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Inecom presents
Johnstown Flood (2003)

"The newspaper even editorialized at one point that the dam undoubtedly would break, but it would probably throw no more than two feet of water into the streets of Johnstown, because the dam was located so far from Johnstown and the water would spread out over all those miles. Well, it didn't spread out. It formed a giant head, a giant wall, and when it came into Johnstown it was nearly 40 feet high."
- Richard Burkert, in the commentary

Review By: Joy Howe and Mark Zimmer  
Published: August 24, 2003

Stars: Richard Dreyfuss
Other Stars: Patrick Jordan, Charles King, Jennifer Lee Dake
Director: Mark Bussler

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (terrifying natural disasters)
Run Time: 01h:04m:13s
Release Date: August 26, 2003
UPC: 806213155922
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ AA-A B+

DVD Review

When the opening moments of this documentary roll, you know that you are in for a roller coaster ride thru a watery hell. It is to the credit of the director and writer, Mark Bussler, that the ride stays on the fairly tolerable side of horrific for so much of the narrative, until right around the fire at the bridge, when the human tragedy finally becomes inescapable for the original victims and for the viewer as well.

This is an excellent documentary recreation and commentary on the events of the Johnstown flood of 1889, in which a leaky earthen dam 20 miles above the city of Johnstown failed. The resulting 37-foot-high wall of water killed more than 2000 inhabitants in four river towns in the Conemaugh Valley of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Bussler uses reenacted vignettes from memoirs, distinguishing his technique from the narration-over-still-photos method made standard in Ken Burns' oeuvre. These vignettes are used to good effect to cover the idyllic and bustling daily life of Johnstown just before the flood, as seen through the eyes of named individuals, some of whom survived, and many of whom did not. The vignettes are also effective in descriptions by survivors and their thoughts about what could have been done to prevent loss of life. A few of the presentations are, however, a bit on the amateurish side and, at times, painfully, poorly acted.

Still photos, contemporary engravings, stock flood footage, modeling, and some technical drawings are skillfully edited together to provide a minute-by-minute account of the racing torrent, the unsuspecting folks down river, and the tremendous destruction wrought on the entire area. In what seems like terror played out in real time, we are witness to various groups of survivors who clamber into the attics of their homes, survive seemingly endless minutes of floating, crashing debris-laden terror, only to meet a final tragedy at the railroad bridge at the south end of town. That bridge managed not to be washed away, but as a result, served to initiate a final vortex of fire and mayhem.

The mood is still somber when the survivors take stock of the areas laid waste all around them, but they manage to pull together and start the work of clearing the vast wreckage, with the hugely generous help of the largest charitable giving ever seen in the nation up to that time. Bussler makes only passing mention of possible class warfare in that the lake had been owned by a group of wealthy industrialists. This aspect is downplayed and the actual immediate cause of the dam's failure is blamed on a combination of short-term and long-term engineering decisions around general usage of the reservoir and specifics such as removal of overflow pipage.

Bussler manages to convey the banality and inevitability of a series of events and attitudes that combined to bring nearly unspeakable suffering and destruction to over 2000 lives nearing the turn of the 20th century. He also pays homage to the strength of the human soul, that can look on such horror, and yet merely turn to and start repairing it. Every minute of the relatively short running time is put to good use. The ending credits are interspersed with statistical factoids about flood victims, etc. This is an interesting use of credit time and another way to help the viewer ease out of the emotional maelstrom of this event.

This is an excellent look at ordinary Americans, unwillingly converted to sad and stunned participants in one of the most uncommon events the human spirit has ever faced. The use of black-and-white film and an exciting contemporary score, combined with period music, as well as moving classics such as Mozart's beautiful Ave Corpus Verum and Saint-Saens' The Swan, adds to the drama and pathos of the unfolding story.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The still photographs and black-and-white photography are well-rendered with only nominal video noise and distortion visible. Even pans over old engravings and woodcuts, difficult to render in video at best, are very stable and only rarely demonstrate significant aliasing or artifacting. The picture demonstrates a very wide greyscale with deep rich blacks and excellent shadow detail and texture. The color segment at the end that features the Conemaugh Valley today is a bit soft and lacking in detail, though the color is good.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: When you see a disaster movie in your home theater, you expect to get a serious workout for the subwoofer and surround speakers. You don't, however, always expect that with a documentary. This disc presents the flood with subhumanly deep rumbles and a tremendous amount of surround activity. Narrator Richard Dreyfuss' voice is located in the center speaker, but the frequent music and effects are heard throughout the decoded surround track, with excellent clarity and presence. This is as good a Dolby Surround track as I've ever heard. At reference levels, you will believe that your house is being swept away by the flood.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Richard Burkert of the Johnstown Flood Museum
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:49m:05s

Extra Extras:
  1. 1889 vintage sheet music performance
Extras Review: There is an extra "mini-documentary" interview with Richard Burkert, the director of the Johnstown Flood Museum, who helps put the current town into perspective. He is of a cheerful demeanor about the events and clearly has a historian's "big picture" objectivity. Burkert is able to admit that there was a fairly intense vigilanteism problem for a brief time after the flood, when the locals battled corpse robbers, but that was curtailed within weeks. He provides some interesting background to the work done by Clara Barton, especially in her concentration on overseeing boosterism and morale building for the rich entrepreneurs rather than concentrating on the homeless working poor. He also makes a point contradicting the primary documentary, stating that the majority of people living in the "flats" in Johnstown were middle class and members of the managerial class in the Cambria Iron Co. Burkert claims that the working men lived in shacks up in the hills, contrary to Bussler's statement that many of the houses swept away were workers' small company houses that had been built flimsily of wood. This doesn't really detract, but points out that not everything known about these events is certain.

Burkert also does a full-length commentary track for the principal documentary. You get your money's worth in sheer volume of information by the time you have listened to this as well. One of the great strengths of this documentary is that it presents questions for which there are not simply clichéd, politically correct "answers." History is often best served in this manner. And those questions, like looking through any binoculars, take on a different aspect depending on the scope of the area in focus. Does it really matter that no successful lawsuit was ever brought against the owners of the reservoir? That is certainly an interesting question, regardless of one's politics.

Patricia Prattis Jennings performs a descriptive piece of sheet music from 1889 by Albert Rivieri depicting the flood and its aftermath in typical Victorian manner. Running 6m:53s, the piece gives a rather genteel portrayal of this devastating occurrence. The audio is available in both PCM stereo and in DD 5.1.

Rounding out the package are promos for Shot to Pieces, a Civil War documentary by Bussler, and a look at the war through Confederate eyes, Civil War Minutes.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A dramatic and well-done reenactment of one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history, with copious extras and a striking transfer. Highly recommended.


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