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Ken Burns’ ‘Dust Bowl’ film absorbing, if a little dry

Ken Burns  |  AP

Ken Burns | AP

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Two-part series airs from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday and 8 to 10 p.m. Monday on WTTW-Channel 11

Updated: December 19, 2012 12:11PM

Ken Burns’ new documentary “The Dust Bowl” opens ominously, with black-and-white footage of a massive dirt cloud sweeping the Great Plains. A mother runs outside, grabbing her child and shepherding him to safety.

“Let me tell you how it was,” says Oklahoma native Don Wells, one of 26 Dust Bowl survivors whose interviews make up the film’s compelling oral history.

“I don’t care who describes that to you. Nobody can tell it any worse than what it was. There is no way for it to be exaggerated. It was that bad.”

Described as the worst manmade ecological disaster in U.S. history, the Dust Bowl nearly obliterated the nation’s breadbasket in the 1930s. Hundreds of black blizzards pounded the region for the better part of a decade, killing crops and cattle as well as many children who succumbed to “dust pneumonia.” The environmental catastrophe triggered a diaspora to California’s Central Valley, where destitute, refuge-seeking “Okies” were often shunned.

“Conventional wisdom and shorthand history seem to always relegate the story of the Dust Bowl to just a handful of storms and an inevitable connection to John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ” Burns said this summer at a television critics gathering in Beverly Hills, Calif. “We quickly discovered a much more complex, tragic and interesting story that continues … to resonate today. This is a cautionary tale rather than the inspirational story we tried to tell in our national parks series, but is still a story of our complex and often fraught relationship with the land.”

With wheat prices bottoming out during the Great Depression, desperate farmers tried to stem their losses by converting even more of the Plains’ wind-swept grasslands into crops. Drought descended on the exposed fields in the early ’30s. When the region’s notoriously strong winds blew in, the vulnerable landscape was rearranged into an unrecognizable wasteland.

One particularly ferocious storm in 1935 moved more dirt in one day than the United States had excavated during the 10-plus years it took to dig the Panama Canal. The physical effects of “Black Sunday” were felt far beyond the Dust Bowl’s boundaries, with millions of pounds of dust raining down on Chicago.

The story of the Dust Bowl’s origins, the damage it did, and the work of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and others to fix it is illustrated with previously unpublished photos and rarely seen film footage. Woody Guthrie songs pepper the melancholy soundtrack. Peter Coyote’s narration links myriad firsthand accounts told by those who lived through the disaster.

Many of these survivors surfaced after PBS affiliates aired Burns’ on-air appeals four years ago soliciting those who’d experienced the Dust Bowl. He and his team took out ads in newspapers, inviting people to share their stories and photos. Researchers visited nursing homes and historical societies looking for leads.

“More than any other film we have made, it is an oral history populated less by historians and experts than those who survived those horrible days,” Burns said. “They are at the end of their own lives now, but they were children and teenagers then, their searing memories as raw and direct as if this had all happened yesterday.”

Watching these memories play out in the two-part series is both educational and exhausting. The depressing subject matter starts to feel a bit suffocating — and somewhat repetitive — after nearly four hours.

“The Dust Bowl” is more like eat-your-vegetables television than some of Burns’ other endeavors, namely his last PBS documentary, “Prohibition.” But it’s still a worthwhile examination of an overlooked chapter from our past that holds plenty of lessons for our future.

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