Prohibition (2011)

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Released 7-Nov-2012

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Audio
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 2011
Running Time 260:49
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Ken Burns
Lynn Novick
Florentine Films
Madman Entertainment
Starring Peter Coyote
Tom Hanks
Jeremy Irons
John Lithgow
Samuel L. Jackson
Case Amaray-Transparent-Dual
RPI ? Music David Cieri

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.66:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.66:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English Descriptive Audio
Smoking Yes, copious smoking in archival footage
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

How did a nation founded on rights ever go so wrong?

     Ken Burns has made an art form out of presenting American history – so much so that his particular style is now the template by which others are judged. His co-director in this production, Lynn Novick,, has worked with Burns on a number of projects, including on the breakthrough series The Civil War in a minor capacity. With no intention of changing a winning formula the latest Burns production of Prohibition again uses an outstanding archive of original material, a number of engaging "talking heads" and an intelligent script to flesh out a period of American history that I expect most people only associate with gangsters such as Al Capone. Capone does feature of course, but this story is really about the zealots who fought for prohibition, the hypocrites who supported it whilst imbibing unhindered by the law, the common people who were apparently incapable of drinking responsibly, and the imposition of one version of morality over an entire nation. Burns also makes sure that the unforeseen ramifications of prohibition are given a good airing; countless thousands losing their jobs, the rise of organised criminal activity, the corruption of buying political influence, and perhaps the most telling result of all - that of making millions of good men and women legally criminal.

     Prohibition was written by Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote with a number of notable names such as Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, John Lithgow, and Samuel L. Jackson providing voices throughout. Both the script and the voice acting is excellent.

A Nation of Drunkards (52:08)

     Following the Civil War American society was in turmoil, with lives and cities in ruins and an economy broken by years of internal struggle. Saloons and bars had proliferated before the war and were men-only refuges for the poor and working class to spend their hard earned wages. The frequenting of bars often came at the expense of the working man's family where anecdotal stories tell of a significant problem with domestic violence and destitution brought about by drunkenness. When European immigration increased after the war the immigrants bringing their own drinking customs with them, the apparent problem of unconstrained drunkenness increased. A number of Temperance Unions led by women and supported by religious institutions and sympathetic politicians came into being to fight this social problem. Oddly enough the Klu Klux Klan was also on side – presumably because they saw alcohol as emanating from a progressive and foreign culture. By the twentieth century these temperance groups had gained significant numbers and political power, and were now actively targeting the liquor houses and manufacturers. In many ways these groups were hatched in protestant conservative country regions, which were in stark contrast to the catholic and immigrant populations who brought with them a long culture of alcohol consumption. The beer producers in particular almost all originated from German immigrants, and World War 1 did little to enhance their popularity in many quarters.

Scofflaws (52:13)

     "Scofflaw" - a contemptuous law violator (Mirriam Webster Dictionary). This term was the winning entry in a national contest during Prohibition to coin a word to characterize a person who drinks illegally. The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the production, sale, and transport of "intoxicating liquors". The National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, was enacted to carry out the intent of the Eighteenth Amendment, which established prohibition in the United States. When these laws come into effect on January 16, 1920 there appeared to be widespread support and immediate social consequences. Alcohol consumption decreased by at least a third, alcohol related deaths fell, as did arrests for public drunkenness. Brewers and wine makers began to shut down or diversify into alternative products such as non-alcoholic drinks, and saloons closed down across the country. A significant number of Americans however defied the new laws on the basis that the Government had no business in their private lives, and that the concept of Prohibition was absurd. Still others saw the opportunity of making money by supplying those who wanted it with bootlegged or imported liquor. The overt display of rebellion was demonstrated by the arrival of "speakeasies" to replace bars and saloons, and the widespread corruption and bribery of law enforcement officers and others all the way up to the politicians in Washington who actually made the law. The State governments were reluctant to enforce the law, and the federally authorised Prohibition Officers were under-resourced to fill the gap. Although dedicated officials such as assistant attorney general in charge of Prohibition Mabel Walker Willebrandt believed in upholding the law no matter what it took, the vast majority of enforcement officers had little interest other in receiving a cash contribution for turning a blind eye

Murder and Mayhem (52:11)

     The small time backyard bootleggers were doing a good trade and local law enforcement officers were happy to go along with the ride. Prohibition was not working but it was having a powerful and unintended impact. It was turning formerly respected citizens into law-breakers, and provided thugs with the means to build criminal empires. If enough people are breaking the law then that law becomes irrelevant and unenforceable. The Volstead Act allowed the production of wine for personal consumption so of course countless Americans began making wine and also creating alcohol from legally obtainable ingredients. The suppliers of these ingredients were not interested in what happened after the sale was made, and so personal consumption soon morphed into rampant on-selling of bootleg. Respected people such as esteemed criminal lawyer George Remus would see the money being carried by bootleggers, and be swept up with the prospects of wealth. With his ambition and knowledge of the law Remus would become the biggest bootlegger in America, a corrupter of Government officials at the highest levels, and also eventually to become a murderer. The demand for booze always exceeded supply so the amount of money a bootlegger could make was incredible. Given this attraction it was inevitable that the distribution of bootleg and imported alcohol would be taken over by criminal gangs who had no hesitation in using murder and violence to enforce their dominion. In the bigger cities these gangs were often from immigrant stock – Polish and Russian Jews, Italians and Irish, with lots of ambitions and little to lose. The large American cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia became divided into fiefdoms where intrusion by a rival gang was treated as an act of war.

A Sea of Rum (52:08)

     Despite the obvious lack of will by law officers to enforce the Volstead Act, the "drys" refused to compromise on aspects of the law that were most egregious to the common people. By doing so they eliminated all moderate support and created a wall that could only hold up or come crashing down, with no opportunity for flexibility. Wall Street was on a bull's rush, and America was excited by growing prosperity, more women in public life, and an explosion in popular music and dance. The importation of alcohol in various guises had replaced the lack of home product, and although public drunkenness may have decreased, the proliferation of women friendly "speakeasies" and nightclubs boomed. America was in party mode. Gangsters like Al Capone were in open warfare and fighting for the lucrative bootlegging business. Rum-running along the extensive American coast became a money stream for enterprising seafarers such as William McCoy, who ferried booze off large schooners with an armada of small fast boats. In defiance of this the "drys" rejected every proposal to revise the Volstead Act, and instead insisted that more enforcement was the answer. Despite numerous opportunities to make the law correspond more accurately to the reality of American life, the Anti-Saloon League and other dry groups refused to bend, and in so doing laid the grounds for total repeal of the 18th Amendment.

A Nation of Hypocrites (52:09)

     America's experiment with Prohibition, launched by an unlikely coalition of reformers and bigots, had lasted for thirteen years. Rather than overcoming drunkenness the draconian laws had spawned an industry of bootleggers and gangsters, the proliferation of "speakeasies" when men and women engaged in moral decadence unforeseen a decade before, and public violence where the Tommy gun spoke louder than the law. Ironically it was a prominent Republican supporter, the wealthy socialite Pauline Sabin, who took up the cause against the 18th Amendment. Sabin saw first-hand how those in power flouted the law on every occasion, whilst publicly supporting its prosecution on the common people. This unlikely defender of freedom campaigned against the laws that she said divided the nation into "wets, drys, and hypocrites." When the Great Depression hit hard after the "roaring twenties" Americans were forced to question whether the efforts and money being spent on enforcing an unenforceable law were worth it. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 gave impetus to the "wet" movement, and in short time Congress passed the 21st Amendment which repealed the 18th. With the 21st amendment finally ratified by the States Americans became free to legally buy a drink in December 1933. So ended the failed American experiment in forcing moral values by a vocal few on a population that largely did not support it.

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Transfer Quality


     Framing is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect which is slightly less than normal widescreen. The video is variable in quality given that a large proportion is archival photo and video material. These sometimes contain a lot of artefacts but not so much as to be distracting. I suspect the only way this could be improved is to manually repair the footage but on the other hand I think the inherent flaws make the material look more interesting. The interview footage is sharp enough and well presented with the subject facing slightly away from camera and lighting coming from one side. This leads to a portion of the face being slightly in shadow, however not so much as to obscure the features. There are no flaws in these segments although I suppose the pedant could wish for finer detail. The closing credits however are notably blurry and almost unreadable from a distance. Given the subject matter and format however the video is all that you should reasonable want.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     A Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track encoded at 224 Kb/s is the only option. With a narrative driven content the major requirement is good clear dialogue and synchronization with the video. Prohibition delivers on both of these fronts, however a 5.1 track would have enhanced the numerous effects that the producers had included with the footage. In most of the silent footage various sound effects had been included to match the video – for example bottles clinking or horses trotting. Dolby pro-logic did a good job in directing these sounds to the surrounds however dedicated tracks would have been better. The background score and accompanying musical excerpts were also very well done, but would have been better in 5.1. There are English subtitles and also English descriptive subtitles for the hard of hearing.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use




    Static menu with audio.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     Note that Prohibition was originally aired on American TV provider PBS in three episodes: A Nation of Drunkards, A Nation of Scofflaws, and A Nation of Hypocrites. The version that SBS acquired for screening in Australia has the three episodes split into five, and this is represented in the DVD content – although oddly enough the DVD inside cover only names three episodes: A Nation of Drunkards, Scofflaws, and Murder and Mayhem. As far as I am aware the content remains the same with the only difference being the episode splits and disc menu authoring. Prohibition is available in Region 1 DVD (3 discs) and Region A Blu-ray (3 discs) with the original three episodes presented as aired on PBS. There is also additional content including interview material and extra scenes with the Blu-ray also having a featurette In the Studio with Florentine Films and a 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. The Prohibition enthusiast would probably prefer these options.


     Prohibition represents a time in history that not many of us are familiar with apart from the clichéd aspects covered in a multitude of gangster movies. In this documentary Burns and Novick have gone behind the issue and told us about the evangelical proponents and opponents, the people who prospered and those who suffered from the Prohibition, and the long term consequences of the unenforceable law. There may also be parables in the story of the Prohibition era that could be applied to issues we deal with in modern society. Highly recommended.

     The video quality is very good given the source material.

     The audio quality is very good.

     The extras are non-existent.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Mike B (read my bio)
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Review Equipment
DVDDenon DVD-3910 and Panasonic BD-35, using HDMI output
DisplayPanasonic TH-58PZ850A. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL). This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL).
Amplificationdenon AVR-4311 pre-out to Elektra Theatron 7 channel amp
SpeakersB&W LCR600 centre and 603s3 mains, Niles in ceiling surrounds, SVS PC-Ultra Sub, Definitive Technology Supercube II Sub

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