Beforehand, I thought we were in for a dull, academic documentary about a river rising over its banks long ago, but right from the start our expectations are confounded. Black & white shots of Johnstown and its surroundings are scored with ominous Hermannesque music as bold white titles splash across the screen. Our attention is captured and we’re in for what feels less like a dry History lesson than like a ‘50s disaster flick. “JOHNSTOWN FLOOD! It DEVASTATED a town – and GALVANIZED America!”
We do learn about the actual event, which the filmmakers have clearly researched thoroughly, but in a surprisingly exciting manner. We’re told about how Johnstown was “the Queen city of the [Pennsylvania] valley”, a “booming and prosperous industrial city” where all eastbound trains stopped. But not far from this happy haven danger loomed in the form of a huge artificial lake. Originally a small reservoir built to regulate the water level in nearby canals, it had been bought by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. They unwisely blocked the safety spillway of the dam to keep the fish in, which caused the lake to grow ever deeper and the dam to gradually weaken.
On May 31, 1889, following a week of never-ending rain, the reservoir overflowed and the dam literally exploded, sending 20 million tons of water down the Conemaugh Valley, crushing everything in its path: trees, houses, trains and thousands of unfortunate people. We experience this through flowery and evocative narration by Richard Dreyfuss (“The populous Valley for miles either way was a seething, roaring cauldron…”), period photographs and engravings and live action re-enactments. The latter are badly acted and not particularly convincing, but this adds to the enjoyable B-movie feel. In that light, the use of B & W and horror movie music is also inspired.
After all, this IS a horror story. The ghastly aftermath of the flood is depicted in graphic detail (“The peculiar stench of decaying human flesh is plainly perceptible as one ascends the bank of Stony Creek along the smoldering ruins at the bridge.”). There are corpses and debris everywhere and maybe most horrifying of all, some vile selfish men steal off the dead, going as far as cutting fingers for rings. This leads to the lynch mob execution of one of the thieves but instead of bringing catharsis, this conveys only more pain and sadness.
“Johnstown Flood” is a riveting and stylish film unlike what you would expect from a historical documentary. It will be released on DVD on August 26, 2003. Special Features include a full-length commentary track by Richard Burkert, Executive Director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, a 20 minute mini-documentary providing additional information on the history of the Flood and a 6 minute “piano illustration” of the catastrophe. You can get more details at the official website.