On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, connecting the world’s two largest oceans and signaling America’s emergence as a global superpower. American ingenuity and innovation had succeeded where, fifteen years earlier, the French had failed disastrously. But the U.S. paid a price for victory: a decade of ceaseless, grinding toil, an outlay of more than 350 million dollars — the largest single federal expenditure in history to that time — and the loss of more than 5,000 lives.
Along the way, Central America witnessed the brazen overthrow of a sovereign government, the influx of over 55,000 workers from around the globe, the removal of hundreds of millions of tons of earth, and engineering innovation on an unprecedented scale. The construction of the Canal was the epitome of man’s mastery over nature and signaled the beginning of America’s domination of world affairs.
Panama Canal features a fascinating cast of characters — from President Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the canal as the embodiment of American power and prestige, to chief engineers John Stevens and George Washington Goethals, whose engineering skill and determination conquered the inhospitable terrain of the Panamanian jungles, to Colonel William Gorgas, an army doctor whose revolutionary public health campaign eradicated Yellow Fever – all of whom combined to make possible the 50-mile manmade waterway that forever changed the world.
The film also delves into the lives of the thousands of workers who left their homes to sign on for an unprecedented adventure. On the surface, Americans created a utopian community in the canal zone, filled with a well-ordered and peaceful society, but underneath the façade lay the same kinds of segregation and discrimination that characterized America in the Jim Crow era. The workers in the zone were rigidly separated, with skilled positions reserved for white workers, who were paid in gold, while the predominantly West Indian workforce, paid in Panamanian silver, did the bulk of the backbreaking manual labor, cutting brush, digging ditches and loading and unloading equipment and supplies. The difference in payrolls evolved into a form of rigid segregation, with separate facilities, commissaries, and drinking fountains reminiscent of the American south.
Using an extraordinary archive of photographs and footage, rare interviews with canal workers, and firsthand accounts of life in the Canal zone, Panama Canal unravels the remarkable story of one of the world’s most daring and significant technological achievements.