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Ken Burns' latest: The man-made disaster of the Dust Bowl

Ripped-open grasslands released their soil in choking, sun-blotting blizzards. The filmmaker's team tracked down witnesses and jaw-dropping photos.

November 16, 2012|By Scott Timberg
  • About to be engulfed in a gigantic dust cloud is a peaceful little ranch in Boise City, Oklahoma where the top soil is being dried and blown away. This photo was taken on April 15, 1935 and is included in Ken Burns' PBS documentary "The Dust Bowl."
About to be engulfed in a gigantic dust cloud is a peaceful little ranch in… (Associated Press )

In a sense, Ken Burns' new documentary is the photographic negative of the one he delivered in 2009: Instead of swooning full-color shots of azure lakes and soaring mountains, his new film is made of images that could come from the dark side of the moon.

In some of them, the parched land tells its own silent story. In others, we see bleached-out shots of people, in overalls, scowling. Or children in gas masks, looking like humanoid visitors from another world.

And while "The National Parks," from 2009, recounted the tale of triumph, his new film is not nearly so life-affirming.

PHOTOS: Images from 'The Dust Bowl'

"This is a cautionary tale," a crisp, decisive Burns explained in an interview this summer. "The national parks represented an extraordinary 'No' to [Manifest Destiny], saying, 'We have enough, we're gonna offer something to everyone — that's what America does.'"

Conversely, the Dust Bowl — the term given to the ruination of about 100 million acres, centered on the Oklahoma panhandle, in the 1930s — was not just a terrible tragedy for its people, its animals and the land. It was a largely avoidable disaster, the foul combination of attempts by the government to turn agriculture into an industry, shady real estate promoters, blind optimism and insensitivity to what the land could withstand.

His two-part, four-hour film, "The Dust Bowl," premieres on PBS on Sunday and Monday.

Burns calls it "a 10-year apocalypse that we can't ignore — the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history." The Dust Bowl mythology, he says, is "'The Grapes of Wrath,' a couple of storms," but in reality, "It was killing not just crops, but cattle and children."

PHOTOS: Images from 'The Dust Bowl'

The road to "The Dust Bowl" began more than two decades ago, as writer Dayton Duncan — who would become a frequent Burns collaborator — was researching a book on the nation's most sparsely populated counties, "Miles From Nowhere." When he got to the regions of the Dust Bowl, he was struck by how bad things had been, and how powerful the stories were.

It also seemed like a natural for a documentary, so he and Burns — who's long had an interest in the way the soul of America resides in its landscape — began working on the project in earnest in 2009, the same year "The National Parks" was broadcast. Says Duncan: "It wasn't like, 'We're tired of beautiful waterfalls, give me a big, black blizzard.'"

Burns says that part of the appeal is how little he knew about the disaster and its causes, and how misleading much of the mythology around the disaster was. "We don't make films about things we know," he says. "We make films about things we don't know about and want to know more."

Burns' and Duncan's point of view was shaped in part by "The Worst Hard Time," a 2006 history and National Book Award winner by New York Times contributor Timothy Egan. The book, subtitled "The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl," emphasizes the man-made nature of the crisis.

Its lyrical, sometimes terrifying prose suggests some of the power of the ensuing documentary: "In those cedar posts and collapsed homes is the story of this place: how the greatest grassland in the world was turned inside out, how the crust blew away, raged up in the sky and showered down a suffocating blackness off and on for most of a decade."

Still, film is a visual medium. "We had two great concerns," Burns says. The first was that it would be hard to find survivors of a tragedy seven and eight decades old. The second was that in a poor region of the country, photographs and film footage would be scarce.

Both issues proved difficult, but between putting ads in newspapers, visiting old-age homes, inquiring at local historical societies and so on, they found a handful of witnesses, and 6,000 photographs, culled down to the 400 used in the film. (There are only, says Burns, two known home movies of the disaster.)

PHOTOS: Images from 'The Dust Bowl'

Some of the surviving photographs have an austere, formal beauty. Others, like the image of a tempestuous sky over a battered wooden farmhouse used in the film's promotional materials, are almost Wagnerian in their sense of awe. Steven Spielberg, Burns jokes, "would spend millions" to capture that sky alone.

Even with Egan's book and other research, the making of the film was full of surprises. "Every day was a process of discovery," Burns says. "Things you couldn't imagine to be true — happened."

The film resembles Burns' previous work: black-and-white photographs, the strains on "Wayfaring Stranger" played on mandolin alongside Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," talking heads of historians (including Egan) and survivors of the disaster.

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