The King of Documentaries

Most of you that know me or have been reading our blog for the last year probably know that I am a HUGE fan of history.  I love reading history books, articles, and maps.  On the same note, I highly enjoy watching good documentary films from time to time.  Whenever we are around a TV (not all that often!), I like the History Channel, Discovery, and Travel.  I have seen good one-hour documentaries many times, especially about the Military, Early American History, and the ancient Middle-East.  That was pretty much it until I met my historical film hero…

It all started with receiving an audio album a few years ago called, The Civil War: TV Soundtrack .  It is a selection of Civil War era songs composed for a series of PBS documentaries directed and produced by a man named Ken Burns.  Then, maybe a year after first listening to the album, my father began reading The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote (another one of my history heroes).  After he was done I read the series (a collection of three hefty books…probably 1500 total pages or more).  Eventually, my dad bought the PBS documentary by Ken Burns on the Civil War, which is widely known as the definitive work on the war.  I watched maybe two of the eleven hours of it, but ran out of time before heading back to college.

Last November, though, I heard from a couple of people that Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Second World War was superb.  Andrea and I began watching the twelve hours of film last November, and finished sometime in February.  I was floored by how informative and interesting it was.  Truthfully, Andrea and I both liked The War.  It is all told through the mouths of men who actually fought, and those who were on the home front.  There were no “experts” that were interviewed…just real people.  I highly recommend The War.

However, in my opinion, his best work is The Civil War.  From that, my love for in-depth Civil War history developed.  The films actually make you feel like you are there.  I told my sister-in-law, who is teaching the Civil War era next year in school, about it, and now she is reviewing them as a source.  It seems that it plays out more like a real story than just a dull documentary.  Yet everything is so accurate.  For example, something neat that I learned toward the end of The Civil War is that before the war we would say “The United States are…”, and after the war up to today we say, “The United States is…”–it was a symbol of how our states truly became united.

Another few documentaries that Ken Burns has directed are, The West, Baseball, and The National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea.  One trademark of Ken Burns are his amazing visuals.  He can take a still picture and make it come alive.  He can take a bland video and transform it by adding fitting music and voice-overs.  I have not seen The National Parks yet, but I hear that the visuals are spectacular.

His style is amazing.  In fact, when I made our vacation presentation from Mexico, a lot of the ideas were from Ken Burns.  One concept that Mr. Burns has perfected is actually named after him: The Ken Burns Effect.  It is essentially panning and zooming through a still photo with voice-overs and music.  It is now used heavily in documentaries.

Now, I just know that most of you are cringing at the thought of voluntarily watching a historical documentary.  I challenge you to go to your local library and rent the first episode of The Civil War.  Or the first episode of The War or The West.  I can guarantee that it will at least be mildly interesting.  I believe that they are masterpieces.

Here is a short clip from the The Civil War.

2 thoughts on “The King of Documentaries”

  1. I found the Civil War documentaries @ my library & have been slowly working through them, as time allows. Thanks for introducing me to these. They’re great!

  2. Here are a few more excellent sources on Civil War history Sharon…….’The Civil War’ three volume set by Shelby Foote…he’s the guy featured in the Ken Burn’s documentary with the very deep southern accent, ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ by James McPherson and ‘April 1865’ by Jay Winik. Good luck with the class.

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