120 Minutes, Documentary, Now Streaming
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Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American public television premiere of the ground-breaking, thirteen-part BBC documentary series Civilisation by Lord Kenneth Clark in 1970, this essay in film features archival footage from all thirteen episodes of Civilisation as well as interviews with Sir David Attenborough and James Stourton (Clark’s definitive biographer). This documentary focuses on the ways in which Civilisation helped Americans, ground down by the terrible war in Southeast Asia, to focus their minds on how civilized life represents the best that Western man can offer. Released in 2020.
Written, narrated and directed by Michael Maglaras.
Executive Producer, Terri Templeton.
Civilisation and America
By Michael Maglaras
This film is an homage.
My primary motivation in making a film is admiration. This film is no exception. I admire Lord Kenneth Clark. I admire his epic, groundbreaking thirteen-part television series Civilisation.
This celebratory documentary is, in a general sense, about Clark and about Civilisation…but it is more about what happened when Americans first viewed this documentary 50 years ago in 1970, and experienced it at a time of great domestic political and social upheaval caused by the protracted folly of our engagement in Vietnam and our inability to deal with our legacy of the oppression of our black citizens.
Civilisation changed some lives in America. Mine was one of them. Of course, the times were different in 1970. Although perhaps not that much different from today. The Vietnam War had divided us so deeply that practically no family gathering didn’t end with harsh words and a deeper divide. We were also at the mercy of a feckless, lying president for whom carefully calculated daily deceptions were as normal as blueberry pie.
We were so deeply divided as a result of the war that we could not come together to thoroughly rally around the young Americans who were stuck in the killing fields of Southeast Asia fighting an elusive enemy who was fleet of foot and steeled with a tough philosophical discipline.
The Viet Cong, whose head was the former London restaurant waiter Ho Chi Minh, fought their battles with conviction. We fought ours with despair. Too many people I knew had died, and had died for the defeat that finally arrived conclusively in April 1975. We owed those who served better than they got from us when they came back. We still do.
This was all in 1970. In a year or so I was going to have to make a personal decision. If they called number 188 (all of us guys had memorized our Selective Service numbers), would I go?
Or would I head north from New Hampshire, where I was living, into Canada?
If your number was called, you were probably going to go to Southeast Asia. There wouldn’t have been any doubt in my case, for I was a French speaker, and they had a need for people who could speak to the Viet Cong, when we took them prisoner, in the language they had used with the French. It didn’t matter, it turned out, how many of them we captured. They had defeated the French in 1954, and they would defeat America twenty-one years later.
As it turned out, they never called the kids born on July 5th.
On October 7, 1970 I and thousands more watched the first episode of Civilisation on what was then the new thing called “public television.” We were hooked. After that, many of us knew where we had to be twice a week (each episode was repeated). It took more than three months for the thirteen hours of Civilisation to be aired. By the time it was over, more than 10 million of us had viewed television of a kind we had never seen before.
One British critic has described Civilisation as “seductive.” That’s the right word. It was as seductive for me as a first kiss… but much more potent, as it had seduced the mind and the spirit. I would return to class at university on Monday after having seen Sunday nights’ Civilisation repeat… and my professors would be raising issues that Clark had raised. Some of them changed their planned course curricula around Clark’s subject matter. Some, out of a sort of spiritual constipation borne of envy, would be dismissive of him as “not quite a scholar” or would pronounce Civilisation to be “just the work of a dilettante.”
I listened to both sides of this argument. Those were the old days before free speech and open academic discourse became contemptible, as they are now considered to be, but I somehow saw through the academic prejudice not because I was brighter than most, but because I sensed that the core of Clark’s detractors thought little real educational benefit could be conveyed through something as ephemeral as TV. John Berger would prove them wrong. Jacob Bronowski would prove them wrong. Fifty years later, Clark continues to prove them wrong with Civilisation.
I came to filmmaking late in life. As a filmmaker I’ve stolen ideas from other filmmakers, and once in a while I view a film where I see that it’s clear that someone has stolen something from me. It’s OK. It’s how an art form gets constructed. You just have to acknowledge your debt truthfully.
I have stolen unashamedly from Civilisation. The way in which Clark and Peter Montagnon (one of Civilisation’s three directors) married music to visual image has stayed with me, and every film I’ve made, including this one, puts music in charge of emotive force.
I’ve built eight films on the idea of the tactical insertion of music into a film to heighten visual perception and lift the story to a different emotional level. I’d like to think I’m good at that trick. Of course I learned how to do it from Civilisation in 1970. This is one of the reasons why this film is an homage to Kenneth Clark. It just took 50 years to get here.
What was the need that Civilisation filled with so many of us in 1970? I can only answer by telling you what this kind of television gave to me. It gave me a sense of my place in the world. Each generation believes that it is the first generation to experience all the good and all the bad; the evil and the holy; the exceptional and the passable. Civilisation told me to look behind me, for my life at 21 was being built on the shoulders of named and unnamed predecessors. It confirmed in me a strong belief in the rich value of our Western culture. I decided, after three months of viewing Civilisation that, in one way or another, I would dedicate my life to the arts, and have more or less done that for the last fifty years in any way I could manage.
Filmmaking is storytelling, and Kenneth Clark was above all else a storyteller.
Civilisation is also a story about heroes. It made me understand the value of societal support for the gifted, the graced, the exceptional. Civilisation taught me that all achievement has a source. That something of lasting value can’t be built without reference to the past.
Civilisation made a very great impression on me as a young musician and as a young man. Whole passages of dialogue and scrolls of footage have been embedded in my mind for fifty years. Above all, Civilisation gave me a sense of hope. It still does. For there are political and social parallels between 1970 and 2020 that will be apparent to those old enough to remember…and will become apparent to those who watch this film. Clark’s message to us seems somehow as fresh and pointedly relevant today as it was in 1970. Please believe me when I tell you that in 1970 American society showed the hallmarks of a society about to come apart at the seams. The year 2020 looks the same. Civilisation was a stabilizing and humanizing force for many of us who saw it. If you remember the America of 1970, you will know what I mean. Clark’s hero, the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, has written, “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
I am very pleased to re-acquaint a new generation of Americans with Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. In the America of 1970, these thirteen hours were greeted joyously. If, after seeing this film, I’ve made you want to take that thirteen-hour journey, then I have done my job.
Finally, I want to thank Terri Templeton, my executive producer, muse, confidant, and spouse, for sticking with this project when, over the course of three years, I wanted to abandon it at least a dozen times. I wrote, directed, and narrated this film…but Terri Templeton actually made it.
– Michael Maglaras