Civil War, The (Ken Burns)-Volume 1: A Very Bloody Affair (1990)

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Released 14-Feb-2002

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Introduction
Main Menu Audio & Animation
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1990
Running Time 242:40
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (118:27) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Ken Burns
Florentine Films
Magna Home Entertainment
Starring None Given
Case Click
RPI $49.95 Music Various

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 1.0 (96Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Ken Burns is renowned for his documentaries. Their topics have included the American institutions of jazz, baseball and Mark Twain. With The Civil War, Burns tackles one of the darkest periods of US history. The Civil War was both a commercial and critical success. While Burns' documentary is somewhat limited in scope, it remains a remarkable piece of television.

    The Civil War is a time that interests me greatly. I have read many books and watched many documentaries on the subject. I also studied American constitutional history as part of my constitutional law studies while studying law at university. This allowed me to read copies of many of the documents and cases leading up to and during this tumultuous time.

    A very brief history of events in a nutshell: Following the election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860, a Secession Convention of Southern States met and adopted an Ordinance of Secession. Based on the US Constitution, a provisional constitution was written for the newly Confederated States of America, and a President elected. Despite the fact that these States felt that they were legitimately exercising their constitutional right to secede (in a similar vein to the American colonies seceding from British rule when they felt that Britain no longer represented their interests), Lincoln would not allow the South to go their own way. As a result a Civil War was fought, over three million men would fight in the war, and over half a million would die.

    The Civil War was one of the highest rating documentaries in US television history. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary utilises illustrations, maps, paintings and photographs (including many of the famous and horrific battle photographs taken by Mathew Brady) with material taken from speeches, dispatches, diaries, war-records, newspapers and letters, which are read by actors such as Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman, Sam Waterston, Derek Jacobi and Jeremy Irons. These actors inject a great deal of emotion into their spoken passages, and it is very effective. A few historians, including the noted Shelby Foote, are also called upon as interviewees. There are also a few ex-slave recordings taken from the US Library of Congress.

    What the documentary does cover very well was that this was a war of conquest, not negotiation. It was also a war in which advancements in weaponry were way ahead of battle tactics. As a result, casualties of up to 30% in battles were not uncommon. The Gatling gun had recently been invented, and land mines and telescopic sights were also used for the first time in warfare. At the Battle of Shiloh, for example, there were over 23,000 casualties, most occurring in the first few hours.

    The documentary also takes a good look at the men who found themselves on the front line, and their feelings. Boys as young as nine found themselves in uniform, and boys as young as twelve were shot and killed on the battlefield. Medical care was poor, and as is often the case in war, many soldiers died painfully from disease and infection. Perhaps this war was a clear example of 'rich man's war, poor man's fight'. Conscription was introduced in the South, but men who owned twenty or more slaves were exempt. Conscription was later introduced in the North, but $300 (a considerable sum then) could buy one an exemption.

    Any war will have various and conflicting stories and explanations. One criticism I have of the series is that it has a limited scope. In order to provide a linear narrative, the war itself, and its underlying causes have been grossly simplified. Slavery is presented as being the primary cause for the Civil War. In doing so, this ignores what were other more important issues, such as States' rights, government taxes and constitutional politics. As Matthew Melton once observed, the Northern view is often presented by Slavery Abolitionists, and the Southern view is usually presented by a handful of racist, ignorant extremists.

    Apart from the simplifications, there is also some misleading information. For example, Burns lists the diseases that slaves suffered from, but then fails to note that those diseases were rampant amongst white communities as well. Burns mentions that most slaves would not live to be sixty, but fails to mention that most white slave owners would also not live to be sixty. Burns mentions the awful working conditions of slaves, but fails to mention the awful working conditions of poor immigrants. While slavery remains a dark and filthy stain on human history, it is important that history is recorded and not composed. The danger with documentaries such as this is that it is so well made and so convincing that history can undoubtedly be 're-written', if only in the minds of those that are not aware of the full story. If Burns could not cover all the issues, he should have said so, and identified those that he selected as being important.

    The documentary does note, however, that it was only in July 1862 that President Lincoln, urged by international political motives (despite being contrary to his own election promises), finally issued an emancipation proclamation. Before that, any runaway slaves caught by Northern soldiers were to be returned to their Southern owners. In 1862 Lincoln made the comment: 'If I could save the Union without freeing a single slave, I would do it'.

    Ultimately, perhaps this documentary is history as Americans wished it was. Perhaps the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young men is more palatable if it was for a higher cause -- the abolishment of slavery, and not for the issues of secession and States' rights. I imagine that largely due to the guilt of slavery, it is already a very common misapprehension that Lincoln and the North fought the war to free the slaves. This documentary may help confirm that myth, even though it does go to some limited lengths to provide a more accurate view.

    There are three episodes included in Volume 1 of The Civil War:

    Episode 1: The Cause (99:21)

    This episode covers a few of the key events leading up to the Civil War including John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry and the wider issue of slavery.

    Episode 2: A Very Bloody Affair (67:49)

    This episode looks at the war itself, both on land and at sea. A new type of warfare, with new weaponry, resulted in an absurd number of casualties.

    Episode 3: Forever Free (75:36)

    Finally in 1862, President Lincoln, urged by international political motives, issues an emancipation proclamation.

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Transfer Quality


    As soon as this program started my heart sank. The image is incredibly soft and hazy, and suffers from the worst telecine wobble that I have ever seen. The standard is consistent across all three episodes on this disc, so the times below all refer to Episode 1.

    The transfer is presented in a Full Frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

    The image is soft throughout and even blurry on occasion, such as at 31:04. The shadow detail is very poor, as evidenced by the shot of the bookshelf at 8:55.

    The colours are dark, drab and muted throughout.

    MPEG artefacts appear throughout. The image suffers from pixelization, and examples can be easily seen at 39:31, 48:07 and 62:52. There is also posterization, such as on historian Ed Bearss' face at 32:39, and some macro-blocking throughout, as evidenced on the clock face at 43:40.

    There is slight aliasing throughout, which normally takes the form of a slight shimmer. Perhaps the worst offender in regards to artefacts is telecine wobble. It is so bad that I had to watch the program in stages as it started giving me a headache!

    Film artefacts appear frequently, but are tiny. A smattering of these tiny flecks can be seen at 9:20.

    There are no subtitles on this DVD.

    This is a RSDL-formatted disc, with the layer change placed during Episode 2 at 19:06. It is relatively smooth, and thus, not disruptive.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is not going to be a great deal to say here, as there is only one audio option, an English Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track.

    This mono track uses the centre speaker only. The dialogue quality and audio sync are good. Importantly, the narration is always very clear.

    The program utilises Civil War era music, including recognisable tunes such as Dixie and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. There is also a fair amount of martial music used, seemingly played by military bands.

    As a mono track, there is no surround presence and activity and the subwoofer is not called upon.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There are no extras.


    A well animated menu, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This title has not been released on DVD in Region 1.


    The Civil War is a brilliant documentary series which has been given a very disappointing transfer. The quality of the program, however, is such that it can transcend the lousy image and mono audio. One can only dream what this series could have been on DVD.

    The video quality is extremely disappointing but still watchable.

    The audio quality is good for mono.

    There are no extras.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Brandon Robert Vogt (warning: bio hazard)
Saturday, April 06, 2002
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-535, using S-Video output
DisplayGrundig Elegance 82-2101 (82cm, 16x9). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationSony STR DE-545
SpeakersSony SS-V315 x5; Sony SA-WMS315 subwoofer

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Comments (Add)
Region 1 quality just as bad - Fred (read my bio)