The Dust Bowl (2012)

  • Year: 2012
  • Released: 18 Nov 2012
  • Country: United States
  • Adwords: Nominated for 2 Primetime Emmys. 2 wins & 5 nominations total
  • IMDb:
  • Rotten Tomatoes:
  • Metacritics:
  • Available in: 720p, 1080p,
  • Language: English
  • MPA Rating: TV-PG
  • Genre: Documentary, History
  • Runtime: 229 min
  • Writer: N/A
  • Director: N/A
  • Cast: Dorothy Williamson, Donald Worster, Timothy Egan
  • Keywords:

The Dust Bowl Storyline

A documentary about the 1930s drought of North American prairie farm land, and its consequences during the great depression.

The Dust Bowl Photos

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The Dust Bowl Movie Reviews

Bad politics caused it, good politics fixed it. Period.

All Americans have heard of the Dust Bowl and know it was a phenomenon associated with drought in the 1930s, and that Okies left for California, a la The Grapes of Wrath. We have also heard about the more recent droughts in the West. So the thought arises, could it happen again? But that’s about it. Most non-Americans don’t even know that.

With some of his documentaries on more distant subjects, Ken Burns relied on old photographs and narratives read by actors. But The Dust Bowl is the story told by the people who saw the massive dust storms, day after day, with their own eyes, breathing the dust, eating the dust, getting lost in the dust. They are often the very people in the pictures used. At at the end, we see a dedication listing the participants who had died before the documentary was released. Burns was just in time to save this bit of oral history.

What struck me initially was how objective, unemotional, and even dry was his approach, far less spirited than subjects like the Statue of Liberty, Baseball or Jazz. And the pace is leisurely, a lot of time spent looking at a lot of towering dust clouds and hearing account after account of being engulfed by dust and sand. Most film makers would have sped things up for the MTV generation, perhaps added booming sound effects and gimmicky zips and flashes to keep our attention. But this is Ken Burns, and he has the street cred to do things his way. And it was the right way. People actually lived through these dust and sand storms for years, so surely we can endure the accounts for a few hours to get a feel for it.

But this tells a larger story, of how the region was settled, telling another side of the Oklahoma land rush that I had never heard, and how government policies and World War I led to foolish overproduction of wheat on land better suited to grazing. Yes, foolish. The people involved say so, themselves, for the most part. This is not Ken Burns political propagandist, as some reviewers allege.

What struck me is how objective this account is, how balanced, presenting various sides, and grounded in fact, like good journalism. The film covers the New Deal policies of FDR to try to save the land and help those living in the Dust Bowl; it also provides insight into the origins of farm price support policies. Is this what causes some viewers to froth at the mouth? I kept waiting for the judgment, the observation that global warming could cause more dust bowls, in America, and around the world. But it never came. Perhaps he could anticipate the response. Frankly, he didn’t need to spell out the connection.

With better, scientific farming practices, the Dust Bowl land could be saved, more or less. You still need rainfall, unless you are willing to drain aquifers. But the story of the Dust Bowl also offers some promise that there may be intelligent ways to adjust to the effects of climate change on agriculture. Discussion of this is the part that I wish was included.

This is a vitally important story that needs to be remembered, with lessons for our and future generations. It is also a story of the human spirit, of people who endured hardship far longer than any of us should, or probably could, bear. I am glad they got a chance to share their story with us.

— Footnote:

A good supplementary program is The Civilian Conservation Corps episode of The American Experience, #22.1, for a larger context on the environmental and economic situation.

Ken Burns does it again.

Once again, Ken Burns has crafted an excellent, informative documentary. This one is about the Dust Bowl. Interviews, photographs, diary entries and footage are used to paint a picture of the time and place, a time when monstrous behemoths of dust could literally blot out the sun.

Most effective are the interviews. Men and women who were children when dust storms swept the plains tell stories of their experiences. Some of these are very emotional. For example, two brothers choke up at the memory of their sister who died of ‘dust pneumonia’ when still a young girl. The anguish in their voices is simply heartbreaking. Another man recalls how he became separated from his parents when a dust storm hit and for a while they had no idea if he was dead or alive. All of these stories give one a full appreciation of the devastation wreaked by the event and make it painfully personal and human.

“The Dust Bowl” is a powerful story of human suffering and human endurance. Watching it, I was moved by the plight of people who struggled on against hope in an effort to retain their dignity or survive. It was very educational. I highly recommend seeing it.

(Oh, and to the previous reviewer: Much of this documentary is told through the words of people who actually lived through the Dust Bowl. Quite a bit of the film simply allows these people to speak for themselves without any quick cutting, signs of manipulation, or propagandistic techniques. I saw no signs of any ‘agenda’ on the part of Burns here.)

not bad

This is a decent documentary and if you don’t know much about the dust bowl then it will give you a good overview. I was a bit disappointed to find that part 1 was very similar to a television documentary called: ‘The American Experience – Surviving the Dust Bowl’ and featured much of the same footage and photographs and talking heads. I guess this mini series is four times longer overall so it’s a better option if you want a more in depth look at this very sad time in recent north American history. I have to say that I find the music in the background is a bit distracting and often had to rewind bits that I didn’t catch because my mind had wandered with the music.