Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Plow That Broke the Plains (U.S. Resettlement Administration, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In the wake of the Ken Burns mini-series The Dust Bowl I had downloaded from Pare Lorentz’s 1936 film The Plow That Broke the Plains, a 25-minute documentary produced by the U.S. government back when Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) had hired people not only to dig ditches and build bridges, highways and government buildings (many of them still in use today!) but to do some pretty far-afield things like put on plays, write books (mostly travel guidebooks giving the histories and listing the attractions of some of America’s historic regions) and make movies. The Burns show had mentioned this film and had said that when it was shown in the still-operating movie theatres in the Dust Bowl region itself, audiences hadn’t liked it, partly because they went to the movies to escape the reality instead of watching it bigger than life on screen, and partly because they felt insulted by it since the film essentially blamed the Dust Bowl crisis on the farmers themselves for plowing up too much marginal land and expecting to make a living out of farming wheat in places with big winds, hot sun and very little rain.

Ironically, the Ken Burns documentary basically told the same story from the same point of view, though it had nearly four hours to tell it in versus Pare Lorentz’ 25 minutes; Lorentz’ take on it goes back at least to the 1890’s and the battles between cattlemen and homesteaders over the future of the Great Plains, which have been the subject of innumerable Westerns (from Oklahoma! and Shane to Heaven’s Gate); first the cattlemen moved in after the land was “cleared” (an astonishing euphemism showing that even a man as self-consciously Leftist as Lorentz wasn’t immune to the prejudices of his time) of the Indians and the buffalo, and grazed their herds on the native grasses that had previously supported the buffalo (and the Native Americans who depended on them for food, clothing and shelter!); then the farmers came in and their plows started to break the plains (the marvelously punning title — “broke” in the sense of opening the soil for tilling and planting, and “broke” in the sense of destroying — is one of the best things about this film) and they started eking out a marginal existence; then World War I opened up huge new markets for wheat and the plains farmers took advantage of the war-driven boom (and the bubble-driven boom of the 1920’s which followed) and a decade or so of really good rainfall to plant wheat and harvest bumper crops which they could sell for a lot of money; then the national economy collapsed in 1929 and the farm ecology of the Plains states collapsed two years later, leading to the Dust Bowl and the catastrophe Lorentz and his squad of four cinematographers — Leo T. Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand and Paul Ivano — captured in images of heart-stopping beauty and horror even in the poor-quality print available on (According to a “trivia” note on, all the camerapeople except Ivano — perhaps not coincidentally, the only one who’d had Hollywood experience; he’d worked on Valentino’s films in the 1920’s and made a comeback in the 1940’s as a noir specialist — walked out on the production because they wanted a more visually oriented, less narration-driven approach than Lorentz’s.)

What’s most amazing about The Plow That Broke the Plains today is its obvious debt to the films of the Soviet Union, Eisenstein’s in particular (but then this was an era in which virtually every progressive filmmaker in the world regarded Eisenstein as a god; I can remember Charles and I watching John Grierson’s first film, the 1929 silent documentary Drifters, and noting its obvious debt to Battleship Potemkin even though the sailors in Eisenstein’s film were starting a revolution while the ones in Grierson’s were just catching herring); it’s essentially a work of socialist realism done in and about the U.S. Even the rather emphatic narration by Thomas Chalmers (not exactly one of the golden throats of the day) has the air of the Popular Front about it, its attempt to communicate the ideas of the Left in the folksy tones its city-bred creators hoped would make the point to rural audiences (and the narration got awfully patronizing and preachy at times but it still marks a time when the Left actually tried to reach out to middle America in general and rural America in particular instead of regarding it as hopelessly beyond the pale).

The most famous element of The Plow That Broke the Plains (and of Lorentz’s follow-up, the 1937 documentary The River, about the Mississippi) is the original musical score by Virgil Thomson, conducted by Alexander Smallens (who also conducted the world premiere production of Porgy and Bess), which essentially is in what could be called the “Americana” vein of Aaron Copland except that Thomson was writing that way before Copland was. Thomson even uses the same Western folk song, “I Ride an Old Paint,” that Copland used in the slow “Saturday Night Waltz” section of his ballet Rodeo six years later. The Plow That Broke the Plains is visually stunning (it’s a hymn to the effectiveness of the red filter, a device that alas became unusable once color replaced black-and-white as the movie standard), narratively creaky, musically fascinating (Leopold Stokowski made a famous LP of the scores for this and The River and more recently the films have been reissued on DVD with Smallens’ versions of the scores erased and new recordings of Thomson’s music dubbed in) and a real period piece even though Ken Burns not only showed the opening credits in The Dust Bowl but also included, as if it were actual newsreel footage, the shots of a farmer (Bam White) and his family packing up their meager goods in their car and trailer before setting off to flee the Dust Bowl.