Some time ago, I was sent a review copy of a new documentary titled "Robert E. Lee", which will air in many markets on PBS tonight, and asked to review it. I must apologize for being tardy in posting my short review so close to the airing of this film, but family and business affairs took priority. In any event, and for what it’s worth, here is my brief review and thoughts about the film.
That PBS chose Robert E. Lee to kick off its take on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War speaks to Lee’s never-ending universal appeal and our collective interest in this Southern icon. This alone is testimony to America's fascination with Lee and the bad boys of the Confederacy. No subject concerning the WBTS seems to be able to come even close to competing. (PBS will also air, next week, a documentary on Grant - interesting that Lee airs ahead of Grant.) The airing of this documentary on PBS’s popular history series, American Experience, however, reveals moderns’ revisionist portrayal of Lee. While acknowledging Lee’s manly qualities, his imposing presence, strict adherence to duty, devotion to family, and legendary military capabilities and leadership, the viewer is, nonetheless, left with the revisionist, PC fantasy impression that Lee wasted his favored position and gifts, betrayed his oath, fought for “white supremacy” and died a bitter old man; even questioning his faith in the providence of God. I sensed in the film what historian Robert Krick has referred to as an “anti-Confederate” bias, as the narrative does not stray too far from current PC orthodoxy.
While the film features some prominent and respected historians (Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, and Emory Thomas, to name just a few) and, at times, offers some interesting commentary, it is seriously lacking of anything in-depth about Lee or, anything truthfully new. Admittedly, that would be a difficult assignment for anyone--few persons in American history have received more attention than the South’s beloved General Lee. There’s simply not much left to say about this great man.
But what was most obvious to this viewer was what the film largely ignored--Lee’s Christian faith. While the film touches on this aspect of Lee's character, it is brief and shallow and not given the consideration it deserves. As many historians have previously noted, it is impossible to understand or explain Lee absent an understanding of Lee’s faith in God. As biographer and former Washington and Lee University professor, Marshall Fishwick noted in his wonderful little biography about Lee:
Lee’s genius was essentially military; but his greatness was essentially religious. He cannot be understood against a background of politics, philosophy or polemics. All efforts to find Lee’s “secret” have failed because they have followed the wrong leads.
Bottom line: This film follows the wrong leads and, in doing so, it fails.