A Modern Allegory: ‘The Dust Bowl: A Film by Ken Burns’

Watching Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl may make you want to scratch at your collar or shake the dust out of your shoes. That’s a good thing. In his new documentary, aired on PBS on 18 and 19 November and released on DVD on 20 November, Burns makes the dust storms that swept across the North American midsection in the ’30s come to vivid life. There’s also an eerily familiar subtext that may make The Dust Bowl one of the most important films of the year.

The Dust Bowl is a two-part, four-hour look at the climatic cataclysm that spawned the sobriquet “Dirty Thirties”. This film is another spellbinding addition to Burns’ impressive oeuvre. Those familiar with Burns’ work will find nothing new here in terms of style, and that’s fine; Burns has established himself so firmly as a documentary auteur that Apple’s iMovie software calls its still-image scale-adjustment tool the “Ken Burns effect”. Since his 1981 debut, The Brooklyn Bridge, and continuing through his chronicles of such topics as Jazz, Baseball, The Civil War, The War (World War II) and Prohibition, Burns’ approach to each subject is epic in scope, exhaustively thorough, and fully engrossing.

The Dust Bowl’s effects were felt in 46 of the (then) 48 states, but the central thread of the film The Dust Bowl centers on the Oklahoma panhandle, agreed by experts as the crisis’s epicenter. As Burns did in his film Prohibition, wherein he tracked the provenance of the 1920s Volstead Act to temperance movements of the 1820s, Burns traces the ’30s Dust Bowl’s origin to 1890s land bonanzas and farming practices, followed by a bubble on grain prices in the ’20s that was burst after a surplus and a massive drought. In the film, historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg calls the resulting Dust Bowl “one of the worst sustained environmental disasters in American history.”

True to Burns’ form, The Dust Bowl incorporates interactive and expository documentary techniques. Actor Peter Coyote narrates, historians Riney-Kehrberg and Harold Worster along with writer Timothy Egan contextualize, while a remarkable roster of eyewitnesses — including the colorfully named “Boots” McCoy — give their first-hand accounts of living through the Dirty Thirties. The eyewitness testimonies are immediate and visceral; some interviewees even break down in the midst of their recollections. In describing the dust storms, Dust Bowl survivor Floyd Coen simply says, “You never got used to ‘em. You hated ‘em.”

Burns and writer Dayton Duncan also employ newspaper accounts, personal correspondence and a warehouse of archival stills and film footage to tell the story. The still images are drawn from the work of renowned ’30s documentary photographers such as Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange (Rothstein’s and Lange’s photos are even used in the artwork on the DVD case and disc faces), and the movies are drawn from archives and personal collections. The gritty, grainy quality of the amateur 8mm films of the day make the era’s inescapable dust all the more palpable.

The film lacks a monumentally iconic soundtrack as compared to Burns’ The Civil War, for example, which is now inextricably linked with Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” and vice versa, but Burns does use a number of Woody Guthrie songs in The Dust Bowl to enhance the narration and to lend a deeper sense of time and place. We also get a glimpse of Burns’ wry humor when he uses an instrumental setting of the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” during sequences about the wheat boom of the ’20s.

About halfway through Part 2, Burns begins describing the mass migration from Oklahoma to California. Financially and emotionally broken by the relentless dust storms, families from Oklahoma and elsewhere were drawn to California by a vision — accurate or not — of bountiful lands and plentiful jobs. Much like in Part 1, with its descriptions of dust storms that stretched across the US to Washington D.C. and New York, Burns’ coverage of the Oklahoman diaspora illustrates the far-reaching effects of the Dust Bowl. Burns follows the “Okies” (as they were both affectionately and disparagingly called) on their exodus to California, and he details the hardships they faced there, including work shortages, low wages, dire poverty and widespread discrimination.

These social ills are an irrefutable part of the larger story of America in the ‘30s, but Burns delves deeply into the California repercussions, exploring the effects of migrants on local economies and on public policy; Burns even profiles California-based journalists who reported on the plight of the Okies, including details on the beginnings of John Steinbeck’s career. Although interesting, The Dust Bowl’s weakness comes at this point; the film seems to lose its thread. It takes one of Burns’ chapter transitions for The Dust Bowl to regain its principal narrative.

Each DVD contains three extra features. The first two extras on each disc are additional stories and interviews that simply didn’t fit in the final cut; the third extra provides making-of insights with interviews of Burns and writer/producer Duncan.

And as for why The Dust Bowl is such an important film, consider its historic backdrop: an economic bubble, a financial crisis, a drought, a natural disaster, and the effects of human activity on climate. In one of the DVD extras about the making of the documentary, Burns refers to The Dust Bowl as “a parable for today.” Through his in-depth examination of history, Burns not only makes the past come to life, he gives us a tool for considering our contemporary challenges.

RATING 9 / 10