Revived Documentaries 'Plow' into the Present

A production still from The Plow that Broke the Plains. i i

hide captionA 1936 documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains was the first film produced by the United States Government for commercial release.

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A production still from The Plow that Broke the Plains.

A 1936 documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains was the first film produced by the United States Government for commercial release.

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'The River.' i i

hide captionThe River, released in 1938, argued for the building of dams on the Mississippi River to promote flood control.

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'The River.'

The River, released in 1938, argued for the building of dams on the Mississippi River to promote flood control.

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The River

 
A production still from the 1930s documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains i i

hide captionThe Plow That Broke the Plains argues for New Deal-style solutions.

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A production still from the 1930s documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains

The Plow That Broke the Plains argues for New Deal-style solutions.

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With heartbreaking footage, narration written in poetic verse and a folk-inspired score, a young director created some of the earliest American propaganda films.

The Plow That Broke the Plains was released in 1936. Director Pare Lorentz knew that the devastating drought on the Great Plains would be a dramatic subject for his first film. Hollywood wasn't interested, but the U.S. government also wanted to make a point about the Dust Bowl and agreed to fund his film.

Two years later, they financed The River, in the hope that it would make the case for massive flood-control projects on the Mississippi.

Both films are widely recognized for their cinematography and for music by American composer Virgil Thomson. The images have been restored and released on DVD, with Thomson's original score performed by the Post-Classical Ensemble. Spaniard Angel Gil-Ordonez conducts.

Government officials hoped the films – produced in support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal — would help sell to the American public the need for federal assistance for the victims of dust storms and floods.

The documentaries may be propaganda, but, in the case of The Plow That Broke The Plains, the history of the Great Plains is accurate, says Tim Egan, author of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. The films are widely recognized for their deft combination of images, poetry and music.

The River opens with a 19th-century hymn, with images of crystalline drips of water coalescing into streams. But the power of the river was also destructive, and the film culminates with dramatic footage of entire neighborhoods under water.

The plan to restore the two films was made just months before Hurricane Katrina. Since then, there have been a handful of live performances of the score by the Post-Classical Ensemble, including a benefit for hurricane victims.

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