With the H1N1 flu virus grabbing so much attention this year, this fascinating though inaccurate look back at the "killer flu" of 1918 is particularly interesting, especially since H1N1 probably was the viral platform from which the unique 1918 pandemic sprang. The film places the origin of the virus on a Midwest U.S. Army base, although that theory has since been junked. (There were apparent cases of the strain in Siberia and China as early as spring 1917.) While the documentary's science is dodgy, its account of the devastation is sobering: Main Street America lined with piles of coffins, emergency workers wearing surgical masks on the street, and so on. Virology was in a primitive state 90 years ago, and some of the ghastly "treatments" sound as awful as the ailment itself. Medical science was woefully incapable of dealing with a flu that found victims "healthy at breakfast and dead by supper-time".
The pandemic came as tragic epilogue to World War I, and latest research indicates the still-mysterious mutation may have developed its lethal virulence in the septic killing fields of Europe's Western Front; it killed 600,000 Americans and left a worldwide death toll some estimates hold as high as 50 million. Also interesting, in reflection, is how utterly forgotten the pandemic remained until our present day emergency; since there was no one to blame, the influenza had no political traction, and thus has not been memorialized in our social discourse like other catastrophes real and hysterically imagined. The once-named "Spanish flu" remains a lethal phantasm, perhaps unremembered, but lurking always.
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