One of the quintessential films of the Great Depression is The Grapes of Wrath, which follows the Joad family as they leave their dust-covered Oklahoma farm for the bluer skies of California. One of the most famous documentaries from that era also involves the Dust Bowl, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936).
The film was (sort of) funded by the Resettlement Administration, later called the Farm Security Administration, under the Department of Agriculture. The administration’s film department hired Pare Lorentz to illustrate key issues facing American agriculture and The Plow that Broke the Plains was his first film. Lorentz used imagery, free-verse poetry, and a score by Virgil Thompson to persuade the American people that the overuse of land in the Great Plains region heavily contributed to the Dust Bowl.
Lorentz was an environmentalist. His prologue to the film ends, “This is a picturization of what we did with it.” “It” refers to the Great Plains, “a half million square miles of natural range.” He shows images of an expanse of prairie, followed by the introduction of cattle, settlers, fences, and then, the plow. Lorentz isn’t blaming farmers for the Dust Bowl. The film discusses the need to meet increasing demand for food during World War I and the ability to meet that need through the mechanization of agricultural tools. But he does show that it wasn’t sustainable and we need to rethink our relationship with the land.
Lorentz also directed The River (1938), another Resettlement Administration film that spotlights the importance of the Mississippi River and its major tributaries to the development of the United States. He was also the director of the official US government film record of the Nuremberg Trials.
If you are fond of the dramatized version of the Dust Bowl, join us on Friday, January 14, 2011 in Meeting Room A to watch and discuss John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath with John Raeburn, professor emeritus of American Studies and English at the University of Iowa.