Legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says situation in US is as bad now as before the Civil War

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Reenactment of The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history (EPA)
Reenactment of The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history (EPA)

Legendary filmmaker Ken Burns says division in the United States today is as bad as it was before the Civil War, which remains the bloodiest conflict in America’s history.

“If we’re going to hell, it’s from within,” he said about the potential self-destruction of the country.

Mr Burns is known for the landmark documentary The Civil War, an 11-hour series released on PBS in the 1990s that became a cultural phenomenon watched by one in every six Americans.

For more than 30 years, the nine-part documentary has remained a consistent lens into the country’s understanding of the war between North and South.

The film inspired Saturday Night Live skits, was watched US army general Norman Schwarzkopf as he prepared for the first Gulf War, and continues to be referenced as an authoritative examination on what caused the split in the union.

Speaking on the SmartLess podcast with actors Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Sean Hayes, Mr Burns was asked if he feels OK with where the country is headed or if it’s all “doom and gloom”.

“It’s really serious. There are three great crises before this: the Civil War, the Depression, and World War II. This is equal to it,” Mr Burns replied.

Mr Burns referenced a speech by Abraham Lincoln in 1838 about whether the United States would be crushed by some trans-Atlantic military giant, in which the future president said:

“Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.”

With benign neighbours to the north and south, and two oceans providing a “geographical forcefield”, Mr Burns agreed that if the US goes to “hell” it would be from within its own borders.

“And we’re, you know, we’re looking right down the muzzle of that gun,” Mr Burns said.

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