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Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl

695 customer reviews

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(Nov 20, 2012)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, when a frenzied wheat boom on the southern Plains, followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s, nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Menacing black blizzards killed farmers’ crops and livestock, threatened the lives of their children, and forced thousands of desperate families to pick up and move somewhere else. Vivid interviews with more than two dozen survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage, bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance.

The Dust Bowl, a four-hour, two-episode documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our peril.

Ken Burns gets to the heart of the matter once again with The Dust Bowl. Using his established formula of photos, film footage, music, and interviews (including some very affecting recollections by those who lived through it), the documentarian details one of the grimmest periods in our history--"an epic of human pain and suffering" that, though relatively recent, is little known to most, other than by way of some Woody Guthrie songs and perhaps John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. When Oklahoma earned its statehood in 1907, it was a land of clear skies, fertile land, and enough rain to enable farmers to grow amber waves of grain that stretched for millions of acres. But with lying real estate agents crowing about the land's inexhaustible sustainability, the government urging more and more homesteaders to relocate there, and pretty much everyone ignoring the fact that the last decade of the 19th century had seen terrible droughts throughout the region of the Panhandle and beyond, the land was plowed far beyond its capacity for planting (the first of the documentary's two parts is entitled "The Big Plow Up"). And when the Depression arrived and the rain disappeared, the result was the worst human-made environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, a decade-long disaster of genuinely biblical proportions that featured famine, pestilence (having killed off the coyote population, farmers were visited by a frightful plague of jackrabbits), disease, wind… and dust. For most of all, this is a story about dust--the "black blizzards" that blocked out the sun, carried away the topsoil, killed off livestock, seeped into people's homes, and found its way into their lungs, with deadly results. The photos and footage of the enormous, mile-high dust storms that blew across the plains--including the one that arrived on April 14, 1935, a day forever known as "Black Sunday"--are humbling and scary. At the same time, one gains a new appreciation for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who marshaled government forces to help out, and especially the people themselves, some of whom headed west to California but many of whom stayed on to try to rebuild their lives. Kudos to Burns and his colleagues, including writer Dayton Duncan, for illuminating another quintessentially American story. --Sam Graham

Special Features

Grab a Root and Growl
A Land of Haze After the Dust Bowl
Behind the Scenes Uncovering The Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl - Eyewitnesses
The Dust Bowl - Legacy


Subtitles (SDH) in English
Descriptive Video for the Visually Impaired in English (DVI)
Subtitles (SDH) in Spanish
Spanish Audio Track

Product Details

  • Actors: Ken Burns
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS
  • DVD Release Date: November 20, 2012
  • Run Time: 240 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (695 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B007VYEF04
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,529 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

145 of 150 people found the following review helpful By BraveSooner on October 8, 2012
Format: DVD
I was fortunate enough to see a preview cut of The Dust Bowl last week in an event hosted by PBS and it's typical Ken Burns. Burns revolutionized the documentary format in 1990 with The Civil War. His style and technique changed the way stories are told now by historians and filmakers around the world through film. So it should come as no surprise that The Dust Bowl is yet another great work by the masterful director. The film documents the Dust Bowl through iconic pictures and film as Burns usually does, but it is told through the eyes of the survivors in a way that makes the experience even more powerful. I would describe the film as The Worst Hard Time comes ALIVE! If you enjoyed the book by Timothy Egan you will no doubt love this film. If you have not read the book by all means do yourself a favor and do so. Egan is a major contributor of course along with other historians as they are used to frame the events of the era, but it is the "survivors" that truly make the film special! I HIGHLY recommend this film to individuals that love history,to anyone who wants to learn more about the struggle of survival in one of the greatest man-made disasters in world history to anyone who just loves a great documentary.
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50 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Rich Stoehr on November 24, 2012
Format: Blu-ray
It starts with a few words: "Let me tell you how it was." In the space of four hours, Ken Burns tells you how it was on the great wide plains of America, in the 1930's, in the Dust Bowl.

Ken Burns' real talent is his focus on the average man and woman. Rather than focusing on the famous, the politicians and celebrities (though they do come into play at times), he introduces us to names from history that we never knew. So, in 'The Dust Bowl,' we get the story of the college-trained writer who set up a homestead in no-man's land, finding her husband there. We hear the story of the family with nine children, and the ambition to pass on a square mile of fertile land to each of them. We hear the stories of children born into a world of blowing dust and dirt, of some who survive, and some who didn't make it.

Make no mistake, this is a story of struggle and human endurance stretched to the limit, of hopes raised and then dashed again, year after year. It's a story of ecological disaster and deprivation. It's tough to watch and often heartbreaking.

We learn the origins of the phrase "dust bowl," and gain new appreciation for terms like "duster" and "black blizzard," used to describe the frequent waves of windswept dirt and dust the washed across the plains in the 1930's, sometimes blowing across the country before their fury is spent. We learn about what it means to be a "next-year people" and the mantra of the Dust Bowl farmer: "If it rains..."

And all of this comes to us in photographs, in old film clips, in interviews with men and women who were children of the Dust Bowl, from letters and diary excerpts read by talented voices, as though the people of that time were speaking to us from across the years.
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45 of 46 people found the following review helpful By john doe on December 21, 2012
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
my dad joseph franklin alcorn, was born in 1857 yes that's right, 1857. he had twin boys me and my brother paul alcorn at age of 75. so we were born in 1931. so those times were fresh in our minds. this video is as real as it gets. although we were only 6 years old when dad died at age 81 my age now . shortest 4 hour movie i ever watched. buy it.........
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98 of 108 people found the following review helpful By Steve Ramm TOP 100 REVIEWER on November 12, 2012
Format: Blu-ray
What John Ford attempted (and, in my opinion, succeeded) to do in the 1940 feature film "The Grapes of Wrath" - to put a human face on those farmers and their families who survived the challenges of the deadly dust storms, as well as the Great Depression in the "dust bowl quadrant" during the 1930s - Ken Burns has succeeded with his latest four-hour documentary that aired on PBS in November 2012 and was released by PBS Home Video on Blu-ray with some bonus features. If you've seen Burns' documentaries on the Civil War or World War Two, you will have an idea of what to expect. Actor Peter Coyote is back as narrator and Burns chose specific families whose members are still alive to tell their own stories. When Burns planned the film he took out ads in the four-state area which comprised the "dust bowl" seeking survivors. He received over 70 responses and - through a process of elimination, chose more than two dozen to interview at great length. These were individuals who were children when the first storms came in 1933 (and lasted nearly a decade). A few interviewees were siblings. All make fascinating interviewees and their stories are compelling.

The show aired on TV over two nights - two hours each - and the Bluray places each of the two hour episodes on a separate disc with related bonus material for each segment. In addition to about 20 minutes of "deleted interviews", there are a few "featurettes" hosted by Burns telling why, and how, he decided to cover this subject.

While I found the production fascinating, after a while it began to become repetitive. Yes, the storms returned again and again but often Burns covered them from the same angle.
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