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Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl Blu-ray Review



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#1 of 8 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted November 18 2012 - 07:19 AM

Anyone who read John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" in high school or has seen the John Ford film based upon Steinbeck's novel has heard about the Dust Bowl, the decade-long drought which plagued the high plains of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Colorado during the Great Depression. However, I doubt that there are many people who have a clear understanding of how bad conditions in the Dust Bowl really were. Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl, which is now available on Blu-ray from PBS, is a riveting documentary which is both an astonishing history of the ordeals which afflicted the people of the high plains and a cautionary tale about what can happen when humans alter the natural order of things.





Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl

Studio: PBS
Year: 2012
Rated: Not Rated
Program Length: 225 minutes                 Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080i
Languages: English 5.1 Surround, Spanish 2.0, Described Video
Subtitles: English, Spanish

The Program

This was a ten-year apocalypse...the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in American history. - Ken Burns

Anyone who read John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" in high school or has seen the John Ford film based upon Steinbeck's novel has heard about the Dust Bowl, the decade-long drought which plagued the high plains of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Colorado during the Great Depression. However, I doubt that there are many people who have a clear understanding of how bad conditions in the Dust Bowl really were. Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl, which is now available on Blu-ray from PBS, is a riveting documentary which is both an astonishing history of the ordeals which afflicted the people of the high plains and a cautionary tale about what can happen when humans alter the natural order of things.

Prior to the early 20th century, the windswept high plains of western Oklahoma, northwestern Texas, southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado were regarded by most people to be uninhabitable. There was little rain and few trees, with vast expanses of mostly flat land. At one time the plains were the domain of buffalo and American Indians, but by the end of the 19th century the buffalo were mostly gone and the Indians had been forced onto reservations. Thousands of homesteaders participated in land rushes and laid claim to large parcels which they turned into farms. For a time they prospered, particularly during World War I when wheat prices were high and rainfall was adequate.

Unfortunately, the wheat boom which lasted into the late 20s led to over farming which stripped the region of its natural defenses against drought. Prior to the arrival of the homesteaders the land was covered in buffalo grass, a deep-rooted grass which fed the buffalo and also retained moisture in the ground. However, the buffalo grass was torn from the ground as farmers plowed up more and more acreage to plant wheat. As the nation slipped into what would become the Great Depression, wheat prices began to fall. Farmers responded by plowing up more land and planting more wheat in an effort to offset the plunging prices. The increased production only served to depress prices further. Then the drought began.

As noted, the high plains are very windy, but the ground which was covered with buffalo grass was mostly impervious to the winds. By 1930, though, much of the buffalo grass was gone and the lack of rain caused wheat production to fall. When the winds kicked up there was nothing to keep the soil in place. The result was unthinkably huge and devastating dust storms - mountain-sized swaths of dirt which turned daylight into darkness and engulfed both farms and entire towns. Cattle literally suffocated from inhaling so much dust, farms were devastated, and adults and children alike became ill and sometimes died from what was called "dust pneumonia." The people who lived in the Dust Bowl tried to hang on, each year believing that certainly the rains would come next year, but next year invariably was ever worse. Repeated crop failures led to foreclosures of farms and equipment. Some of the storms were so large that Oklahoma dust eventually made its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Ken Burns successfully located many living people who grew up during the Dust Bowl and who provide vivid memories of the hardships they endured. Some eventually gave up and moved west to California, where they were not welcome and were met with hostility. Others managed to hang on (largely thanks to Federal relief efforts) in spite of the fact that many families were losing both adults and children to the dreaded dust pneumonia. The film also chronicles the efforts of the Federal government to develop strategies to get farmers to implement better plowing techniques. For example, farmers were encouraged to terrace their farms to keep the limited rainfall from running off. Amazing still photographs and vintage film clips help to bring alive the horrific reality of the dust storms.

The Dust Storm also is a cautionary tale. Since the early 50s farmers in the high plains have used irrigation from the High Plains aquifer to water their crops. However, in the past fifty years half of the water in the aquifer has been depleted. What will happen when the aquifer runs dry? Is it possible that the 21st century will see yet another Dust Bowl?

As usual, Burns has brought in some well-known actors to read from letters written by some of the people who lived through the Dust Bowl. Here the viewer will hear the voices of Carolyn McCormick, Amy Madigan, Kevin Conway, and Patricia Clarkson (Keith Carradine provides a voice in one of the supplements). The narration is done by Peter Coyote, who previously narrated Prohibition for Ken Burns and who has narrated several episodes of American Experience on PBS.

The Video

The 1.85:1 1080i presentation is excellent. The many black & white still photographs seem to jump off the screen and are interspersed with color shots of the present-day high plains. The scenes of the interviewees are very sharp and highly detailed. The interviewees are now senior citizens, and the lines in their faces pay testament to the hardships which they had to endure when they were children. The vintage film clips are a bit ragged, but that is no fault of the transfer. Overall this is a very impressive video presentation.

The Audio

The audio apparently is Dolby Digital 5.1, although on both the packaging and the onscreen menu it is listed simply as 5.1 surround. The narration and the readings by the actors are crystal-clear and entirely understandable. Sounds effects of roaring wind give the surround channels something to do and they do a limited but generally adequate job of giving the viewer a sense of what it must have like to live through such savage storms. There is plenty of vintage music here, much of it from original recordings by Woody Guthrie. Some viewers may recognize a banjo performance of "Clawhammer Medley" by Steve Martin.

The Supplements

The extras on this Blu-ray set consist largely of footage which was cut from the final film. Three supplements are on Disc One and three are on Disc Two.

"A Land of Haze" is a 15-minute featurette with extended footage about Hazel Lucas Shaw, an Oklahoma woman whose daughter died at the age of one from dust pneumonia and whose grandmother died the same day. Her son Charles is one of the interview subjects during the film.

"Dust Bowl Stories" contains excerpts from interviews of people who lived through the Dust Bowl. It has a running time of 30 minutes.

"Uncovering the Dust Bowl" is a six-minute featurette which basically is a promotional short for the film.

"Grab a Root and Growl" tells the story of John L. McCarty, the publisher and editor of the Dalhart Texan newspaper. McCarty always tried to put the most positive spin on events. He encouraged the residents of Dalhart to resist the urge to move away and he brought in rainmakers in an failed effort to bring an end to the drought. In spite of his professed optimism he finally left Dalhart in 1937 when he was offered a job in Amarillo. This featurette has a running time of 12 minutes and features the voice of Keith Carradine.

In "The Dust Bowl Eyewitnesses" Ken Burns and his crew discuss how they found people who lived through the Dust Bowl and who agreed to be interviewed for the film. It runs for 6 minutes.

"The Dust Bowl Legacy" has Ken Burns and his crew discussing the human and natural forces which combined to create the Dust Bowl. This supplement has a running time of 5 minutes.

The Packaging

The two discs are packaged in a standard dual-hub Blu-ray keep case. There are no inserts.

The Final Analysis

Fans of Ken Burns know what to expect from him, and The Dust Bowl does not disappoint. Most people have probably heard of the drought which occurred during the 1930s, but I suspect that very few know the entire terrifying and devastating story. The images and stories presented here will not soon be forgotten.

Equipment used for this review:

Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable

Release Date: November 20, 2012




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#2 of 8 OFFLINE   PaulDA

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Posted November 18 2012 - 08:55 AM

Already ordered this one. A very good companion to this would be Timothy Egan's book, The Worst Hard Time. Take together, they would make an effective overview of the worst human-induced environmental disaster in history.
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#3 of 8 OFFLINE   TonyD

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Posted November 18 2012 - 01:12 PM

Watching part one on PBS right now. Very interesting, can't say we were taught anything about this in grade school in the 70's
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#4 of 8 OFFLINE   gmpopcorn

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Posted November 20 2012 - 06:52 AM

Recently watched this on PBS. Amazing story of what life what like and what people went through to try to survive during the Dust Bowl. Very powerful series.

#5 of 8 OFFLINE   TonyD

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Posted November 20 2012 - 07:18 AM

Greg welcome to HTF. Recently, well it was on the last two nights so I guess that is recent. :P
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#6 of 8 OFFLINE   TonyD

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Posted November 21 2012 - 03:44 PM

i noticed while watching on PBS a ton of combing on the old clips. Guess no one else saw it on tv besides me and Greg. I wonder if that was due to it being 1080i not 1080p
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#7 of 8 OFFLINE   Richard--W

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Posted November 22 2012 - 05:25 PM

Thank you for this excellent review. I first learned about the Dust Bowl in the 1970s from listening to music by Woody Guthrie. Actually, I listened to Bob Dylan's early protest records from the 1960s which referenced Woody Guthrie which led me to listening to Woody Guthrie which in turn led me to the Carter Family and other, similar music. All of it recorded before my time, but music from that period stays with you your entire life. Then I read Woody Guthrie's two autobiographies, Bound For Glory and Seeds of Man which take place in the Dust Bowl. I also read The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and watched the John Ford film whenever it came on TV. At least one academic history of the Dust Bowl had been published by then. In 1976 Hal Ashby adapted Bound For Glory into a remarkable film. Everyone should see that. It needs a 2K scan and a blu-ray, too. I second the recommendation for Timothy Egan's book, The Worst Hard Time. Today there are a dozen good books about the Dust Bowl, including the tie-in history by Ken Burns: http://www.amazon.co...words=dust bowl Anyhow, I've bought the blu-ray and will be watching it soon. PBS has been uncommonly fair in the pricing.

#8 of 8 OFFLINE   Jason_V

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Posted November 23 2012 - 03:14 AM

We watched a special on the Dust Bowl's impact on the Pacific Northwest last night as a prelude to getting into the movie proper.  There's a good chance we'll start watching this weekend.







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