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The Dust Bowl

2012 film (DVD) by Ken Burns

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The haunting story of one of the worst environmental catastrophes in American history.

  • Dec 8, 2012
  • by
Rating:
+5
It is one of the most gut-wrenching films I have ever seen. Like an episode of the old TV series "Time Tunnel" noted filmmaker Ken Burns transports his audience back to the Great Plains in the 1930's. The stories of personal hardship and determination in his brand new PBS offering "The Dust Bowl" will likely hit you like a ton of bricks. This is a story that needs to be told again and again. As you will discover in "The Dust Bowl" this was in a good many ways a self-imposed tragedy. It is extremely important that the American people understand just what went wrong with the land in America's mid-section during those tumultuous years and to learn the hard lessons from this monumental environmental disaster. The sad fact of the matter is that unless we are vigilant it could very well happen again.

I first became interested in the Dust Bowl when I read Timothy Egan's outstanding book "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl" back in 2006. Prior to that my knowledge of this calamity had been limited to not much more than a passing reference in a high school history book and perhaps a few articles in the newspaper. I simply had no idea of the scope and the magnitude of this tragedy. It appears to me that the four-hour presentation that Ken Burns has cobbled together is largely based on that book. In fact, Timothy Egan appears throughout the film offering his informed commentary on the heartbreaking story that is unfolding before your very eyes. In "The Dust Bowl" Ken Burns focuses on about a dozen families who had settled in various parts of the affected region. These were hardy folks who came to settle in this area from many different places and for a variety of reasons. It was the height of the Great Depression and for most the lure of farming your own tract of land was just too enticing to pass up. For an all too brief time it appeared to be a wise decision. But as the 1930's progressed most of the people who had settled in places like Boise City in the Oklahoma panhandle, Dalhart in Northwestern Texas or Cimmaron County, New Mexico would rue the day they decided to settle there. Something had gone horribly wrong with the land. Most would experience unspeakable hardship over the next several years and lose practically everything. Surely, "The Dust Bowl" would prove to be an environmental disaster of almost epic proportions.

Aside from Timothy Egan's insightful commentary "The Dust Bowl" also offers hundreds of truly unforgettable black and white photographs and vintage film footage that will leave you with an indelible image of the landscape in places like "No Man's Land" and Baca County, Colorado during the height of the "Dust Bowl" in the mid 1930's. These scenes will break your heart and make you wonder how these people were able to cope with such devastation and economic deprivation that lingered for nearly a decade. It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of a crisis where millions upon millions of tons of prime topsoil blow away in violent storms. In less than a generation what had been hundreds of millions of acres of prime grasslands had been destroyed, perhaps forever. Discover just who was to blame for this calamity and learn about FDR's ambitious plans to resuscitate the area.

With "The Dust Bowl" Ken Burns brings this debacle to the attention of a new generation of Americans. Aside from reacquainting all of us with the who, what, when and where of this unfortunate chapter in American history, Ken Burns reminds us of the important lessons that we should have gleaned from these events. The "Dust Bowl" was an environmental disaster of nearly biblical proportions. And it could very well happen again. Towards the end of the film Burns discusses some of highly questionable policies being pursued in the Great Plains even to this day. They seem incredibly foolhardy to me. It seems that we human beings have incredibly short memories. As is the case with just about every film that Ken Burns produces "The Dust Bowl" will captivate you from the opening scenes and hold your interest throughout. This is history at it's very best. Very highly recommended!

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About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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Wiki

The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, when a frenzied wheat boom on the southern Plains, followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s, nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Menacing black blizzards killed farmers’ crops and livestock, threatened the lives of their children, and forced thousands of desperate families to pick up and move somewhere else. Vivid interviews with more than two dozen survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage, bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance.

The Dust Bowl, a four-hour, two-episode documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our peril.

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