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Johnstown

A Screenplay Based on an Historical Incident

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Treatment

In the 1880's, wealthy steel and oil barons from Pittsburgh (including Carnegie, Mellon and Frick) constructed the elegant South Fork Club in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. To complete their Victorian resort, the developers build a huge earthen dam over 100 feet high, creating an immense lake for fishing and boating.

The new engineer at the South Fork Club is young John Parke. His supervisor is Benjamin Ruff, a man haunted by private demons. When Parke questions the use of manure and straw to patch leaks in the dam, Ruff scoffs at his concerns. Because Carnegie is arriving at South Park that day, all members of the staff are to be on their best behavior.

Several miles downstream, the industrial boomtown of Johnstown is preparing for Memorial Day celebrations. Stephen Quinn, a leading patriarch, is the leader of a group of concerned citizens attempting to investigate the controversial dam. His daughter, a feisty beauty named Helen, dreams of becoming a journalist against her fathers authoritarian demands.

Helen and Parke meet that day and are instantly drawn to one another. When Quinn finds his daughter with Parke, he furiously insists she never see him again and he forbids her from attending a dance that evening at the South Fork Club. Her rebellious streak, however, compels her to slip out of the house that evening and go to the dance. At the dance, she and Parke pursue their romantic interests with abandon.

Memorial Day opens with heavy rains in the mountains; the lake level rises dangerously. At the Quinn house, Helen and her father argue about Parkes involvement in the cover-up of the dam's instability. Though resistant, Helen does her own investigation and sees the truth in her father's concerns. When she meets Parke at the Memorial Day parade, she confronts him with her questions. His condescending defense infuriates her; Parke leaves Johnstown to return to the South Fork Club as rain falls on Helen and the ruined parade.

At the dam, the lake level is about to crest over the top of the dam. When Parke rides up, he orders the fish screens opened to allow the water to escape. Ruff vetoes the request, as it will ruin the fishing season, and commands all workers to continue raising the level of the dam. When Parke ignores him and begins to open the screens, Ruff engages him in a bloody, violent struggle while the dam begins to break away under them. As Ruff aims his rifle at Parke, the immense mud dam begins to fall away beneath Ruff and he slips over the edge. Parke rides off to issue a warning to the unsuspecting city of Johnstown.

Moments later, the entire dam collapses completely, sending 20 million tons of water crashing towards Johnstown. As Parke continues his furious ride downstream, the huge wall of water smashes everything in its path. Parke comes upon a stalled train and warns the engineer of the impending disaster; the engineer uncouples the engine, ties down the whistle and sends the engine downhill.

At the Johnstown train depot, Helen tries to get a train ticket to the South Fork Club, but all trains are delayed due to rain. An approaching whistle alarms the people at the depot, who scatter when the unmanned engine crashes into the building. Terror grips the city as they realize the dam has burst. Helen runs home, but a strong gust of wind knocks her sideways. Looking up, she sees an enormous black wave engulfing the entire city and heading toward her.

Parke arrives in Johnstown in time to witness the horror and destruction. Acts of heroism by Parke and others save many lives, but thousands are killed within minutes when the entire city is washed away. Evening falls as oil and kerosene ignite the wreckage; many who survive the flood perish in their own burning homes.

After a hellish night, morning light illuminates the catastrophe as the living search for loved ones and the remains of their shattered lives. Parke joins Quinn in searching for his family. Parke discovers Helen beneath a mound of wreckage; she is dead. Grieving, he carries her body home to her awaiting father. Parke and the Quinn family, united in mourning, begin the task of rebuilding their lives and the devastated town.

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Over 2,200 people were killed in the Johnstown Flood of 1889. Thousands more were injured, orphaned or left homeless and destitute by the disaster. The event was an international news sensation.

Screenplay (pages 1-5)

FADE IN:

EXT. LAKE CONEMAUGH - DAWN

The soft light of dawn pierces heavy rainclouds. An overnight rainstorm has left the forest silent, save for the drops of water falling from the trees.

HEIDEN, a country farmer, stands at the lakeshore with a fishing rod in his hand. Behind him, two young boys play excitedly in a small creek with a wooden toy boat.

HEIDEN
Shhh! You'll scare away dinner!

His baited hook flies through the air and plops into the lake. Its mirrored surface reflects a cluster of stately homes nestled among the towering trees. The morning light illuminates the elegant Victorian grounds of the South Fork Club. A team of rowers glides across the misty lake in front of the ornate, ivory-white buildings.

Down the shore from Heiden, a pair of eyes peer ominously through the leaves. Something dark moves slowly among the dense foliage. Thundering out of the forest, a lone horseman in a long black coat races toward the family. As his stallion closes in on Heiden, the boys feeze in fear. BENJAMIN RUFF, the rider, raises a shotgun and blasts the early morning silence. Leaves torn from an overhead branch drift through the air and fall into the creek.

RUFF
No trespassing! You've been warned before!

HEIDEN
(nervously)
Well, you're up early, Mr. Ruff. I was about...

RUFF
No more warnings.

Ruff aims his shotgun directly at Heiden. From behind Ruff, the youngest of the two boys gasps and drops the toy boat into the creek. Startled by the presence of the boys, Ruff turns from Heiden and levels his shotgun at the youth's wide-eyed face.

HEIDEN
Dear Jesus, no.
(louder)
We're leaving, Mr. Ruff. Come on, boys, let's go now.

RUFF
My next shot won't be a warning shot.
Don't ever come back.

As Ruff holds his aim, the trio turns and walks off into the woods. Heiden casts a parting glance over his shoulder; Ruff watches, unmoving. From behind him, the toy boat sinks slowly into the dark water of the lake.

EXT. CLUBHOUSE - DAY

Ruff gallops up to the verandah of the Clubhouse, the grandest of the buildings making up the South Fork Club. Ruff's dark, sunken eyes peer out from beneath his brimmed hat. Tossing his horse's reins to a black stable boy, he walks toward the verandah with a slight limp. Despite his handicap, his stride is strong and purposeful. Ruff is approached by a young man with a downy new moustache and beard, JOHN PARKE.

PARKE
Squirrels, Mr. Ruff?

RUFF
Remember, Parke, these farmers around here aren't
like the fancy West Point professors you're used to.

Before Parke can respond, MRS. SCHULTZ, the buxom German housekeeper, stomps onto the verandah followed by Lilly, a plump young maid. Mrs. Schultz carries an envelope.

MRS. SCHULTZ
(angrily)
Shooting your big gun at the farm boys again, Mr. Ruff?

RUFF
Trespassers.

MRS. SCHULTZ
Enough with the shooting, Mr. Ruff! And
there will be no more playing with the guns
when Mr. Carnegie arrives today. He comes for
the peace and quiet, not for the target practice!

RUFF
Just following the orders of the Board of Directors.
(to Parke)
You need to look at the dam.

MRS. SCHULTZ
Oh, dat man. Mr. Parke, you have mail here.

PARKE
Thanks, I'll get it later.

As the two men walk off, the glowering Mrs. Schultz turns and steps on the foot of the young maid cowering behind her, who yelps in pain.

MRS. SCHULTZ
Oh, Lilly. Always like a shadow!

EXT. DAM - DAY

Ruff and Parke stride along the roadway that crosses the dam at its crest. Behind them, the sun rises over the misty, green Conemaugh Valley.

PARKE
Do you think it will rain more today?

RUFF
Might rain, might not.

Parke points to a small trough at one end of the dam, its metal mesh tangled with branches and leaves.

PARKE
If we get much more rain, we'll have to open
up the fish screens to lower the water level.

RUFF
No, we won't open up the fish screens and let
all the fish go. No fish, no fishing club.
Andrew Carnegie's not coming all the way from
Pittsburgh for the god-damned scenery.

The pair approaches the center of the dam where a team of Italian immigrant laborers carry shovelfuls of manure and straw from a wagon down the face of the earthen dam, smacking the mixture into pockets in the face of the dam. Flies buzz noisly around the wagon.

PARKE
Manure...we're sure it will hold, right?

RUFF
The pyramids of Egypt were built with the
same stuff. Do you think the pyramids held?

PARKE
(to himself)
Rain much in Egypt?

RUFF
What's that? Remember you job here, Parke,
remember your job. Resident Engineer of the
South Fork Club. You like your job, don't you?

PARKE
Yes, sir. Of course, sir.

RUFF
Then don't forget about the supplies you
need to pick up today down in Johnstown.

Parke looks down the forested valley to a small cluster of smokestacks and buildings. Johnstown appears quaint and peaceful from his lakeside vantage point.

For complete screenplay, please contact Marc Lallanilla

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