Tag Archives: PBS

Mercy Street – A Promising Beginning

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.47.27 PMSo I have watched the premiere episode of the PBS Civil War drama, Mercy Street, which is  the story of two volunteer nurses and a hospital staff in 1862 Alexandria. I will refrain from any attempt at a  comprehensive review until I have watched the series in its entirety – but for now I am optimistic.

I was pleased to learn that the writers thought to infuse actual issues into the narrative. The show deftly engages gender, abolition as both a political and moral cause, and nationalism (on both sides). With luck, the show will continue on this path and give the audience something to ponder other than what could very easily wind up as an over-wrought Lifetime historical romance  – much like what has become of Downton Abbey of late.

Of course, optimism notwithstanding – there were a few things that, well…just didn’t sit right. For starters, the characters seem a little cut-and-paste: one for every category, as it were. There is the fiery abolitionist, the obstinate belle, the Unionist who doesn’t care about slavery,  the free black man who is too smart for his own good, the list goes on. And I won’t spoil it for you – but there were a few scenes that were so melodramatic and/or cliche that I had to smirk.

But I won’t come down too hard on the first episode. I will give the show time for some character development, some added complexity, and the ironing out of a few wrinkles. All in all – The first Mercy Street episode caught me attention – in a positive way. And so I look forward to next week.

With compliments,

Keith

Ken Burns’s The Civil War Twenty-Five Years Later

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 11.48.40 AMAll is a-buzz on the Interwebs this week as PBS re-airs Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War in celebration of its 25th anniversary. Many people are discussing what this program meant to them the first time around – how it inspired them individually and how Burns’s riveting narrative reached people in unprecedented ways. I do not think I need to go out on a limb here by saying that Burns sparked the interest of millions and helped make the past seem…well…interesting to those who might have slept through their high school history classes. Let me just go on record by saying that this is among the most important things ever to be on television.

For those of you re-watching this week or perhaps checking it out for the first time, here are a couple of thoughts to ponder…

Shelby Foote is at once the program’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. Foote, the master novelist, brings more charm to this show than one might believe possible. His soothing drawl and folksy wisdom only add to his unsurpassed storytelling expertise. You really want to like this man…and believe him. But his analysis is often questionable. For example, he notes:

1. The Confederacy never had a chance to win the war (yes, it did).

2. The Union fought the war with one hand tied behind its back (no, it didn’t).

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest was – with Lincoln – one of the war’s two original geniuses (no, he wasn’t).

Apart from these quibbles with Foote I found the final episode overwhelmingly reconciliationist in its sensibilities. While this analytical bent is right in step with the scholarship of the 1990s, it is pretty clear now (as it really was then if you thought about it long enough and actually looked at the historical record…) that veterans of that war were not so keen on letting bygones be bygones and reaching Across the Bloody Chasm in friendship (see what I did there?). I will be happy to elaborate on any nits that I picked in the comments below (note: I have been ripped a new one for critiquing Shelby Foote before, so have at it).

So do I think that you should take a pass on The Civil War? Of course not – and here’s why. The documentary still – 25 years later – inspires conversation and debate, which is what a great documentary is supposed to do. And now an entirely new generation can get acquainted with their past. Watch it with them…and get them talking. Furthermore, a TON of Civil War scholarship has hit the shelves since the show’s first airing. It would certainly be interesting to see how the history in The Civil War stands the test of time. And one more thing…congratulations to Ken Burns for 25 years of keeping Civil War history on people’s minds.

With compliments,

Keith

Robert E. Lee: A Tragic Figure in the American Experience

I have once again sat down to watch The American Experience: Robert E. Lee. Being the avid fan of well-done documentaries, I must say that I was not disappointed – at least not for the most part. We are treated to a mighty fine cast of historians providing the analytical commentary including Joseph Glathaar, Gary W. Gallagher, Emory M. Thomas and a number of other first-rate scholars. PBS provides the narration and additional analysis – and as it turns out, a link to a streaming version! So watch and enjoy right here on Keith Harris History! Oh, and by the way – you might want to watch to video (if you haven’t already) before you continue reading. I wouldn’t want to blow the ending.

The emphasis of Robert E. Lee is a move away from the deity in bronze or marble man image that the mighty general has ascended to since his death in 1870. The program paints the Virginia aristocrat as an altogether human figure. A human with an almost obsessive devotion to duty above all else, even family. The film walks us through the life of Lee as a young cadet at West Point, as Winfield Scott’s trusted staffer in the War With Mexico, through a religious conversion experience, and as an ardent Confederate nationalist. He is irritable during the 1862-63 winter, at one point humiliating a subordinate in front of others. He experiences a bout of melancholy when he learns of family tragedy, and he suffers from an incapacitating heart condition. In other words – a man with emotions, faults, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and illness…just what we might expect of any other man.

Except that this is Robert E. Lee – and the film is very conscious of letting us know that many – both in the North and South – saw Lee as infallible…a virtuous, honorable soldier in a noble cause.

But Lee is a man who failed. He failed on an epic scale and saw everything that he stood for crumble. No one knew this better than Lee himself. So ultimately, Lee is a tragic figure. A man who on one hand was as virtuous as one can be, but who on the other saw no real problem with slavery and led an army to preserve it. In 1865, his country is defeated, his fortune is gone, his beloved Virginia is in ruins, and his family is only a shadow of what it once was. He spends the few remaining of his life in bitter private reflection.

And thus my critique of Robert E. Lee. The general narration of the film has a somewhat apologetic, even sorrowful tone – it seems to empathize with a man who has lost everything because of a devotion to duty. Do we then walk away from this film feeling as though Lee deserved better than what he got? Even Lee himself once stated that he wished he had not chosen the life of a soldier. Should we wish the same?

Lee is among the most compelling figures in American history. His brilliance and military acumen deserve accolades. But many have a difficult time reconciling this with the fact that a man of such great virtues committed treason against the nation he swore to protect – as does Robert E. Lee.

Screen shot 2013-12-27 at 9.35.15 AMThe film seems to poke a little at this nagging problem. The opening segments – “Lee” reading his pledge of allegiance to the United States as a young army officer bookended by a closing segment of a much older “Lee” reading his oath of loyalty to those same United States suggest that we should think more about his commitment to the national state.

In the end this is the real tragedy – that Lee, with all the promise of a brilliant career, cast his lot with what U. S. Grant would call “the worst cause for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” One could argue that he stood up to be counted in utter disregard of his devotion to duty – and thus turned his back on his nation and indeed – himself. In this the film only makes slight inroads – ones that perhaps are left for a future documentary.

With compliments,

Keith