Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl (2012) is a sobering reminder of man’s blind-sidedness, his boundless ambition to dominate the landscape and his own incredulity when Mother Nature fights back. Burns, whose own ambitions as a documentarian film maker – part impassioned historian and storyteller/part showman tinged with more than modicum of insight into the human condition, herein has amassed a bounty as rich as the waving wheat and as devastatingly profound as the cataclysmic windstorms that all but decimated America’s breadbasket during the ‘dirty thirties’. Twenty-six survivor accounts augment a handsome assemblage of newsreels, photographic footage and private diaries that intricately chronicle the progression of one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in human history.
If it were only for Burns’ meticulous attention to detail, his ability to consolidate and present an overwhelming amount of archival materials in a clear and concise manner, then The Dust Bowl would already have a lot going for it. That he has managed to extol a more meaningful migration of thoughts and ideas, ideals and impressions that collectively humanize this ten year ordeal of near Biblical proportions into an intimate tale of survival and perseverance is both rewarding and nourishing to the mind and the soul. I don’t mind telling the reader that I shed more than a few tears throughout this sumptuous, yet stark, snapshot into America’s past; feeling both the immensity of the disaster and the heartiness of its people in my bones.
Such is the genius and the prowess of Burns’ storytelling. Viewing The Dust Bowl is like making pilgrimage deep into that nearly forgotten timeline for which the traditional Hollywood narrative of its vintage provides no commentary, except in the occasional snippet excised from faded newsreels. But Burns’ documentary elevates the triumphs as well as the tribulations far beyond mere trifles mired in rank sentimentality. The Dust Bowl is an emotional experience, but never deliberately so in its manipulation of our emotions. Clearly this tale, like so many others told by Burns’ for PBS in the past, has come from a place very close to the film maker’s own heart; the touchstone of his formidable talents and efforts being that we genuinely suffer The Dust Bowl, not as mere memory, but as a living testament to those valiant many who defied the near certainty of their fates.
The program is divided into two, two-hour episodes; each compartmentalized under various headers that effectively take the viewer from the incubation of this man-made calamity to its unrelenting impossible ten years of imminent peril, and finally, to the resurrection of the great plains – still one of the natural wonders of the American landscape in constant threat of reverting back to those terrible days of wind and dust. Actor Peter Coyote narrates; a superb evocation, with a distinct bearing for the careworn yet proud spirit of the American farmer, extolling his sense of blind faith and even more unseeing determination to defy the land and then, remain a fixture on its windswept barren landscape that seemingly has turned against him.
Like all great stories, The Dust Bowl finds its heroes and moments of heroism in the most unlikely and heartfelt places; perhaps most uncharacteristically in the storyteller himself. In an age where fast paced choppy edits have become the norm for cinematic storytelling, Burns relies on time-honored, evenly paced and often methodically designed ‘moving tableau’ – heavily relying on a musical leitmotif to augment his visual craftsmanship. His defiance of our more modern conventions is a breath of fresh air. Moreover, it remains truer to the timeline of the stories he is trying to tell. As such, the viewer is miraculously teleported to that simpler place, without being indoctrinated by a historical ‘lesson’.
The documentary is most effective at bottling the experience; like a rich and deeply satisfying elixir that Burns’ allows us to sip, sniff and taste. Spanning roughly 1930-39, but more specifically 1934-36, our story begins as the natural wonderment of the prairies suddenly defies its human masters. The skies refused their rain clouds and the land, unanchored by its once natural bounty of moisture barriers like wild grass and trees, becomes a lunar-like landscape where nothing will grow, despite the very best efforts of its farmers. Burns’ narrative squarely places its blame on the modern mechanization of the American farmer, his reliance on the tractor and harvest combine allowing for the strip-mining of these natural inhibitors. Burns, a staunch Democrat and Obama supporter, also manages to champion the cause of government intervention into these private and very proud lives. It’s a subtle dig, but one that suggests the people are better off when overseen and managed by a benevolent Presidential figure under government instituted work programs like the WPA.
Of course, the 1930s had Franklin Roosevelt, one of the greatest of all American presidents to rely on – an unrepentantly forceful man who cleverly masked his crippling condition of polio and outwardly represented the sort of ‘get up and go’ that so completely typified America at this particular time, especially as the country was to become challenged and pressured from all sides in the international socio-political consciousness in fast approaching war years. Roosevelt’s charisma as a great orator endures herein, and is portrayed as something of a harbinger of hope, if not immediate change, made to order for harsh times and even harsher lessons learned.
The Dust Bowl also charts the mass migration of the ‘Oakie’; men and women who, dirty and defeated, left behind everything they knew for the great California migration where they frequently found less than the land of milk and honey awaiting them as promised. The various oppression endured by these already oppressed multitudes provide for an affecting final chapter to Burns story; being put into backbreaking service in the orchards as scab labor, relegated with their families to shanty towns and work camps where living conditions were anything but sanitary, and enduring condescension from their landlords and overseers, who despised their presence while having absolutely no compunction about exploiting their proud work ethic for decidedly inferior wages.
In this final act, The Dust Bowl almost suggests a narrative of deliberate ‘extermination’ – a parallel, not only for the internal racism toward blacks and Hispanics that blanketed the American perspective at this time, but also with water-color shades foreshadowing the Nazi persecution that would engulf Europe in the decade yet to come. The Dust Bowl concludes with a foreboding epitaph – illustrating how lessons learned during the 1930's have infrequently been ignored in the intervening decades, leading to similar – if lesser realized - ecological uncertainties for the breadbasket of America.
At four hours The Dust Bowl is one of Ken Burns’ shorter masterworks (his ‘The Civil War ran 11 hrs.), though I would argue no less affecting and at least as equally compelling. At once it will break and warm the heart with its poignant storytelling, imbuing a new-found respect for that greatest of all generations, whose resilience we so often have chosen to ignore in all our contemporary complacency. The humility of these survivors elevates The Dust Bowl to humbling, kindly gratitude for a remarkable generation that time itself has been powerless to set aside. Indeed, The Dust Bowl made me so very glad to be alive.
PBS Home Video has given us The Dust Bowl in 1080i not 1080p on Blu-ray which is a sticking point with this reviewer. But the documentary is, for the most part, well served by this transfer. The B&W stills yield a remarkable amount of clarity and fine detail, capturing the grain structure of the image. For obvious reasons, the archival newsreel footage fares less well with a barrage of modeling, streaks, scratches, and other age related damage prevalent throughout. The occasional color inserts into this otherwise monochromatic presentation are problematic. I’m not entirely sure why this is so, but there’s some video noise in the source material that reveals itself in flat colors. Skies, for example, have an odd digitized grainy look to them while blades of grass infrequently suffer from color bleeding. Judging by these results I will assume that this new footage was shot on video rather than film. The effects are not as jarring as all that, but they are present and quite obvious to the naked eye.
The DTS audio is 5.1. Obviously, you’re not watching The Dust Bowl for its gripping sound effects or phenomenally realistic stereo channeling. But I was startled by the subtle nuances; sounds of crickets or chirping birds in the side and rear channels that made my ears perk up. Extras include some fascinating deleted scenes and additional survivor comments not included in the finished film. Bottom line: highly recommended. The Dust Bowl isn’t simply for the history lover in your family. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)