Johnstown Flood Movie Review

Believe it or not, the Johnstown Flood, the worst flood in American history, which killed 2,209 people, has been the subject of three prior films. At least, there are three prior movies called The Johnstown Flood. One presumes this is what they're about.

In this 64-minute documentary/docudrama, Richard Dreyfuss narrates the events leading up to and following the 1889 Pennsylvania flood. There's not a lot of archival video of what happened, this being the dawn of cinema and all, so much of the imagery consists of archival photos and re-enactments of people in period dress reciting letters and memoirs of the witnesses. There's also lots of video footage of curious, anonymous, raging waters.

Sure enough, this was an American tragedy the likes of which the country has seldom seen. And it was all our fault: Dunderhead engineers built a dam out of mud and cow shit. When it filled up, big surprise that the thing broke apart. Everyone knew it would happen. No one bothered to do anything about it. An entire town was wiped away; most of the victims were women or children.

That's kind of it. If you're a history buff or live in Pennsylvania (which has to be the most disaster-prone state in America, no?), you might find this enthralling -- and for short stretches, us laypeople can get into it, too. But ultimately this film is just not very cinematic. The archival photos quickly give way to illustrations (modern?) and re-enacted shots of people ("dead bodies," that is) lying on the ground. The recreated video is hopeless in its cheesiness. It's presented in black and white in order to fit in with the old stuff and to hide the problems inherent with shooting on video. Doesn't work; the "actors" are probably straight from Civil War re-enactment camp.

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Johnstown Flood Rating

" Grim "

Rating: NR, 2003


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