called “the crossroads of our being.” 

Monday, November 7, 2016

From the Ol' Epinions Review Files: "Star Trek: The Original Series - The Trouble with Tribbles"

(C) 2016 CBS Studios 
Pros: Gerrold's script, fine performances, good directing by Joe Pevney
Cons: None, unless you have the sense of humor of a Klingon
Captain's Log: Stardate 4523.3

While on routine patrol in Federation space, the Enterprise received a Priority One distress call - the Federation's communications protocol for near- or total disaster - from Deep Space Station K-7, which is located near the strategically important world known as Sherman's Planet. Claimed by both the Federation and the Klingon Empire, this otherwise insignificant planet has a small settlement dependent on food shipments - basically grain - from outside. Because the Organian Peace Treaty stipulates that the planet belongs to the government that can best populate it using peaceful means, it is imperative that the Enterprise investigate the nature of the distress call....

Star Trek, as originally conceived by series creator Gene Roddenberry, was intended to be an action-adventure show that used its 23rd Century sci-fi setting as a way to sneak serious ideas past the NBC TV network's Standards and Practices department and get people to think about such issues as racism, prejudice, war, peace, and sexual equality at a time when television tended to play it safe and aired entertaining but fluffy sitcoms such as Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Hogan's Heroes, and the short-lived My Mother the Car. If Roddenberry wanted to comment about the Vietnam War, say, the writing staff would come up with "A Private Little War." If he wanted to show how insane Mutual Assured Destruction policies vis a vis the U.S. and the Soviet Union were, he'd present episodes such as "Miri" and "A Taste of Armageddon." To highlight the ultimate irrationality of racial hatred, Star Trek's writers would come up with "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield."

Sometimes, though, the series would get off its oh-so-serious-and-philosophical pedestal and let loose with light-hearted, even comedic episodes that, even though the situation was still grounded in the Star Trek format of action-adventure, allowed Capt. James T. Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise to loosen up and show the "lighter side of Starfleet."

"The Trouble With Tribbles," written by David Gerrold, is the funniest of the "comedy" episodes from the original 1966-1969 incarnation of Star Trek. Originally titled "A Fuzzy Thing Happened To Me On the Way to Antares," it has everything a good television episode should have - a dramatic confrontation between two intelligent opponents (Kirk and Klingon Captain Koloth), interesting "guest characters" such as the chubby entrepreneur Cyrano Jones (Stanley Adams) and the obnoxious Klingon Korax (Michael Pataki), a Western-style barroom brawl between Klingons and Enterprise crewmembers, and - of course, the furry creatures known as tribbles.

Gerrold kicks off the episode with a seriously dramatic "teaser," showing Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the bridge crew in their tense "red alert" mode. They have just received the Priority One call from Deep Space Station K-7, and the Enterprisedoesn't know what to expect, since that distress call is reserved for emergencies along the lines of a planetary disaster or, considering the station's proximity to the border with the Klingons, a full-scale invasion despite the Organian-imposed truce between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

Kirk's alarm, however, shifts to bemused chagrin when he and his ship arrive at K-7. Yes, there is a Klingon ship nearby, but it's there under the terms of the treaty. Its captain, the charming-slimy Koloth (William Campbell), is nonchalantly seated in station manager Lurry's (Whit Bissell) office, making arrangements for shore leave for his cruiser's crew.

But the source of Kirk's irritation isn't his Klingon counterpart, it's the officious, overly-anxious, and positively obnoxious Federation Undersecretary Nilz Baris. It was his idea to issue the Priority One distress call - thereby placing the entire quadrant in a near-war footing - in order to protect a consignment of quadrotriticale grain, or, as Kirk says in almost-disgust, "wheat." Baris believes that in their efforts to undermine the Federation's colonization of Sherman's Planet, the Klingons will try to destroy the valuable grain. Also adding to Kirk's irritation with civilian bureaucrats is the really annoying Arne Darvin (Charlie Brill) Baris' assistant.

But the real trouble arises when the enterprising businessman Cyrano Jones gives Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) a small furry creature he calls a tribble. It has no legs, tail, or eyes, but it does purr, and most humanoid species find them cute and oddly comforting. In a marketing ploy intended to drum up interest in the tribbles, Jones offers it to Uhura as a free sample, and she takes it aboard the Enterprise, where it grows fruitful and multiplies.

Spock: [while holding a tribble] Intriguing. Its trilling noise seems to produce a tranquilizing effect on the human nervous system.
[he begins to pet it gently]
Spock: Fortunately, I am, of course, immune.
[realizing what he is doing, he quickly puts the tribble down and excuses himself]

Soon, to Kirk's dismay, the ship is overrun by thousands of fuzzy little tribbles, which are, according to Dr. McCoy's analysis, "born pregnant." All tribbles do, it seems, is purr, eat a lot, and create more tribbles.

Worse, if they get into K-7's storage compartments, the seemingly harmless tribbles will consume all the quadrotriticale grain destined for Sherman's Planet, which will force the Federation to evacuate...and allow the Klingons to plant their own colony without overtly violating the Organian Peace Treaty.

Although the episode does have a dramatic undercurrent of 23rd Century superpower rivalry, "The Trouble With Troubles" is perhaps the series' most popular installment, due, no doubt, to Gerrold's adroit use of comedic situations and lighthearted dialogue. For instance, the scene where Kirk assembles the Enterprise officers involved in the bar brawl on the station is capped with this dry-humored exchange between the captain and Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (the late James Doohan):

Scotty: Well, Captain, er, the Klingons called you a tin plated over bearing swaggering dictator with delusions of grandeur.
Capt. Kirk: Is that all?
Scotty: No sir, they also compared you with a Denebian slime devil.
Capt. Kirk: I see.
Scotty: And then they said you were...
Capt. Kirk: I get the picture, Scotty.
Scotty: Yes, sir.
Capt. Kirk: And after they said all this, that's when you hit the Klingons.
Scotty: No, sir.
Capt. Kirk: No?
Scotty: No, er, I didn't. You told us to avoid trouble.
Capt. Kirk: Oh, yes.
Scotty: Well, I didn't see it was worth fighting about. After all, we're big enough to take a few insults, aren't we?
Capt. Kirk: What was it they said that started the fight?
Scotty: They called the Enterprise a garbage scow! Sir.
Capt. Kirk: I see. And that's when you hit the Klingon?
Scotty: Yes, sir.
Capt. Kirk: You hit the Klingons because they insulted the Enterprise, not because they...
Scotty: Well, sir, this was a matter of pride!
Capt. Kirk: All right, Scotty, dismissed. Oh, Scotty, you're restricted to quarters until further notice.
Scotty: Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. That'll give me a chance to catch up on my technical journals.

Although the special effects are now so outdated that all the episodes of the Original Series were digitally remastered 10 years ago , Gerrold's pun-laden and brilliantly witty script is interpreted to near-perfection by the regular cast and the guest stars. William Campbell, who had played the Squire of Gothos in an earlier episode, gives Klingon Capt. Koloth a mixture of charm and duplicitious menace that was so indelible that he was asked to reprise the role in theDeep Space Nine episode "Blood Oath." The always-reliable William Schallert was the perfect Federation paper-pushing administrator who is the exact opposite of everything Kirk is, and Michael Pataki is wonderfully odious as the Klingon officer who badgers Scotty into throwing that first punch when he calls the Enterprise a "garbage scow." Finally, actor-writer Stanley Adams, who also penned the episode "The Mark of Gideon," pulls off a brilliantly comedic performance as the eager-to-make-a-fast-credit Cyrano Jones.

William Shatner as James T. Kirk
Leonard Nimoy as Spock
DeForest Kelley as Leonard H. McCoy
James Doohan as Montgomery Scott
Nichelle Nichols as Uhura
George Takei as Hikaru Sulu
Walter Koenig as Pavel Andreievich Chekov

Guest Cast:
William Schallert as Nilz Baris
William Campbell as Capt. Koloth
Stanley Adams as Cyrano Jones
Whit Bissell as Mr. Lurry
Michael Pataki as Korax
Ed Reimers as Admiral Fitzpatrick
Charlie Brill as Arne Darvin
Paul Baxley as Ensign Freeman
David L. Ross as Guard
Guy Raymond as Trader/bartender
Eddie Paskey as Security Guard

Director: Joseph Pevney
Written By: David Gerrold