BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE GREAT FLOOD

By • Sep 13th, 2014 •

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Bill Morrison has made a name for himself with documentaries that are essentially assemblages of archival footage, shot decades before the production of his own works, repurposed to tell a story. Appropriately, Morrison takes an extraordinary piece of American history that is mostly forgotten today, the Mississippi River flooding that took place in 1926 and 1927. Although the 1920s were thought of as a time of extravagance and vice, rural America at that time was reeling from horrendous poverty, which was only exacerbated by natural disasters such as the Great Mississippi Flood. The flood was an important moment in black history as well, as many African-Americans left en masse from their ruined homes in Mississippi and Louisiana for northern cities.

THE GREAT FLOOD is made almost entirely of footage taken from the Fox Movietone library housed at the University of South Carolina. This footage, shot for newsreels in 1927, gets across the staggering damage caused by the flood waters. There is some extraordinary footage, mostly showing the relief and evacuation efforts in Louisiana.
As with other Morrison documentaries, there is no narration. The only commentary comes from brief introductory text before major scenes, and the only audio is Bill Frisell’s haunting score. The result is a successful attempt to let the images speak for themselves.


Only in rare cases does Morrison cut away from the Movietone footage. Bookending the film is a computer-animated flyover showing the full extent of the flooding. The most unusual cutaway from the Fox Movietone footage is a rapidly cut montage showing the pages of the 1927 Sears catalog, which has the seasick feel of looking at something on microfilm. This aside works in showing the world outside rural America, and seems to comment on the migration to the north many families would experience after losing their homes.

Although the images lose some of their impact in the transition from the big screen, Icarus Films has done a stellar job with the transfer. The images hold up amazingly well in standard-definition, given the complex nature of transferring damaged black-and-white film to digital video. Bill Frisell’s score is presented in stereo. There are no supplements save for trailers for a few other Icarus Films releases, including an upcoming Blu-Ray release of DECASIA. A booklet included with the DVD gives some extra historical context to the film.

Overall, THE GREAT FLOOD is a fascinating look at a forgotten part of American history. The film has great educational value, and will be sure to fascinate those interested in this period of history.

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