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4.6 out of 5 stars21
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 26 December 2012
I read Okrent's book, `Last Call' (on which this documentary is based) last year and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I enjoyed this documentary quite as well.

There are three dvds in here, for a total of more than 6 hours of footage. The first dvd covers the birth of the idea of prohibiting alcohol from Americans' lives, back in the 1800s: how people lived, what they drank and how much, how this affected everyday life, how the first prohibition movements worked. The second discusses the life of the 18th Amendment: how it was lobbied by the anti-saloon league, the way distrust towards immigrants played a big part in it, how this changed the life of people, especially youth. The last dvd addresses the way gangsters profited from the law, how this took away the trust of people for the law and order and especially for Prohibition, how when the Great Depression kicked in the 18th Amendment was finally repealed.

There is a huge amount of images from the time discussed. Mainly photographs in the first dvd, but a huge amount of it. So many videos in the other two, coming from Twenties films, but also non-fiction footage and even some personal photos and video. I love this.
Beside interview with experts - including Okrent - there are a number of interviews with people who were young during Prohibition. Oral history is incredible. People who remember often have a very different view, their tales have a different mood from the commentary from experts. And the one always enriches the other.

There is a thing where the documentary goes in a different direction than the book. Where the book focuses on everyday life and the way Prohibition affected it, the documentary focuses more on personalities. Politicians, anti-saloon league members, judges, cops, personalities of different kind, including journalists and gangsters. Where the book only touches upon these people's life and involvement in Prohibition, the documentary gives a full portrait of them, and I liked a lot the way stories mixed with images. It gives a very strong feeling for the era.

So, maybe there is nothing particularly new about the info the documentary provides: it's the same as the book, is basically the same as so many other books about Prohibition. But I loved the footage. In a way, it was like being there.

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on 7 December 2012

From Ken Burns, one of the masters of the documentary, come this compelling three parter. We tend to forget how long that ban on liquor in the USA went on. It was shown over here on the PBS America Channel in December 2012. There are over 6 hours of footage in 3 discs, showing how the temperance movement in white Protestant mainly small town America had had enough of the nation's menfolk throwing away their lives and wrecking their family life through the demon drink. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution barring manufacture, sale and distribution of intoxicating beverages was put into place at the end of 1919, and with it came a host of unintended consequences. As well as joblosses across the amusement, entertainment and restaurant sector, the tax revenue to city halls from legitimate sales immediately dried up and before long small time crooks became big time ones. Nobody that wanted a drink had to go without one. 32,000 speakeasies (where almost for the first time men and women drank together) materialised in the basements of New York and Brooklyn and by 1926 the US was the world's biggest importer of cocktail shakers. Californian grapegrowers started canning (or packaging as "winebricks" grape pulp with the warning that if left in the warm it could start to ferment! US breweries like Anheuser Busch started producing "malt extract". Canadian brewers and distillers did pretty well. Drugstores enjoyed booming liquor sales for "medicinal purposes". The number of registered pharmacists in New York State tripled during Prohibition! The king of the illicit distribution networks in Chicago was that folk hero Al Capone. A law that was meant to foster temperance instead encouraged intemperance and excess. No law had been so imperfectly applied or widely ignored and probably the worst consequence was the corruption it led to among public officials. The Roaring Twenties were a boomtime for bootleg liquor but then the Wall Street Crash and the collapse of the economy under Republican Herbert Hoover led to a Democrat landslide for Roosevelt in 1933 and prohibition started being dismantled straight away with the return of badly needed jobs. Last state to repeal Prohibition was Kansas in 1948 and even there a few small towns hang on with it. Quality of original images excellent. See clips here: [...]

printed in Wakefield CAMRA's magazine O-to-K in Januaryn2013 text ©RKW 2012
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 November 2014
Any Ken Burns documentary is going to be smart, well made and educational. This one is also fun (in the plus column), but lacks the emotion, ambition and power of his very best work, like "The Civil War" or "The Central Park Five".

Made with a ton of great movie footage and stills, and lots of tid-bits about the history of drinking in America -- it's out of control pervasiveness among men, especially working class men, that led to the push for prohibition that puts the now ridiculous seeming constitutional amendment in a somewhat more understandable light. That in turn explains the odd confluence of its backers, from religious conservatives, to well meaning social progressives looking to save the poor from themselves, to blue-blood WASPS who hated working class immigrants who drank more openly, to women fighting for the right to vote, and who saw how often alcohol contributed to domestic violence.

The film also does a great job in showing how a law that tens of millions of citizens will simply ignore is much worse than no law at all, as it sows the seeds of disregard and contempt for the law, as well creating a fertile ground for criminals to give people what they want in a black market. Much the same arguments are going on in the US right now about other "vice" laws, from marijuana, to prostitution, to proposed laws on fatty and sugary foods.

One of the central questions of any democracy is how much and where does the government have a right to intrude into people's lives for the greater good. It's an important and complicated question, and one the series does a good job of raising.

But at over 5 hours it starts to run a little thin, and the points and stories start to get a bit repetitive. I'm glad I saw it, and enjoyed myself quite a bit, but unlike many documentaries by Burns (and his equally talented brother Ric), I don't think I'll feel a need to re-watch it anytime soon.
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on 29 April 2013
Superbly researched, beautiful use of historic photographs and newsreel footage, effective use of narration and voiceover combined with carefully chosen music of the period. What can I say? Another GREAT documentary from Ken Burns.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 September 2015
"Prohibition" is an outstanding documentary film about an important chapter in the history of the United States: the time when alcohol was an illegal substance in the US. The ban was introduced in 1920 and repealed in 1933. It lasted for 13 years, 10 months and 18 days. Here is some basic information about the film:

** Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
** Written by Geoffrey C. Ward
** Narrated by Peter Coyote

** Original music written by Wynton Marsalis and David Cieri
** Creative consultant: Daniel Okrent

** First aired on PBS in 2011
** Released on DVD in 2011 (US) and 2012 (UK)

The film is divided into three parts:

# 1. A Nation of Drunkards - ca. 95 minutes
# 2. A National of Scofflaws - ca. 109 minutes
# 3. A Nation of Hypocrites - ca. 102 minutes

Several witness were interviewed for the film. Some are scholars and authors who have an academic interest in the topic. Others are citizens who can remember what happened in the 1920s or 1930s. In many cases, the witness is a son or a daughter of someone who was involved in bootlegging or law enforcement. Here are the names in the order of appearance:

** Michael Lerner, historian, author of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (2007, 2008)
** Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010, 2011)
** Pete Hamill, author of A Drinking Life: A Memoir (1994, 1995)

** Catherine Gilbert Murdock, historian, author of Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940 (1998, 2001)
** Martin Marty, theologian
** Noah Feldman, legal scholar

** Jack Roche, resident of Chicago
** William E. Leuchtenburg, historian (born 1922)
** Donald Ward, resident of Washington, DC, son of a bootlegger

** Freddie Johnson, historian
** Justice John Paul Stevens, associate justice of the US Supreme Court 1975-2010
** Edwin T. Hunt, Jr., son of a bootlegger

** Zeke Alpert, resident of New York City
** Dorothea Brown, resident of Maine
** Sylvester Mather, resident of Kentucky, son a federal agent

** Margot Loines Wilkie, resident of Massachusetts
** Jack Clarke, resident of Chicago
** Jonathan Eig, author of Get Capone (2010, 2011)

** Roger Angell, resident of New York
** Ruth Proskauer Smith, resident of New York
** Reverend John Caldwell, Kentucky

** Joshua Zeitz, author of Flapper (2007)
** Patricia Olmstead McFarlane, daughter of a bootlegger

** Pauline Sabin Smith Willis, granddaughter of Pauline Sabin (1887-1955)
** Studs Terkel, writer (1912-2008)

In a trailer for the film, narrator Peter Coyote explains what prohibition was all about:

"It was exactly what America wanted, and it caught us completely by surprise. It turned citizens into criminals and criminals into kings. It changed the very nature of our democracy - twice: prohibition."

Directors Burns and Novick offer a quotation from Mark Twain that fits the topic very well:

"Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky: it is the prohibition that makes anything precious."

The film follows a chronological line that begins in 1826 and ends in 1933. In other words: Burns and Novick cover more than century of US history. While the focus is on alcohol, the topic is always placed in a political, economic, and cultural context.

"Prohibition" is a documentary film in the best sense of the word. The directors do not talk about a "general movement" or a "tendency" in some direction. They do not work in this way. Instead they give us the name of a person, the name of a place, and a date, and then they tell us what happened. We learn who did what. Where they did it, why they did it, and what the consequences were.

Every scene is documented with statements from and pictures of the protagonist that is being presented. They are very specific. And they always remember the visual aspect. This is a great way of telling history.

Are Burns and Novick in favour of prohibition? Of course they are not. Today it must be difficult to find anyone who will speak in favour of this policy. But the directors do not just tell us how misguided this policy was. They are not one-sided. They are objective. They simply tell us what happened, step by step.

They are so good at telling the story that we can identify with the supporters of the temperance movement - later the prohibition movement - and understand why they did what they did. We can understand why they were able to win and to introduce the ban on alcohol that went into effect in 1920. This is what we learn in episode 1.

In episode 2 the directors document the "unintended consequences" of the ban, known as the 18th amendment to the US constitution. The supporters of prohibition had good intentions, but good intentions do not always guarantee good results. In this case the positive results were limited, while the negative results were devastating.

In episode 3 Burns and Novick explain how the critics of the ban united and how they were finally able to have it repealed. The 21st amendment to the constitution cancelled the 18th amendment.

It is interesting to learn that the laws of taxation played an important (perhaps a decisive) role, not only when the ban was introduced in 1920, but also when it was repealed in 1933.

For many years the US federal government had relied on taxes on alcohol. That is why the owners of the big breweries were confident that the prohibition movement was never going to win. The leaders of the prohibition movement realised that this was a stumbling block, so they made sure it was removed when they supported the introduction of income tax in 1913. Now the federal government did not have to rely on taxes on alcohol. This is one reason why the ban could be introduced. The government did not need the tax-money on alcohol anymore.

When they stock-market crashed in 1929, millions lost their jobs, and this meant that they no longer paid any income tax. The federal government was in trouble. Critics of prohibition pointed out that if the ban was repealed, if drinking was legal again, it would create millions of jobs and millions of workers would pay income tax. The government needed tax-money to carry out its policy, known as the New Deal. But there was no money to pay for it. If the ban was repealed, everything would change. This is one reason why the ban was repealed. The government could not afford to keep it.

In 1919-1920, the tax situation paved the way for prohibition. In 1932-1933, the tax situation paved the way for its abolition. How things can change in the world of politics in just over a decade!

The women's movement is an important element in the story about prohibition, as this film demonstrates. Women started the temperance movement because they wanted to save their families. It was a noble ambition. But the means chosen - a total ban on alcohol - did not bring about the desired end.

When the ban was finally repealed, women were also a powerful force. A former member of the Republican Party - Pauline Sabin, who became a Democrat - organised a nation-wide movement to repeal the ban, and most of her supporters were women.

There are more than one hundred pieces of music in the film. Music plays an important role, because it sets the mood of each scene, sometimes sad and slow, at other times fast and funny. There are songs by Irving Berlin and numerous jazz pieces by Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and the Mills Brothers.

Original music was composed by Wynton Marsalis and performed by him and his band. Additional original music was composed by David Cieri and performed by him and his band. On the PBS website for the film you can listen to samples of David Cieri's compositions.

If you do not notice the music that plays in the background, it is a sign that the producers have done a good job, because they have found just the right kind of music for this particular scene. It fits the scene so well that most viewers do not even notice that it is there.

Prohibition, the war on alcohol, was a "noble social experiment" which failed. Today, the US government and governments around the world are waging a long-running and costly war on drugs which has failed. But no government wants to admit it.

The parallel between prohibition 1920-1933 and the current war on drugs is obvious, but this fact is not mentioned anywhere in the film. Perhaps the directors want the viewers to draw this conclusion by themselves?

As stated above, "Prohibition" is an outstanding documentary film. I am not surprised: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have a lot of experience in this field. Examples are "The Civil War" (1990), "Baseball" (1994), "Jazz" (2001) and "The Roosevelts" (2014).

All these works have been praised by critics and the general public. As far as I can see, "Prohibition" lives up to the high standard that has come to be expected from Burns and Novick. It is highly recommended.

PS. For more information about the topic, see Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America by Edward Behr (hardcover 1997, paperback 2011).
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on 7 July 2014
Another magnificent documentary from Ken Burns. Exploring the circumstances that brought the Volstead Act into being, its unintended consequences and the repeal. The use of archive footage is brilliantly done and really brings the narration to life. But best of all, as well as being a thorough examination of the subject, it's also hugely entertaining watch. Recommended for anyone with even the slightest interest in bootlegging!
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on 23 March 2014
This was a gift purchase to replace the blu-ray version that I purchased and that didn't work, due to being a US import. The recipient was very pleased and interested in the content and said that the quality was good too.
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on 6 August 2013
Very informative about how the prohibition law came to be passed in the United States, it was very well put together and well worth the money.
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on 18 August 2013
Narration by the ever-brilliant Peter Coyote.
In my view not quite up to Civil War standard, but pretty good all the same
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on 3 February 2014
Excellent from Ken Burns. Very useful overview and a lesson for today also. Highly recommended as is all his work.
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