"We say a dark object up the river. Over it was a white mist. It was high and somehow dreadful, though we could not make it out. We did not wait for more. By instinct we knew the dam had burst, and its water was coming for us."—Robert Miller, survivor
On May 31, 1889, the rain simply would not stop. The members of the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, some of the wealthiest wags of Pittsburgh, stayed indoors and watched the torrent pound their man-made lake. It was only Friday, after all: tomorrow they would still go out to play.
But down the river, in the steel town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, disaster was coming.
The strangest souvenir I have ever seen in a museum gift shop, I purchased in the Johnstown Flood Museum. It is a snow globe. Yes, that is right: a tiny model of Johnstown, circa 1889, with bits of plastic debris inside—filled with water.
My wife grew up in Johnstown. Her family's house sits at the foot of the Inclined Plane, a rescue train built in 1891 to haul refugees of any future disasters up and out of the valley (nearly 900 feet up a 71 degree grade). Indeed, she used it to escape the 1977 flood, and her grandmother used it in the 1936 flood. It almost sounds like it does not pay to live in Johnstown, at least once every forty years or so.
But when you ask people about the "Flood," with a capital F, they will tell you about 1889. They will tell you about how the robber barons of Pittsburgh built their little Xanadu upriver and overwhelmed the strained dam. And that rainy Friday afternoon, the center broke, sending a 40 mph wall of water into South Fork and Mineral Point, erasing them from the map. Then into more little towns. Then into a train depot, where it carried locomotives and passenger cars off with it.
And how at 3:37pm, the water jumped the river course where the Little Conemaugh and Stonybrook rivers meet—in the middle of Johnstown. At the time, 30,000 people lived in the city, then a company town making steel for the Industrial Revolution. When the mass of debris slammed into a stone bridge at the far end of town, the yellow water ricocheted back into the center of town, forming a maelstrom that crushed Johnstown.
Do not ask what happened to the 2,200 bodies after the disaster.
Filmmaker Mark Bussler will certainly tell you though. The Pittsburgh-based documentarian has joined forces with the Johnstown Flood Museum to produce a new feature on the disaster. Although Charles Guggenheim's 1989 short film on the Flood won an Oscar, apparently Bussler decided he could tackle the subject again. Richard Dreyfuss provides passionate narration, as Bussler's script dwells on the violence and horror of the event. Keep your kids away from this, especially during the descriptions of the Flood's aftermath, as corpses pile up and get looted or otherwise mangled.
It is this obsession with gore that ultimately seems to drag down Johnstown Flood. In fact, in mentioning the Inclined Plane and the other two floods, all of which are never mentioned by Bussler, I have probably provided more general history on Johnstown than with Bussler's almost exclusive focus on the violence. He tries to counter the dark tone by humanizing the victims through reenactments, actors taking on the parts of both victims and survivors, with readings from journals. Unfortunately, the reenactments smack of community theater, as if Bussler called up some friends and asked them to play dress up. Bussler seems more interested in the dead than the living though, and the grim details of suffering seem to overwhelm what little we learn about those that made it through. If Mark Bussler had designed the snow globe I described earlier, I suspect he might have filled it with severed limbs. Johnstown Flood also has to contend with some low-budget production values: video of reenacters combined with stock film of archival material (including bits of an old silent movie from 1926). The hodgepodge of film stocks gets a bit jarring. Why not just shoot the new footage on film instead, so it all fits?
Bussler's focus on the details of the devastation is balanced somewhat by an excellent commentary track by Richard Burkert, director of the Johnstown Flood Museum. He provides background on the class issues and other themes begging to be developed in the feature, even throwing in a little moral to the story: people in power do not always behave responsibly (okay, so I never said it was an original moral). Burkert also provides a solid 20-minute interview that packs in even more information about the town's history and the museum. The only other extra is a piano rendition of some 1889 sheet music inspired by the Flood. You can listen to this in Dolby 2.0 or 5.1, although the documentary itself only offers a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack.
Bussler does not include any excerpts from either David McCullough's excellent 1968 book on the Flood and certainly none of the Guggenheim documentary. Either one would provide more information about the lives of the people of 1889 Johnstown with a more balanced tone than the sensationalistic approach he has adopted here. While the Johnstown Flood is a compelling story, reminding us that society is fragile in the face of nature, Johnstown Flood reduces that tale to a litany of suffering. Johnstown deserves better.
The story of the Johnstown Flood is a microcosm of America in the Industrial Revolution. You can draw plenty of lessons from it: the wealthy play while the middle and lower classes struggle to stay afloat, humans try to tame nature only to have nature bite back, disaster can bring out the best and the worst in the survivors. But Mark Bussler's Johnstown Flood seems too preoccupied with detailing the violence of the event to explore any themes in detail. He has a great narrator, a powerful story, and the technological tools at his disposal, but the result is disappointing. Johnstown Flood is probably worth seeing, if only to watch it with the Burkert commentary track. But the feature itself never capitalizes on its potential.
Mark Bussler is found guilty of mishandling a great story. Richard Burkert is commended by the court for rescuing this DVD with his participation. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Richard Burkert
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