MPT specials complement series on the Civil War


Maryland Public Television has a bonus for local viewers caught up in Ken Burns' spectacular five-night documentary, "The Civil War."

Tonight at 10:30, following another installment of "The Civil War," MPT (Channels 22 and 67) launches its own three-part special, "The Civil War: A Region Divided," as a companion to Burns' epic.

It does not seem fair to compare MPT's effort to Burns'. Almost any documentary since "Eyes on the Prize" would pale compared to Burns' triumph.

But since "A Region Divided" follows "The Civil War" tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday night, comparisons will be inevitable for viewers. The most glaring difference between Burns' work and MPT's is that "A Region Divided" relies heavily on modern-day re-enactments of Civil War battles and living conditions, while Burns used no re-enactments. The overall result is that "A Region Divided" feels far less authentic and far more superficial.

There are several problems with battlefield re-enactments.

For one thing, many of the people photographed are volunteers. They are not actors. As a result, just when you are about to make the leap into believing that the guy with the red bandage on his head is a wounded victim at Antietam and you are there, the man's eyes glance self-consciously at the camera. Goodbye, suspension of disbelief.

There are also the differences between black and white and color and how we react to them as viewers. Black and white is the color of memory. When we see an old Civil War photograph in black and white, it has the weight, seriousness and resonance of national memory. When it's color, it has the look of the nightly news -- immediate, up to the moment, but usually not the stuff of history.

MPT's show does, though, have its own rewards.

The pluses of the special -- hosted by Lary Lewman -- are mainly informational. Newcomers to Maryland from Northern states might not know, for example, that "Maryland, My Maryland," was a song of Southern sympathy that urged secession and was second only to "Dixie" in the South in popularity. (MPT's report, though, fails to tell us how a song's popularity was measured in the 1860s.)

Longtime residents also will probably learn a few things from the special about slavery on the Eastern Shore, Union guns aimed at the Washington monument and how the logistics of switching trains in Baltimore influenced 19th century American history.

The concept and packaging are not great. But Maryland was near enough to the center of the Civil War that the extra information MPT offers is interesting, welcome and well worth our time.

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