I held a miniature Pare Lorentz film festival this past weekend for those of us who were gathered at my Mother’s place on Manitoulin Island. On Friday night, while drinking the previously mentioned concoction of mulled apple cider and apricot brandy, we watched The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936). Saturday night, while drinking a beautiful 18 year old scotch, we watched The River (1938). Both films are on a 2007 Naxos DVD release that includes a new recording of the original Virgil Thompson scores.
Having read about both films for my teaching, I came to them with an intellectual awareness of their significance to the development of both documentary film and orchestral music in the United States. Both works were commissioned by the departments of the United States government in support of President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and both faced significant opposition because of this propagandist element in their creation. Nevertheless, both were also fairly well received by audiences and by critics, receiving several awards, not just for their value as documentaries, but also for their musical scores and for their free-verse scripts. They introduced several innovative elements in all of these areas, influencing people as diverse as composer Aaron Copeland and novelist John Steinbeck.
Ironically, considering the purpose for which they were commissioned and the reasons for which they were controversial, neither film would appear terribly propagandistic to current viewers. While they are certainly critical of past farming and settlement practices, and while The River also advocates for an approach to these issues that accords with New Deal policies, there are no explicit political references of any kind in either film. Both seem far more preoccupied with the land and the river themselves, as natural elements that have been destroyed by the practises of the settlers. Their argument seems far more environmental then political, even if the politics of this environmentalism can never be ignored. They lack the kind of visual rhetoric that usually characterizes propaganda films, like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), for example, which was released just before The River, or like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series (1943-1945), which would be the United States’ next serious foray into producing propaganda films. There are certainly some scenes in The Plow that Broke The Plains that are evocative of Riefenstahl, intercutting images of tanks and tractors along with scenes of people cheering soldiers as they parade, but the narration ironizes these scenes even as they are being played, and the narrative of the film soon does the same, as the tractors are next shown broken and half-covered in drifting sand.
This collection of facts about the films does not, of course, convey a real sense of the vision that Lorentz expresses through them. What is most remarkable about them is the way that the cinematography and the music and the poetry come together to form a unified whole. There is in The Plow that Broke the Plains, for example, a beautiful shot of a train running along the very bottom of the screen, its plume of smoke rising to parallel the clouds that dominate the rest of shot. These kinds of images are overlayed by Thompson’s simple, emotional score and by the narrative that repeats throughout the film, “High winds and sun, high winds and sun, a country without rivers, without streams, and with little rain,” combining to create an argument that is less comprehended than experienced.
These combinatory effects are the strength of the films, what allows them to transcend the merely propoganstic purposes for which they were funded and to remain appealing long after those purposes have become obsolete. They permit the films, not to ignore the politics that commissioned them, but to be more or less unconcerned with them. They do not try to escape the political necessities that give them their context. They merely show that they have other concerns as well, other concerns that are perhaps more significant, concerns with an aesthetics and an ethics that the political is unable or unwilling to comprehend. This is why, eighty years later, they remain compelling, because their ethics and their aesthetics have remained relevant, even if their politics have not.