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Blu-ray Review: The Dust Bowl

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Ken Burns twenty-second film as director in his ongoing documentation of the United States of America’s history was The Dust Bowl, a two-part miniseries that first aired on PBS in November 2012. According to its press release, the program “chronicles the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that for many seemed to herald the end of the world. It was the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history.”

Narrated by Peter Coyote, the series opens showing how Americans were encouraged to move out to the lush Plains of the Midwest after the buffalo were killed off and the Indians were driven away. For many, it was the first time they had ever owned property, and the demand allowed a number of con men to take advantage of folks. The interview subjects are the children and grandchildren of settlers and their voices bring to life the history Burns documents.

Government officials declared the soil to be the one resource that could not be exhausted. Wheat became the main crop for many farmers, as the market became very lucrative as a result of the wheat from Russia getting cut off due to WWI being waged in Europe. Years later, the Great Depression hit and the wheat market lost almost a third of its value. Rather than change crops, the farmers responded by growing more wheat, thinking they could make up the difference.

The sustained overuse of the land caused dramatic problems. Windstorms picked up much of the loose soil. Animals left out would drown as their lungs filled with dirt, and people began to die from dust pneumonia. The winds were so massive storms brought Kansas dirt to the skies over Chicago, Washington DC, and boats 300 miles off the eastern coast. Then the federal goverment and President Roosevelt got involved.  Burns finds some amazing photos of the sand storms and dirt blizzards that have to be seen to be believed.

The story of The Dust Bowl is fascinating because it reveals how people’s ignorance and greed caused them to experience great calamity and loss, yet the human spirit endured. Though an American story, it’s applicable to the whole race.

The Blu-ray video has been given a 1080i/MPEG-4 AVC displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The modern-day interview sessions deliver sharp, colorful images as is expected. The archival material, some of which is a century old, is comprised of black and white film and photos in varying degrees of clarity, wear, and accuracy of color. The audio comes is available in Dolby Digital 5.1. The track is mainly dialogue coming through the front speakers. The score can be heard softly in the surrounds as can ambient wind effects.

Each disc contains Special Features. On Disc One, “Land of Haze” (15 min HD) expands on the story shown in “The Great Plow Up” about Hazel Lucas Shaw, whose daughter and grandmother died on the same day. “Dust Bowl Stories” (31 min, SD) presents more stories from the interview subjects. “Uncovering the Dust Bowl” (6 min, HD) is a promotional piece that features Burns and author Daylor Duncan, whose Miles From Nowhere served as a catalyst in the project. On Disc Two, “Grab a Root and Growl” (12 min, HD) is an expanded scene from “Reaping the Whirlwind” that shows the work that went into dealing with the drought. “The Dust Bowl Eyewitnesses” (7 min, HD) shows how Burns and his team went about finding interview subjects who lived through those times. “The Dust Bowl Legacy” (5 min, HD) offers a word of warning about potential disasters.

There will be an encore broadcast of The Dust Bowl on April 23 and 30, 2013 8:00–10:00 p.m. ET on PBS. Check local lisitings.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS