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It's an unusual documentary in that it's essentially not a history of the American Civil War but the personal biographies of its two most prominent generals -- Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy, and Ulysses S. Grant for the United States Army.
How often, in these documentaries, do we learn about the childhoods of these two men? Maybe we could easily enough guess that Grant's boyhood was unremarkable and that it was only through the influence of his wife's family that he was admitted to West Point. But how many of us know that Lee's father, a hero of the Revolutionary War, was a spendthrift and gambler and that Lee himself married into the Southern aristocracy when he belonged to the genteel poor? Lee was highly disciplined and reserved and graduated at the head of his class. Grant's grades were low and his conduct earned him innumerable demerits. When Grant was stationed away from his wife and family at Fort Humboldt in California, he took to drink. I, for one, don't blame him. There's nothing else to do in Humboldt County. It rains all the time.
The narrative briefly covers those parts of the war not directly connected with the careers of Lee and Grant. There is no criticism -- either implied or explicit -- of McClellan, for instance. Or of Burnside either, for that matter. And Jeb Stuart's absence for the first two days of Gettysburg aren't even mentioned. Politics and economics, and issues like slavery, are avoided, as hard as it is to believe. The daily grind of the grunts is left unexplored. But we can find plenty of that material elsewhere.
There are half a dozen talking heads who know what they're talking about, including the President of Harvard, but no epic presentations of ten thousand reenactors pretending to shoot at one another and falling to the ground. Lots of still photos, most already familiar. Thankfully, one old photo is not among them -- Grant's portrait, facing the camera under a hat with the brim curled up on one side, his beard resembling some some of fungal growth that sprouts from his upper lip to his chest in a way that makes your skin crawl.
The graphics are great. Just enough maps. And the troops are bunches of tiny dots organized into units. They come in victory and go in defeat. They aren't the usual blocks being moved around like dominoes. The maps and the narration keep us abreast of events but sometimes give the viewer a little jolt, a kind of mental speed bump. When Grant finally takes over the Army and opposes Lee on the battlefield, nothing is made of the events that follow. Petersberg and the rest are all skipped over and we suddenly wind up in Appomattox Court House.
There are certain heuristic traditions that are followed here. At Chancellorsville, Lee is acclaimed for his brilliance in splitting his inferior army into three parts in the face of a superior enemy, and for sending Jackson on a long flanking march around Hooker's right flank. On Hooker's right flank was Oliver Howard's 11th Corps, warned that something might be up. I don't know -- I've never known -- if that was so much a reflection of Lee's brilliance as it was a reflection of Howard's stupidity. Jackson's flanking march took him within hearing distance of Howard's camp, making good deal of noise with chatting and clanging pots on the wagons. Howard and his men dismissed it as "retreating rebels." While I'm being negative, I wish the director, John Ealer, and his photographers and editor, hadn't been so self indulgent. A fine documentary is one-quarter ruined by directorial razzle-dazzle as the camera zooms in pointlessly on the chest or the ear lobe of some talking head. It looks like a commercial for an insurance company. Zooms and wobbling cameras may be suitable for 30-second advertisements on television but they're an irritating distraction in a film like this.
The film, by the way, is available free on YouTube.
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