The line between morally dubious and morally repugnant is an amorphous one at best, but in a mere sixty-five minutes Mark Bussler not only finds that line in Johnstown Flood, he obliterates it with gleefully sadistic disdain. For an awesome tragedy in which an estimated three thousand people met a particularly cruel fate – facilitated largely by greed, contempt, and indifference – Johnstown elects to wallow in descriptions, representations, and, worst of all, dramatizations of horrific human suffering. Anyone seeking sociopolitical analysis of the period beyond the cursory will find no relief here after the first ten minutes; those seeking titillation and abject, tasteless misery will find themselves in good company.
On May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam collapsed and sent more than twenty million tons of water raging through the Conemaugh Valley in Pennsylvania. A 40-foot tall juggernaut of water and debris resulted. It exacted its greatest toll on Johnstown, a robust industrial city of 30,000 mostly lower class denizens who worked in the booming steel and iron factories (and lived in inadequate housing provided by the corporations). The devastation was massive: the toll on human lives, livestock, and the industry of the town was almost too great to comprehend. Worse yet, it could have been prevented.
Prior to the advent and promulgation of the railroad system, this canal system was instrumental in the free flow of commerce. As the railways took over, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchased the canal system and essentially plundered it through disregard – as the film notes, the company even pilfered the five iron pipes that were used for water control. After the initial setup in which the above facts are highlighted in a wholly obligatory tone, Bussler unashamedly unleashes his true colors and concerns. He introduces, in newly shot footage, actors appearing as various individuals who suffered through – or were decimated by – the flood. Then, almost as quickly and with alarming misanthropy, he begins to dispense with them.
Witness a woman sipping tea in refined relaxation, then - bam! a quick cut to stock footage of raging waters. A sheep turns a nervous eye to the rumbling, then - bam! another cut to impending doom. Thunderclaps are also used frequently in these passages (complete with angelic children gazing from windows), as are ghastly asides spoken directly to the camera. It only gets worse from there. If narrator Richard Dreyfuss (inexplicably game in playing along) mentions the screams of the dying, Bussler is sure to include them in the soundtrack. So undeterred is he in his presentation of human devastation, he even places a camera underwater to lovingly re-imagine the lifeless.
As Johnstown continues to relish in the destruction, Bussler utilizes archival photographs, engravings, and anecdotal accounts of the misery. However, that is not enough to satiate him: his language offensively revels in descriptions of carnage and suffering beyond comprehension: hear about the "shrieks of the dying," the "hideous appeals of victims," the "mangled bodies," "protruding limbs," and even the discovery of "glistening skulls." The "stench" of the dead scattered throughout the town is also mentioned, more than once and with disquieting verve.
Not completely satisfied with the archival materials available, he also includes newly created sketches (by, you guessed it, himself) detailing the horrors just in case the descriptions - and viewers' imaginations - are not morbid enough. (It is worth noting that Bussler's background, according to the liner notes, is in graphic design and comic book art, which may account for the lack of subtlety and affection for Sturm und Drang.) Bussler's coup de grace, however, is the dramatization of a heroically framed posse capturing, stringing up, and then shooting a looter. Any claim to measure or genuine exploration is completely belied by such cheap exploitation.
Crassly choosing to titillate rather than enlighten at the expense of an estimated three thousand people who perished, Johnstown Flood is a glorified snuff reenactment parading as documentary filmmaking. It is akin to a middle school student claiming to be an English scholar, flipping through Miller or Lawrence only to get to the naughty bits.
Video: Johnstown Flood is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer – including the newly shot black and white footage – is clear and crisp, with definition and black levels remaining good throughout. Some of the archival materials are damaged due to age, which is perfectly understandable. For what it's worth, Johnstown Flood looks quite good.
Audio: Presented in a DD 2.0 soundtrack, the mix for Johnstown Flood is as obnoxious as the overall tone of the film. Thunderclaps and raging waters are thrust to jolting, overbearing levels, while Richard Dreyfuss' foreboding vocal tone remains firmly in the center. Surround activity is limited but effective. Bussler even attempts to add some class to the proceedings by using music from Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen (though, in all fairness, the pieces are well rendered). It does not work.
English subtitles are also included.
Extras: Included in this release is a feature length commentary track by Richard Burkert, Executive Director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association. Burkert provides some sorely needed context to the one-track film, and is as measured as the film is hysterical. If one is compelled to view this film, I would recommend it be done with the commentary only, as it is much more informative and respectful than the hackneyed prose written for Dreyfuss.
Also included is a twenty minute interview with Burkert, in which he again discusses the flood in greater context, including the role of yellow journalism (there's irony for you), the "robber barons," and Clara Barton / the American Red Cross. He covers much of the same ground as in his commentary, but it is a welcome contrast to the film.
A piano piece, written in 1889 by Alberto Rivieri and performed by Patricia Prattis Jennings (6:52) is also included, complete with a DD 5.1 mix. Expository text accompanies the music as it progresses, and its inclusion is of historical interest only.
Lastly, trailers to Shot to Pieces (I can only imagine) and Civil War Minutes - Confederate – also courtesy of Bussler – are included.
Final Thoughts: Johnstown Flood is gratuitous, irresponsible exploitation of the dead, utterly bereft of compassion, humanity, and decency. The only feature of note is Richard Burkert's commentary; otherwise, there is nothing to recommend. Shameful.