As Ken Burns explains in his remarkable 6 hour presentation "Prohibition" when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920 no one was quite sure how it all was going to play out. The road that led to the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 had been a long and arduous one. The American Temperance Society had been calling for such a law for nearly a century. Through an unlikely coalition that included both conservatives and progressives what was deemed the "Noble Experiment" would wreak havoc on the nation for a dozen years. "Prohibition" chronicles the history of the temperance movement, the forces that coalesced to make the national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol a reality, as well as the tragic and unanticipated consequences of it all. Furthermore, Burns devotes a considerable amount of time to the considerable role that women played in making it all come about. This is a riveting tale that managed to hold my attention from start to finish.
So what were some of those consequences that I referred to? For those engaged in the business of winemaking at the outset of Prohibition in 1920 precious few options were available. With the stroke of a pen their world had been turned upside down. Federal law allowed for the manufacture of "sacramental" wines but this market was clearly very limited. Some growers would be forced to sell their grapes for juice while others chose to plant other crops like apricots just to survive. The fact of the matter is that no one in wine country believed that prohibition was going to last as long as it did. As time wore on more and more families became desperate. Denied the ability to earn an honest living many vineyard owners turned to the only option the felt they had left--bootlegging--and sold off what wine they had on hand to hotels and speakeasies. The same would be true for distillers. Under the cover of night these previously law-abiding citizens shipped illicit vino and spirits to major cities such as San Francisco, New York and Chicago. With all of this of course came great risk. If they were nabbed by the federal authorities they were subject to stiff fines and possible arrest. In many cases federal Prohibition officers would descend on their property and empty their tanks into the local river or creek. Years of hard work literally went down the drain in just a few minutes. Some of the footage Burns offers is just heartbreaking to watch. Meanwhile, many local law enforcement officers, clearly sympathetic to the plight of their friends and neighbors, would attempt to thwart the feds. It was an unsettling and messy situation that made thieves and liars and criminals out of a whole host of people. In his film Ken Burns introduces us to small-time whiskey jobbers, well-heeled bootleggers and a whole host of gangsters who would would step in to fill the void and make millions doing it. And of course a major part of the story was the gang violence that would emerge across the nation, most especially in Chicago. Burns spends considerable time covering this aspect of the story and the footage is incredible. While the so-called "Drys" certainly ruled the day in the 1920's it was becoming abundantly clear by the dawn of the 1930's that their considerable influence was waning and that it was only a matter of time before Prohibition would come to an end. Ken Burns does a workmanlike job of covering this aspect of the story as well.
As is almost always the case in a Ken Burns production, the still photos, vintage footage and music presented in this film are quite extraordinary. No one does it quite like Ken Burns. I enjoyed it so much that I was even motivated to watch the bonus features. One of them captured jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and his band recording much of the music that you hear in "Prohibition". As I recall Marsalis composed quite a bit of this music especially for this film. Great stuff! Another bonus feature showed Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti and Patricia Clarkson recording some of the narration for the film. These features make you appreciate just how complex and time-consuming a task it is to put these films together. I found "Prohibition" to be a comprehensive, informative and highly entertaining film. There seems to be no aspect of this subject that Ken Burns failed to cover. There is an awful lot to learn and to enjoy here. In my view, "Prohibition" is history at it's best. Very hightly recommended!
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About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti (drifter51)
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
PROHIBITION, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, tells the story of the rise, rule and fall of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The film starts with the early history of alcohol in America and examines the 19th-century temperance and progressive movements through the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. This 6-hour, three part documentary also includes over 2 hours of bonus content.