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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > History > The Johnstown Flood (Documentary)

Johnstown Flood (Documentary)


Picture: B     Sound: B-     Extras: A     Film: A



Mark Bussler's Johnstown Flood is an excellent documentary about one of the worst tragedies to occur in America during the 1800s.  The film first aired on PBS, but is now available on a well-done DVD that's a must have for history buffs.


Bussler's documentary not only details the horrific flood that wiped out Johnstown, PA on May 31, 1889, but also gives us a well-researched history of a town that boomed in the 1800s due to America's growing steel industry.  About 80 miles east of Pittsburgh, Johnstown sits deep in a Cambria County valley with a river flowing through it, which has always made it prone to flooding.  By 1889, some 30,000 residents called Johnstown home.  A dam was built years earlier several miles upstream, but the dam hadn't been properly maintained, which resulted in it becoming an increasingly deep lake.  In fact, robber barons of the time such as Andrew Carnegie built cottages near the man-made lake and used it as a private resort in the years before 1889.


Nicely narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, the film details thru black-and-white drawings, still photos and the accounts of survivors what happened in Johnstown before, during and after the great flood.  The dam had been a source of worry for Johnstown residents for a couple decades, but there had been so many false alarms about the dam breaking that many people in Johnstown and nearby towns had become complacent by May 31, 1889, and ignored the warnings on that fateful afternoon.  An unusually rainy spring and a heavy series of storms the night before led to the dam finally breaking on the afternoon of May 31, causing a wall of water nearly 40 feet high to sweep down the valley crushing everything in its path.  As told by Bussler, the film is absolutely captivating in its description of the tragedy that befell Johnstown and its people shortly thereafter.  Some 2,209 people were confirmed killed, countless bodies were never recovered, and some of the dead were littered downstream as far as Pittsburgh and even Cincinnati.  This dwarfs the death toll of the recent flooding in New Orleans by comparison.


The DVD presentation of Bussler's 64-minute documentary is first rate, including a decent anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1 transfer from digital non-HD video is very good and everything is easy to hear with the Dolby Digital sound, which is miscredited as 5.1 in some text at large on the disc.  Instead, the documentary is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with some surrounds.  As if the film itself isn't informative enough, the special features include a full-length audio commentary by Richard Burkert, the Executive Director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (in simple Dolby 2.0 Stereo), as well as a 20-minute mini-documentary with Burkert showing us around the museum in Johnstown dedicated to the flood.



-   Chuck O'Leary


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