The Dust Bowl

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
The Dust Bowl Movie Poster Image
Powerful, disturbing tour through environmental devastation.
  • PG
  • 2012
  • 240 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The main message viewers will come away with is a cautionary one: Take care of the land, and it'll take care of you. Use the land thoughtlessly, and you will come to regret it. The Dust Bowl also shows strong family bonds, and thrifty, resourceful farmers.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though the people spotlighted in the documentary lived through times of great hardship, they managed to survive, showing great resilience and strength.


No crime, no guns, but there are disturbing images of dead, rotting cows in a field, as well as distressing stories, such as when one homesteader killed a calf with a hammer so his milk cow could still feed his starving kids.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ken Burns' documentary The Dust Bowl centers around the uncomfortable subject of environmental devastation, which may disturb sensitive viewers and young children. There are many shots of scary black clouds, people walking in high winds, plagues of grasshoppers sweeping across the prairies. There are also terrifying stories of children and parents dying of "dust pneumonia," people starving, having to live in a chicken coop and other deprivations, all told by survivors, who are now older people. This could be nightmare-bait for younger children, but a powerful and affecting history lesson for tweens and teens, who may ask their parents, "What's to keep this from happening to us?"

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What's the story?

In THE DUST BOWL, documentarian Ken Burns, who has taken on such past subjects as Prohibition, baseball, and the Civil War, turns his attention to a dark chapter in American history, when poor farming practices and a prolonged drought turned America's heartland into a desert, with powerful dust storms killing everything in sight and driving many to flee to the West Coast. Some farmers tried to stay put on their land, eking out a pathetic living; others were forced to move simply to avoid starving to death. Many people died from illnesses such as "dust pneumonia" or from starvation. Others lived lives of almost unimaginable deprivation, living in chicken coops on barren farms, the only jobs and money available that which was handed out by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his "alphabet soup" programs like the Works Progress Administration. Survivors of the times paint powerful images of what they went through, while vintage photographs and film footage illustrate the terrifying decade-long devastation.

Is it any good?

Best not to watch The Dust Bowl right before bed, as you may have terrible dreams of menacing black clouds and starving children. This documentary is no dry recitation of history, but instead, a horror story from the past that seems all too relevant in our changing-climate days of dragging-on droughts and terrifying super storms. Survivors matter-of-factly describe having no shoes to wear, their only dresses made out of feed sacks, and nothing on the table but bread and lard, if they could even scrape up enough of that. One particularly gross (and affecting) story concerns a mother so afraid she wouldn't be able to feed her brood that when her young son swallowed two dimes, she made him use "a slop bucket" for a bathroom and sorted through his wastes until she "dug out" the two dimes. Now that is poverty!

Burns clearly has a positive view of FDR's New Deal programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration, which kept many families intact and eating during the Depression but also doubled the (then minor) national debt, which has since continued to grow, a perspective absent from the documentary. Instead, The Dust Bowl concentrates on its survivors and the incredible scale of the devastation. That last part may alienate younger viewers, who won't be able to make sense out of Burns declarations that millions of acres of land did this, and 200 million pounds of soil did that. The powerful images of menacing black clouds and skinny, sad people will make Burns' point instead, to an extent that kids will question their parents after watching, needing to make sure such a thing can't happen today. It'll be the rare parent able to wholeheartedly reassure her kids, however, with today's climate-change news.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the farming practices that led to the Dust Bowl devastation, and how we use land differently today to reduce the chance of such a thing happening again (i.e. crop rotation, soil conservation). Is there a chance of a modern Dust Bowl? Why or why not?

  • Many of the families spotlighted in The Dust Bowl were very ashamed to have to take government "handouts" in the form of jobs, money, and food. Do people feel this way today when they apply for food stamps or unemployment insurance? What has changed, if anything, in our society to alter attitudes about taking government money?

  • Do you admire the survivors spotlighted in The Dust Bowl? What words would you use to describe them? Do you think living through such an experience made them stronger and more resourceful? What about happier?

Movie details

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For kids who love history

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