Cast & Crew info:
Narrated by Richard Dreyfuss
Produced by Mark
Bussler and Michael Bussler; Directed and written by
Mark Bussler; based on accounts of survivors from the
1889 Johnstown flood
Not Rated; Running Time - 64 Minutes
Domestic Release Date:
August 26, 2003 (DVD)
by DAVID KEYES
a DVD copy of the recently-released "Johnstown Flood"
found its way onto my doorstep in early August, I never
even knew of such a Pennsylvania-based disaster, much less
expected to see a documentary based on one. And yet there
it was, an hour-long historical look at an event that might
have seemed fabricated had no one been specifically told
otherwise. If there is indeed a much greater purpose to
the documentary world than just elaborating on major issues
for those seeking thorough perspective, then here is a product
that tests out some of that wisdomin the end, no matter
how much you think you know about your own culture, chances
are there's always something that has been overlooked.
Flood," which comes to the DVD market courtesy of the
Inecom Entertainment Company, is the kind of work that you
lean forward while watching; the events, at one point unfamiliar,
come trampling off the screen almost as if they happened
mere moments before. There's also no time to react to specific
situations, causes or motives behind the decisions that
led to the core tragedy, either. This is a 64-minute documentary
clogged with a constant rush of facts, and by default it
instantly earns points for taking the effort to explore
an event so apparently vague to public knowledge.
year is 1889, a time when the industrial age was booming
and technology meant nothing more than phonographs and light
bulbs. We're taken to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a city hugging
the edge of a river that is steeped in this sort of industry
(so much so, the movie tells us, that people from across
the country came to live and work there). The populous town
seemed like the kind you would see advertised on the front
of vacation brochuresrich and posporous without a
hint of flawbut little did its residents know of the
impending danger that lay just uphill from their peaceful
May 31, during a fierce rainstorm, the dam in the hills
above, holding back a massive lake, burst and sent a monstrous
wave of water into the valley below, trampling four other
towns before it blasted right into the streets of Johnstown.
Waves destroyed every building in their path. Thousands
of people drowned. Hundreds more vanished. Fires broke out.
And to top it all off, the rush of waves didn't have much
opportunity to pass beyond, either-just a little farther
down river, debris piled under a bridge in such a way that
it completely broke off the flow, forcing the waters to
retreat back into low-lying valley that Johnstown sat in.
It was catastrophic, it was a nightmare. And yet no one
ever hears about it when the discussion of major national
disasters comes up. Why? Perhaps the fact that it was a
man-made tragedy has something to do with it; according
to the documentary, corners were deliberately cut by those
who maintained the structure in order to minimize its appearance
as a water barrier. The fact that necessary drainage pipes
were removed just a few years before should have been all
the evidence one needed in figuring out that some kind of
disaster was inevitable.
production notes, which were tagged with the DVD upon its
delivery, exemplify the documentary's purpose clearlydirector
Mark Bussler and his superiors at Inecom felt that any and
all stories told about the Johnstown Flood, at least up
until this point, were "sanitized or lacked the emotional
impact of what happened on that horrific day." Bussler's
remedy? To tell the story through the perspectives of those
who survived, of course. Via undoubtedly extensive research,
old letters and accounts from the people who were in Johnstown
on that fateful day service as this documentary's primary
source of information. Sometimes, we can almost sense the
urgency in the way certain passages are written; they describe
the swiftness of the water, the intensity of the fires and
the significance of the body count like the witnesses saw
the end of the world but lived to tell about it. No one
living, of course, truly knows what it felt like to see
all that devastation play out, but the delivery of the letters
is manageable enough to guess. A closing shot in which we
see the tombstones of all those who lost their lives that
day only anchors that sentiment.
to the spirit of its material, however, "Johnstown
Flood" is sometimes more concerned with dramatization
than basic fact. Part of that, I safely admit, is due to
the fact that the disaster's timeline occurred long before
moving cameras could capture the necessary footage; on the
flip side, alas, this documentary emphasizes the art of
reenactments with such an incessant thrust that it seldom
feels genuine. The dramatizations have almost no luster;
they are merely there to give the film a sense of cinematic
importance, even though all we need in the end is something
brief and to the point. That doesn't mean the material itself
is any the less interesting as a result, but with the general
focus being on dry recreation scenes, the effect comes off
as rather stagnant.
end result here is a rather mixed one, lifted by unorthodox
(but effective) techniques of fact delivery but bogged down
by the repetitious (and sometimes annoying) sense of pomposity.
Bussler no doubt understands the purpose of telling this
story, especially in documentary form, but it's the facts
themselves that should be driving the storytelling, not
the other way around.
© 2003, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
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