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The Plow that Broke the Plains

Reading the newsletter from the Center for Great Plains Studies, I see other people been following some of the same reports I have—about this group of (publicity-seeking) scientists who propose to “re-wild” the Great Plains by stocking the region with camels and lions and all sorts of other large animals collected from other continents. Maybe that’s something to talk about in a future column, but for now, I’d just like to point out how common this sort of thinking is.

The Great Plains always have been a place for Euro-Americans to project their wildest dreams. President Jefferson, in his mind’s eye, saw a Great Plains possessing woolly mammoth, a lost tribe of Welshmen, and a mountain of salt. Now we have this similarly fanciful vision of the Great Plains as an animal park. Frequently, though, outsiders’ visions of the plains have a political basis.

For instance, there’s the classic documentary film made in 1936, The Plow That Broke the Plains. This film, along with The Grapes of Wrath—and, one might argue, The Wizard of OZ—established the cinematic image of the plains as a dreary and disastrous place. The Plow That Broke the Plains, though, is most clearly the product of politics.

The director of Plow was Pare Lorentz, a film critic turned film maker for the Resettlement Administration. The Resettlement Administration was a key agency of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. One of its main tasks was to get people to move away from the Great Plains and give their land back to the government. So Lorentz’s purpose was to show that conditions on the plains were disastrous—and that the federal government was here to help.

There are some problems with the historical aspects of the film. For instance, Lorentz relied heavily on stock footage that appears to have been shot in places far away from the plains. All those giant combines drawn by horses or mules—those never were used on the plains. All those scenes have to have been shot in California or Washington.

Plow, though, isn’t meant to be accurate history. It’s intended to persuade the viewer through visual, poetic, and musical artistry. And the artistry is impressive. Lorentz did the editing himself, effectively mixing images of tanks and tractors, jazz drummers and combined harvesters, to portray a sort of mania of wheat farming. The script is lyric, tragic, and spoken by an operatic baritone. The musical score is by Virgil Thompson, who makes an effective collage of folksongs, popular tunes, and hymns.

The film looks a little hokey to modern viewers, but in its time it was powerfully impressive. Its first screening was at the White House. Its public debut was at an event in New York that also featured The Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s film in praise of National Socialism in Germany. I say that not to associate Lorentz directly with Riefenstahl, but rather to make the point that documentary films always have agendas.

The Plow That Broke the Plains established the equation: Great Plains = Dust Bowl. People protested this at the time, but the film outlasted its critics. Any time you see a depiction of the Dust Bowl on television today, it’s likely to draw on footage from Plow.

The problem is, the political purpose of the film is not revealed. Today the National Archives makes DVDs of Plow available to the public, but in edited form. The original had an epilogue stating clearly that the federal government was the only hope of the people of Great Plains, moving the people out to better places. It was heavy-handed, but it was honest.

Whenever someone hits the papers with some grand vision for the Great Plains, it’s always a good idea to follow the money.

 

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