The Plow That Broke the Plains & The River (1936 & 37)

by | Jan 21, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Plow That Broke the Plains & The River (1936 & 37)

Documentaries by Pare Lorentz with original newly-recorded
scores by Virgil Thomson
Performers: Post-Classical Ensemble/ Angel Gil-Ordonez
Studio: Naxos 2.110521
Video: 4:3 B&W, Interviews in color
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 5.1, stereo PCM, mono PCM
Extras: George Stoney on both films, The New Deal, and Race; Charles Fussell on Virgil Thomson, short audio-only Virgil Thomson interview, original open & close to The Plow
Length: Docs – 58:27; Extras – 52:24
Rating: ****

I remember being exposed to these two films in early grade school – guess that dates me. Both films were the first documentaries made by the U.S. Government for commercial release, trying to educate the public about The New Deal. They were really propaganda films with a good goal, and tried to be innovative with the film medium in a similar way the Soviets and Nazis had already been doing. They were a mix of poetic imagery, free verse narration and original symphonic scores by Thomson (who did The Plow for $500 as his first score). While Lorentz also had never made a film before, he hired great photographers such as Paul Strand, and there was an openness in the sharing of ideas among those creating the films. Lorentz had difficult getting some of the stock footage he required in Hollywood because the major studios didn’t like the idea of the U.S. Government horning in on their territory.

The narration replaced sync sound, which at the time was too expensive to use, and anyway most of the images were of landscapes and more distant vistas than closeups of people. The Plow That Broke the Plains follows the history of the Great Plains and how continual abuse of the land plus a long drought caused the terrible Dust Bowl which sent poor farmers on the road to the West Coast. Demands for wheat during the First World War are shown to have been factor in over-farming the land. The CCC and other New Deal institutions are shown at the end of the film helping to improve life the affected farmers.The River similarly traces the history of the Mississippi – draining two-thirds of the U.S. continent, it points out. Devastating erosion and floods are shown – one in New Orleans ringing bells about Hurricane Katrina. The solution is shown to be the building of dams, with a focus on the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Of course now we realize dams are seldom the answer…)  While showing the disasters visited on some of them, both films honor the American land and people, and a major element in that is Virgil Thomson’s music.

Thomson scoured American folk music and jazz for most of his themes, and the manner in which he presented them set the standard for what we now recognize as “Americana” in concert music works.  Copland and his quintessentially American-sounding music wouldn’t have been possible without Thomson showing the way. Some of the themes – such as the Doxology – were super-familiar to most of the audiences of the time and caused a strong emotional connection with The Plow’s message.  Thomson and Copland together offered an alternative in their spare, chamber and folk-oriented scores to the lush Romantic standard then established in Hollywood film scores by such as Korngold and Steiner.

The Post-Classical Ensemble, based in Washington D.C., recorded the entire Thomson score, including sections edited  out in later releases of the films, and their soundtrack is provided in thrilling DTS 5.1 surround as well as Dolby and PCM.  If you want to hear the original, scratchy and underfed musical score, you can select that option in the extras. Actually, I preferred the approach of the original narrator to the replacement hi-fi narrator – I thought his earnest “voice of God” approach better fit the archetypal images. But the new full orchestral score in surround is a major improvement.  And the extras provide fascinating background on the films and on Virgil Thomson.

 — John Sunier

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