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The Plow That Broke the Plains
Remind Me
The Plow That Broke the Plains

The Plow That Broke the Plains

In subject, The Plow That Broke the Plains is a biography of the Great Plains region, an area of 625,000 square miles stretching from the Texas panhandle through Kansas and Nebraska to the Dakotas and the Canadian border. In style, the movie is a cinematic tone poem, matching superbly framed images with restlessly shifting music and flowing, unsentimental words. Written and directed by Pare Lorentz in 1936, it starts in the 1880s, when the territory was an "ocean of grass" ideal for grazing cattle, and ends in the middle 1930s, when poor agricultural choices had turned it into a desiccated no-man's-land straight out of The Grapes of Wrath. It's a flawed and fascinating picture that etches fifty years of history in less than half an hour, skewing many of the facts but capturing the anxious spirit of the Depression era – and the high ideals of the period's documentary movement – as vividly as any movie of its day.

Lorentz started out as a film critic who never minced words. "When he pierces the fog of feverish movie ballyhoo," one of his editors wrote, "he does so with a surgeon's eye and a surgeon's intent." To show his impatience with people who did mince words, moreover, in 1930 he published a book-length attack on "the unlearned and stupid heckling" of Hollywood censors. His experience as a critic helped him land a job with the federal government, which brought him to Washington in 1935 as a consultant for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program that sent photographers around the country to document conditions and educate the public. The agency wanted to start making movies, and while Lorentz had no practical expertise in the field, he knew a lot about cinema and had written a long article for Newsweek about the Dust Bowl, the expanse of Midwestern land most disastrously affected by drought, poverty, and suffering. Lorentz convinced his employers that instead of producing a series of movies few people would want to see, they should focus their attention on a single "film of merit" excellent enough to compete with Hollywood features. Armed with a meager budget of six thousand dollars, he set off to write and direct the kind of documentary he had in mind.

It wasn't easy, especially since the low budget meant Lorentz would have to shoot the entire film on location with no direct sound. Getting off to a good start, he hired three of the era's most gifted photographers – Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, and Leo T. Hurwitz – and took them on a trek from Montana to Texas, where they filmed everything from dust storms to snowstorms. The crew was bothered by Lorentz's lack of a shooting script, however, and its far-left members found his moderate New Deal politics too conservative for comfort. Strand and Hurwitz wanted the film "to be all about human greed and how lousy our social system was," Lorentz recalled later. "And I couldn't see what this had to do with dust storms." Tensions grew so bad that the crew went on strike while shooting in Texas, whereupon Lorentz fired them, hoping he could complete the film with stock footage bought from Hollywood studios.

Pursuing this plan, Lorentz quickly learned two unfortunate facts – that the studios saw no reason to help competing filmmakers from the government, particularly when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House, and that his hard-edged film criticism had alienated some of the very people whose cooperation he needed now. Aided by his friend King Vidor, he eventually found the material he needed, and with cinematographer Paul Ivano he did a bit more shooting. Since his production funds were gone by this time, he then took a crash course in film editing and began to cut the movie himself, helped by Leo Zochling, who also edited Lorentz's documentary The River (1938) two years later. In a last-minute stroke of luck, composer Virgil Thomson agreed to write the music for a modest fee; unlike others Lorentz had approached, Thomson wanted to create a score that would harmonize with the film's other elements, not a showpiece that would grab undue attention for itself. The final collaborator was Thomas Chalmers, a former opera singer who narrated the picture.

The Plow That Broke the Plains came in at a final cost of $19,260, more than three times the original budget. Having supplied some of the financing himself, Lorentz was now eager to show the movie off. Special screenings in Washington were extremely well received, but distributors and exhibitors – still wary of competition, or hostile to the New Deal, or both – refused to put it on the market, so Lorentz took it on a promotional tour, bringing a government PR team with him. Before long a Manhattan theater decided to book it, advertising it as "The Picture They Dared Us to Show!" More than 3,000 theaters around the United States then jumped on the bandwagon. While the film (distributed free by the government) was never intended to make money, it proved very popular, thanks in part to Lorentz's clarity about what he wanted to achieve. For him the film was a fifty-year "melodrama of nature" with a forceful narrative line: ranchers fill the land with their herds; then farmers plow it for crops; then the unfriendly climate drives many planters away; then World War I revitalizes the region with a soaring demand for wheat; and finally the land becomes a quasi-desert and a death trap, unable to hold precious moisture with its depleted soil. The film's ending takes the tale to its melancholy conclusion, as grim and uncompromising as the depths of the Depression itself.

Despite its brilliance as a work of art, The Plow That Broke the Plains has factual and intellectual lapses that even casual viewers may spot. Near the beginning, for instance, we're told multiple times that many Great Plains inhabitants live two hundred miles from water because the region has no rivers, no streams, and hardly any rainfall. But a little later we hear about bad periods when the rains failed to come, suggesting that there was rain at other times. Later still, World War I is depicted as a miraculous event for wheat growers, since it caused prices and demand to skyrocket, yet there's no explanation of how farmers grew all those crops if there were no rivers and hardly any rain. Film historian Richard Dyer MacCann has pointed out additional errors, noting that dust dunes and bankrupted farms were not present everywhere in the region, as the movie implies; that there's no place in the grasslands where people live two hundred miles from water; that there are rivers in the area, including big ones like the Missouri, the Yellowstone, and the Arkansas; that the 1929 stock-market crash didn't cause the nosedive in farming, which started earlier than the film suggests, or the horrendous drought, which started later. And so on.

All of this said, The Plow That Broke the Plains deserves its reputation as a key American documentary, and it's still compelling today. In the 1930s, it drew criticism from politicians with axes to grind, such as a South Dakota officeholder who declared that it had "made South Dakota definitely Republican" by "picturing the state as a wasteland." Yet other moviegoers felt Lorentz should have gone even farther. Writing to him from Texas, an admirer said that "the only criticism I could offer was that you did not [show] the worst things that happened out here: people dying from dust pneumonia, cows being shot and BLACK dusters." According to Robert L. Snyder's book about Lorentz, the filmmaker's favorite comment was something he heard an audience member say in the row ahead of him: "They never should have plowed them plains."

Director: Pare Lorentz
Screenplay: Pare Lorentz
Cinematographers: Ralph Steiner, Paul Ivano, Paul Strand, Leo T. Hurwitz
Film Editing: Leo Zochling
Music: Virgil Thomson
With: Thomas Chalmers (Narrator)

by David Sterritt