The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River

Naxos, 112 minutes

Before Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth, Pare Lorentz pioneered the modern documentary with two films that explore the sometimes uneasy coexistence of man and nature.The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), the first film created by the federal government for commercial distribution, traces the origins of the Dust Bowl back to the settlement of the Great Plains. Natural grasslands gave way to cattle grazing and wheat farming, but a generation or two later, the plows were scratching a feeble furrow in the dust, the rich topsoil having disappeared. “Settler, plow at your peril,” intones the narrator, over scenes of Depression-era families pulling up stakes and heading west.

The River (1938), a paean to the Mississippi River, the Tennessee Valley Authority and flood control, recounts the post–Civil War industrial boom in the North that stripped the trees from the mountains and gouged coal and iron ore from the earth. With little vegetation to control runoff and erosion, the Mississippi, which drains two-thirds of North America, became a conduit for 400 million tons of topsoil a year to wash into the Gulf of Mexico. Between 1903 and 1937, eight major floods inundated the Mississippi River Valley, and flood control and soil conservation became important issues for New Deal reformers.

Composer Virgil Thomson scored the films with a blend of classical music elements and familiar hymns and folk tunes. Newly recorded for this DVD release, the music is as integral to the films’ emotional impact as the visual images and the sparse, poetic narration.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here