Monday, August 20, 2012

PBS American Experience - "Death and the Civil War" - A Review

"The dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all..." - Walt Whitman

I had the great privilege of receiving a DVD review copy of the forthcoming PBS American Experience special, "Death and the Civil War."  The 2-hr special will premier on 18 September 2012, to coincide, fittingly, with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).

The subject of death and the Civil War is intimately tied with the general subject of this blog - that is, medicine and the Civil War - and I have posted several times before on the topic.  A few include:

"Mourning Rituals and the Civil War" (here)
"Body Bags and Burial Cases" (here)
"Visit to the National Museum of Funeral History - Civil War Exhibits" (here)
Review of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (here)

Indeed, the special is based on Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering.  A synopsis of the special from the website:

With the coming of the Civil War, and the staggering casualties it ushered in, death entered the experience of the American people as it never had before -- permanently altering the character of the republic and the psyche of the American people. Contending with death on an unprecedented scale posed challenges for which there were no ready answers when the war began. Americans worked to improvise new solutions, new institutions, and new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale.

You can view a preview of the special here:

Bottom Line: I HIGHLY Recommend this special!

Now for some cons (a few) and pros (a LOT!):

The cons: just one, the special is based on Dr. Faust's book, she necessarily plays a large role in the special as one of the "talking heads"; I liked the book...really liked it (see link to review above) unfortunately, her contribution - and that of a few of the other commentators - is actually the weakest part of the special.  I shudder every time I hear the inane canard about transposing the percentage of deaths from the Civil War to today's population..."what would we as a nation be like if we faced the loss of seven million individuals" she states at the beginning..."only" 6,472 service people have died in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and yet this country - especially those families affected - certainly feel that pain without the number reaching the millions.  The contributions of a few of the other commentators - Vincent Brown, J. David Hacker, March Schantz, and George Will - are earnest, but somewhat melodramatic and not really informative.  One exception is David W. Blight.  Another exception is mentioned in the "pros" below.

Now for the PROS!(!):

1) The actual narrative of the special is factual and dramatic, but not melodramatic (unlike that of the commentators).

The special is roughly chronological and covers a lot of territory, from the irrational exuberance of the "90-day war" to the brutal realities of hundreds and thousands of deaths in the first major battles of the war...from the 19th century concept of the "good death" at home surrounded by family to the sudden and violent an unaccompanied death on the battlefield...from the hurried burials to the evolution of the national cemetery system...the lives and deaths of enslaved African-Americans, especially those who joined the United States Colored Troops, and much more.

Oliver Platt's narration is given solemnly and clearly and is a highlight of the special.

2) The period "voices" are also well done by a range of celebrities (James Cromwell, Amy Madigan, and others) and - more important - the letters, diaries, and other writings are well chosen.

3) The one commentator who really SHINES in this special is writer, poet, and undertaker Thomas Lynch.  His contributions carry more meaning and are more elegantly spoken than any of the academic voices.  You can learn more about Mr. Lynch at his website here.  His family mortuary business was the subject of another PBS special (on Frontline) - "The Undertaking" - which you can view in its entirety here.

4)  Viewers, especially Civil War enthusiasts, will be delighted by the artifacts and vignettes that are featured throughout the special.

5) For me, one of the real highlights of the special was the music, composed by Brian Keane (his website is here).  The music over the end credits - his original composition "Republic of Suffering" - is easily one of the most haunting and beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.  I was VERY excited, then, to learn that the soundtrack to the special will be released on CD and as an mp3 download soon (11 Sept 2012).  You can hear a sampling of "Republic of Suffering" below (click on the image):

The DVD of the special will also be available on 18 September from the "ShopPBS" website here.



Emily Kate said...

Thanks for the 'preview review'! I hadn't heard about this program yet, but am now looking forward to its release this fall.

Richard said...

Wow - sounds like something I'll really need to remember to check out.

I had heard of it, but not in such a review or the details of when it would be on.