American Experience: Season 23, Episode 4

Panama Canal (24 Jan. 2011)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
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From PBS and American Experience - On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, connecting the world's two largest oceans and signaling America's emergence as a global superpower.


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Episode credited cast:
Stephen Ives ...
Himself - Director
Walter LaFeber ...
Himself - Historian
Himself - Narrator
Himself (archive footage)


From PBS and American Experience - On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, connecting the world's two largest oceans and signaling America's emergence as a global superpower.

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24 January 2011 (USA)  »

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User Reviews

"A Ship Climbing a Mountain"
18 January 2014 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

How maps deceive. That little twist of land at the isthmus - how easy it must be to snip through it and link the world's two great oceans, as every sea-captain for centuries would have reflected.

No doubt that was in the mind of the great De Lesseps, raised to divine status after building the Suez Canal and changing the world. But he soon learned different, as the sheer impossibility of the steep, rocky terrain began to assert itself, compounded by fire, flood, corruption and yellow fever. The humiliation broke him, even killed him.

Next came, not a God, but a mere politician, Theodore Roosevelt, bestriding the new century, a time of great scientific arrogance. After backing a revolution that made Panama independent of Colombia, he was rewarded with the Canal Zone, which was nothing less than an American colony. Now work could begin, and TR instantly demanded "Make dirt fly!" - an idiotic howl (as it was called) that echoed around the great rock-faces, but turned out to be a rash mistake. Many fresh starts had to be made, especially when they realised that a sea-level canal would be flooded for half the year.

But their solution astonished everyone who set eyes on it - a system of giant locks, three times deeper than any built before, looking like a flight of steps up the mountainside, and then the same again at the other end. If necessity is the mother of invention, then this project stimulated all manner of advances, from lifting-gear that could move long sections of rail track, whole and complete, to new insecticides for those pestilential mosquitos.

You cannot sneer at the effort that made all this possible, much of it generated by TR himself, able to raise morale almost single-handed, even as he brought in strike-breakers and forced his black semi-slaves to work in temperatures of 120 degrees, often buried alive in landslides under that relentless rain. ("The mountain fought back" said a superstitious local.) Deaths were so frequent that it was found necessary to build a special railroad to the cemetery. When the first ship finally passed through, it was August 1914 - a date that would ironically end that brand of triumphalism for ever.

As one programme in a long series, the treatment is conventional but good of its kind, with well-informed commentators, interspersed with fascinating vintage clips of old West Indians remembering the great adventure with a mix of pride and sadness. The only effect that doesn't quite come off is the Greek-chorus role of the only employee to stay for the full ten years of the project. Nothing is said of his job-function (unless I sneezed at that moment). Only his family and social life is featured. But even that reveals much about the conditions of the white workers, incidentally paid in gold, while the blacks were paid in silver.

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