Review of “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936)
Seen in 2017.
Excessive agriculture on the US Great Plains, resulting in the ecological catastrophe of the Dust Bowl.
As the title cards puts it, a “documentary film”. Cf. “Drifters” (1929). This one is beautifully shot by cheap New York cameramen, edited by the amateur director and brilliantly scored to early versions by Virgil Thomson, then reedited to mutually support the score without mickey-mousing; it’s all good, even the animation.
The story is, of course, a simplification, totally omitting pre-colonial land use among other details of the system. For a little context, see Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy (1977/1994) or Worster’s longer case study, and Erik Barnouw’s Documentary (1974/1983). Barnouw notes that by the final days of the Hoover presidency, “the deprived experienced an identity problem: nowhere in the mass media did they find their plight represented”. Setting the stage for his discussion of this film, he continues:
President Hoover considered the Depression to be mainly a crisis of confidence; undermining confidence was therefore a public disservice, and optimism was statesmanship. The press, almost wholly Republican, tended to reflect this view; it constantly noted signs of upturn, even as the breadlines lengthened. Meanwhile radio concentrated on smooth music, fortune-telling, and advertising; it scarcely had the beginnings of a news service. Fiction films from Hollywood were in an opulent phase of Busby Berkeley choruses, and were beginning to seem as remote to many Americans as to Asians and Africans. And its “non-fiction” product, the newsreel, was perhaps even more irrelevant and bizarre—and was so by design.
[---] Studio executives felt that controversy could only bring troubles; its avoidance became hallowed principle. The attitude actually hardened in the early Depression. In 1931 the Fox Corporation issued a statement that none of its theaters would be allowed to show newsreels of a controversial nature.
The Roosevelt years saw this ice starting to crack, with workers making their own films after silent equipment prices crashed. Director Pare Lorentz made “The Plow That Broke the Plains” for the government, a fact which got him locked out of Hollywood’s vaults, especially because it had emotional impact. It was seen as competition. Hollywood artists defied studio bosses to get Lorentz the stock film he needed. A former Paramount executive then exploited his industry’s opposition to market the film in his own New York theater: “Hollywood has turned its manicured thumb down!” despite the good reviews, said his ad. It is an almost formulaic tale of the heroic amateur and a small group of new friends struggling to do great deeds, representing not only the deprived in cinemas, but a fragile ecology as well.