The legacy of Pare Lorentz and his two most important films are worth revisiting, even some 80 years later. Simply put, his ground-breaking films The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937) still hold up as documentary landmarks. Ultimately, these films demonstrate the potential and power of film as a medium for social change.

Lorentz’s stature as American documentary icon is firmly cemented. Moreover, documentary scholars place him on the same pedestal as John Grierson, founder of the British documentary movement. Lorentz, however, despised the word documentary. As a result, he came at making what he preferred to call ‘films of merit’ from a distinctly different direction. He was critical of Grierson’s work in England for being too ‘teacherish’. Thus, Lorentz preferred to aim for dramatic/persuasive/informational-focused movies.

Documenting the nation’s woes

Branded ‘FDR’s filmmaker’ for most of his working life, Pare Lorentz came by the label honestly. A New York liberal and Virginia populist (where he was from), he was a cheerleader for Roosevelt’s New Deal. Furthermore, working as a journalist and film critic in New York City during the 1930s–Lorentz was overtly critical of Hollywood churning out mass entertainment. Directors, in his view, should have been turning their cameras on America’s social ails, precipitated by what historians describe as “the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world.”

Lorentz was a passionate advocate for using film to educate and raise public awareness around important social and political issues.

Lorentz was a passionate advocate for using film to educate and raise public awareness around important social and political issues. Thus, not seeing issues-based films on American screens–he decided to jump from journalism into film production. Simply put, his goal was to make his own film: “A newsreel of the tragic events that were going on in our country.” It would shed light on the foreclosures of homes, dispossession of farms, and the displacement of unemployed migrants heading west, riding the rails to find work and opportunity.

Financial roadblocks

In a 1976 Library of Congress interview, Lorentz recalls his project: “What I wanted to do is put together a one-hour newsreel from the election of Mr. Roosevelt to the extraordinary events of the repeal of Prohibition, not only the 100 days but the hope and yet the violence that took place and the tear gassing of striking workers.”

In either case, not connected to investors Lorentz, “only had one or two acquaintances with large money.” He found it tough to raise money for his film — “I didn’t even attempt Hollywood, they just thought I couldn’t do it for limited funds.”

He approached several Wall Street financiers to back his idea for a film company that would travel across the states to shoot “the great change in the portrait of the country that nobody was doing.” Yet, the money men turned him down. “So I turned to still pictures,” Lorentz told a Canadian TV interviewer in 1986.

Contrasting hope and despair

Having failed to secure the necessary funding for a film, Pare Lorentz instead collaborated with famed Vogue art director Mehemed Fehmy Agha and a team of photographers who shot all across the country to create a book of photos titled “The Roosevelt Year” (1934). In his chronicle of FDR’s achievements during his first year in office, Lorentz wanted to contrast the despair of rural and urban Americans with the hope that the new Roosevelt administration offered up to the nation.

“I put running captions across the top so you could look at the captions and turn the pages, and then, in decent type, I had a summary of the facts,” said Lorentz.

Consequently, part propaganda, part documentary record “The Roosevelt Year” was essentially a single-themed current affairs magazine between hard covers. The book had a cinematic quality that reviewers praised. As a result, Lorentz took the book to Washington. There, he managed to gain an audience with Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace. Lorentz asked him point blank: ”Why doesn’t the government have somebody photograph the great things going on?”

Pare Lorentz, Government, and the Plow that Broke the Plains

Wallace sent him to the Resettlement Administration. The RA was one of the newly-formed relief agencies of the New Deal. Its goal was to provide aid to farmers forced off their land by low crop prices and drought.

Soon after, the RA hired Pare Lorentz as its film consultant. With no prior experience as a filmmaker, but a staunch supporter of FDR and his New Deal, Lorentz persuaded his government bosses to make The Plow that Broke the Plains, a film about the Dustbowl. The film chronicles the massive drought and dust storm that struck the Southern Plains in the 1930s, destroying crops and killing livestock from Nebraska to Texas.

Lorentz wrote and directed The Plow, but the politics of the day almost prevented him from making the film he wanted to make — an indictment of the lack of planning that caused the Dust Bowl. He believed government should safeguard the public’s right to know.

A mutinous crew

Additionally, first he had to deal with his own crew. With Lorentz in Washington, a “lack of clarity” in the novice documentarian’s direction frustrated the crew shooting in Texas. As a result, they decided to write their own shooting script. The seasoned crew included cinematographers Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner. They were key figures in the modern photography and avant-garde film movements. They were also members of the Workers Film and Photo League, an association of photographers who used their art for social and political causes.

Documentary historian Jack C. Ellis describes the stand-off in The Documentary Idea, his 1989 survey of doc history: “The film as they (the crew) conceived it was to be about the devastation of the land and the hardships of the people caused by exploitative capitalism. This was not an economic-political stance Lorentz was prepared to take (nor would the government have welcomed it) and dissension and cross-purposes resulted.”

Backlash in Hollywood

Another threat Lorentz faced in getting The Plow made came from the formidable Will H. Hays, the first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and former chair of the Republican National Committee. Hays was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. At the time, the industry in Hollywood saw government film production as a threat. As a result, when Hays got wind that Lorentz was making The Plow, the longstanding Roosevelt adversary put the word out; Pare Lorentz was not to set foot in any studio. This effectively blocked the fledgling director from purchasing any stock footage from fiction features to include in The Plow.  

“The Plow that Broke the Plains” was Pare Lorentz’s first documentary effort. Though he faced challenges during production, the result is considered a landmark in documentary and government filmmaking to this day.

Lorentz had to rely on his friend and mentor, five-time Oscar nominee Hollywood director, King Vidor to bail him out. Altogether, Vidor provided the clout and resources to replace The Plow’s rebellious crew. He also helped hire an editor and secure the stock footage Lorentz needed. Lorentz assembled the footage from a rough outline, wrote the commentary and hired composer Virgil Thompson. Tompson was famous for his contribution to the development of the American Sound in classical music. Lorentz used Thompson’s score of folk and traditional music as a through-line.

The Plow that Broke the Plains broke new ground in documentary storytelling. The Rialto Theatre in New York City advertised it as, “The picture they dared us to show.” Audiences found the film compelling. “The combination of Lorentz’s eloquent script, Virgil Thompson’s moving score, and a photographic style that evoked the best of Photo League documentation, created a quality that was unique to government initiatives, and rare even in period documentary circles,” wrote one reviewer.

Lorentz’s second film

Film critics argued that Lorentz’s second film, The River, was an even greater success than Plow. The film was made for the Farm Security Administration. Jack C. Ellis describes it as “a compelling plea for national flood control and soil conservation.”

Moreover, one of the film’s aims was to “counteract the public relations campaign being conducted by private utilities to keep government out of electric power.” The River shows the historic role of the Mississippi waterways, while promoting the Tennessee Valley Authority (the federal electricity provider) as the way to combat the devastating consequences of deforestation on its banks. 

In “The River,” Pare Lorentz highlights the crisis of the Mississippi River brought about by aggressive deforestation and other harmful practices. The film also presents possible solutions to this crisis.

Again, Pare Lorentz wrote and directed, and again, he hired star cinematographers including Willard Van Dyke and Floyd Crosby, who would go on to fiction features including High Noon (1952). Virgil Thompson again provided his Americana score drawn from traditional music.

A New York Times reviewer described The River in rhapsodic terms that rival Lorentz’s own poetic commentaries:

The River is an epic – It is the story of neglect and ignorance and greed, of cotton land milked dry, of ruthless timber cutting, of earth scarred by the miners of coal and iron. It is the story of the river’s rebellion, of floods and erosion and the desolate wasting of the land. And it is the story, still in its first chapters, of reforestation, scientific land cultivation, of dams and power plants and model homes. It is the story of the Mississippi as told by a modern realist, not an Edna Ferber in romantic salute to the past.”

The River won best documentary at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. Lorentz’s commentary was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

The bigger picture

FDR was reported to have loved both The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River.  On the strength of their critical acclaim, Lorentz was able to win the president’s backing in establishing the United States Film Service in 1938. With Lorentz as its head, the US Film Service “was to make films propagandizing the policies and activities of all departments, of the government,” firmly establishing Lorentz’s pioneering precedent “for government use of documentaries” which would continue throughout World War II.

“The Plow That Broke the Plains opened my eyes to the possibility of film as a social force, as well as an artistic medium,” writes New York Filmmaker and former National Film Board of Canada documentarian William Greaves. “What impressed me most about the film was that it combined an aesthetic, even poetic style—one that seems sentimental today—with a strong political message.”

Greaves says that, even though filmmaking styles have changed radically in the years since Pare Lorentz made his films, aspiring filmmakers would do well to study them.

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