In the mid-1930’s, Roy Emerson Stryker and his band of photographers were roaming the Dust Bowl, capturing images of the devastation in hopes of rallying support for Roosevelt’s New Deal. This “documentary division” of the Farm Security Administration captured images, not of the dust storms, as news outlets across the country had done, but of the people–a woman nursing her dirty-faced child next to a broken-down jalopy, a man on his knees sinking into the ground that had betrayed him, children crying over empty bellies and broken homes.
The images were striking. Painful. Disturbing.
But for Pare Lorentz, they weren’t enough.
Born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Lorentz became a writer and film critic in New York after college, contributing articles to magazines such as Vanity Fair and Town Country. His interest in the film industry eventually led him to Hollywood, where he wrote articles condemning censorship in films and even created a pictorial review of Roosevelt’s first year of presidency in 1933.
It was during this time that the first rumors of the devastation of the Dust Bowl began to seep into the west coast, along with scores of exhausted migrants. Lorentz found he couldn’t look away. And he thought the world shouldn’t either.
He began shopping around an idea for a documentary, a film narrative not just about the effects of the Dust Bowl, but the causes. Every major studio in Hollywood turned him down.
But, in 1935, with the advent of the FSA’s documentary division, Lorentz found an unexpected backer: the United States government.
Roosevelt had been impressed with Lorentz’s book about his presidency, and when he caught wind of the idea to make a Dust Bowl documentary, he jumped at the chance to further advance the goals of the Farm Security Administration (and his own presidency). Despite Lorentz having never actually making a film before, Roosevelt gave him $6,000 to bring his documentary to life.
Hollywood, suddenly interested, cried foul. It wasn’t right, they complained, for the government to get into the movie business, especially the commercial movie business. Not only did it amount to government interference in the free market, but it flirted dangerously with the notion of propaganda.
Lorentz–and the government–did not back down. He assembled a meager team and traveled through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. They captured dusters and dunes, filming the every day lives of people trying to live in unlivable conditions. No matter where they went, the story was the same: hope, then drought, then dust.
But rather than merely sympathize, the film took aim at the farmers. “Make way for the plowmen!” the film’s narrator says, while images of grassland slowly fade into black. “High winds and sun…a country without rivers and with little rain…Settler, plow at your peril!” As composer Virgil Thompson’s soundtrack swelled, the images switched from swaying grass to armies of tractors…and then, jarringly, to the dusters, the dunes, and the devastation.
Lorentz did not hold back. Although his inexperience as director shows, the film’s message came through loud and clear: the Plains should never have been plowed.
The Plow That Broke the Plains premiered on May 10, 1936 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. and was soon shown throughout the country, including a special screening at the White House. In 1937 alone, the film was seen by over 10 million people in theaters, schoolhouses, and meeting rooms across the United States. Its message ignited controversy, debating the notion of human-caused natural disasters. But the question posed at the end of the film could not–and would no longer–be ignored:
“What is America going to do about it?”
Lorentz’s film remains one of the most influential documentaries ever made, the only peacetime production by the American government of a film intended for broad commercial release. It is still used today in classrooms and discussion groups as a reminder of land conservation and the responsibilities of stewardship.
The film is now available online and can be viewed in its entirety here.