"The Civil War" is the best non-fiction television since "Eyes on the Prize."

It is the Public Television event of the year.

It is television to be savored and celebrated.

It is to American documentary filmmaking what "The Iliad" was to epic poetry in ancient Greece.

And that ain't the half of it. "The Civil War," the 11-hour series which begins at 8 tonight and runs each night through Thursday on MPT (Channel 22 and 67), is that good.

"The Civil War" is first and last a documentary. If the word "documentary" is a turnoff, stayed tuned anyway. Please. Just this once. It will be worth it.

Filmmaker Ken Burns spent more than five years combining archival photos, lithographs, newspaper clippings, newsreel footage, live cinematography of battle sites, interviews with historians, diaries, letters, 19th century music, contemporary music and voices from modern-day men and women of letters and the arts to make "The Civil War."

Sam Waterston provides the voice of Abraham Lincoln. Jason Robards is Ulysses S. Grant. Morgan Freeman is Frederick Douglass. Arthur Miller is William T. Sherman. Garrison Keillor is Walt Whitman. Others who also provide their voices to Burns' chorus for free or for unionSee CIVIL, 3x, Col. 3CIVIL, from 1scale include: Jeremy Irons, Kurt Vonnegut, Hoyt Axton, Julie Harris, Colleen Dewhurst, George Plimpton, Studs Terkel, Jody Powell and novelist-historian Shelby Foote (whom Burns also interviews length throughout the 11 hours and whose insights constantly dazzle).

The lead singer is David McCullough, the National Book Award-winning historian. He is the narrator. It is his voice -- reading the words written by Burns, Ric Burns (Ken's brother) and Geoffrey C. Ward and resonating long after the final credits have rolled -- that triggers the comparison to the "Iliad." It is not made casually.

Indeed, at a press conference this summer, Foote called the Civil War itself -- which was fought from 1861 to 1865 -- the "American 'Iliad.' " And it is Homer's epic poem about the Trojan War that "The Civil War" so closely mirrors both in style, subject matter and importance. It brings an epic tale of 19th century America to a 20th century television audience in a way never done before.

The film opens tonight on one of Burns' battlefield shots. It shows a cannon against a sky at dawn. It is Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn."

That's followed by a perfectly honed anecdote, which sets the tone for the next 11 hours. It is the story of a farmer named Wilmer McLean. The man moved his family in 1861 from a farm at Bull Run/Manassas, Va. -- because he saw two great, opposing armies headed his way -- to a little place near Appomattox Courthouse where he was sure he and his family would be out of harm's way.

They weren't, of course. Gen. Robert E. Lee finally surrendered in McLean's living room after more bloodshed on the McLean doorstep. Or, as, McCullough puts it, "McLean could rightfully say the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor." The documentary is drenched in that kind or irony and (again, like Homer) the sense of destiny or fate sweeping men hopelessly along in its tide of great events.

And, then, the musical theme is introduced -- the only piece of contemporary music used. It is called "Ashokan Farewell" and is sounded throughout the documentary, often on just one achingly sad fiddle. And people all over this country are going to be hearing it their heads when they go to bed tonight.

Over the sound of that solitary fiddle, McCullough begins an invocation of sorts (like Homer) mapping out the territory to be covered.

"The Civil War was fought in 10,000 American places," McCullough says in perfect meter with the music. "From Valverde, New Mexico, and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont, and Fernandina on the Florida Coast."

And, as McCullough speaks, we are shown a succession of battlefield photos. A dead man's face. A field filled with bodies of men and animals. Buildings devastated by cannon fire.

"Three million Americans fought in it, and over 600,000 men -- 2 percent of the population -- died in it," the narrator resumes. "American homes became headquarters. American churches and schoolhouses sheltered the dying. And huge foraging armies swept across American farms and burned American towns.

"Americans slaughtered one another here, in America, in their own cornfields and peach orchards and along familiar roads and by waters with old American names. . . . Americans killed each other, if only to become the kind of country in which that was no longer possible."

And all the while, those images are playing across the screen. Torn bodies of soldiers, unattached limbs, frozen death masks, mouths open, eyes seeing a horror and obscenity they never imagined -- interspersed with modern-day pictures of beautiful fields of corn and quiet country lanes.

There is a poetry in the words and pictures and the constant sounding of the word "American." There are echoes of Walt Whitman, with all that naming of American towns and listing of specific places. But Whitman is an echo of Homer, too, the master cataloger.

Remarkably, Burns sustains that distilled poetic edge through most of the 11 hours.

Tonight's installment closes on a note of such melancholy that it may be one one of the most perfect expressions of American love ever written. It is a letter from a Union soldier, Sullivan Ballou, of Rhode Island, written to his wife shortly before the battle of Bull Run.

"Dear Sarah," the reader's voice says, "the indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow. And lest I shall not be able to write you again, I feel compelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more."

And, again, the fiddle sounds, as we are shown a series of portraits of young men and women posed together for the camera. As Burns'camera closes in on hands holding each other in the photographs, the fragility and eternal durability of a pledge of love is felt. As Burns' camera closes in on the eyes of the men and women in the portraits, we understand that they are us and we are them, with the same hopes and fears across 125 years.

"I have no misgivings about or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter," Ballou's letter resumes. "Sarah, my love for you is deathless.

"The memory of all the blissful moments I've enjoyed with you come crowding over me and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that I've enjoyed them for so long. How hard it is for me to give them up and bring to ashes the hopes of future years when, God willing, we might have lived and loved together and seen our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.

"If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Oh, Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you in the brightest day and darkest night -- always, always. . . ."

With a perfect sense of symmetry the documentary's opening image of the lonely cannon -- this time against a blood-red, sunset sky -- is reintroduced.

There is a silence for a beat after the letter is read. And, then, the voice of David McCullough is heard. It tells us, "Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later in the battle of Bull Run."

MPT, Hopkins offer additional material

Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67) will offer a companion to Ken Burns' "The Civil War" at 10:30 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. "The Civil War: A Region Divided" will focus on events in Maryland, including the "riot on Pratt Street" and the incarceration of newspaper editors, judges and legislators during a period of martial law, according to MPT.

The Johns Hopkins' University School of Continuing Studies is presenting a lecture series designed to complement the PBS special.

The lectures, which began yesterday but continue on Thursday evenings Oct. 4 through Nov. 8, examine the Civil War's place in American history and the issues that caused it. The lectures also investigate the relationship between military theory and soldiers' experiences, the pain and profiteering that resulted on the home front, and the legacy the war left in terms of cultural enmity, federal-state relations and unfulfilled promises to the black community.

The series if being held on Hopkins' Homewood campus. Thursday hours 6:15 p.m. to 7:55 p.m. For more information, call 338-7428.


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