Saturday, April 07, 2007


The Plow That Broke The Plains is an important historical document on several levels. It shows the state of the art in the documentary and the political orientation of government civil servants of its day. It includes some of the best raw footage of the environment and agricultural practices in the American West. The soundtrack by Virgil Thomson connects the otherwise dry narration with many important themes and trends in American society.

I show this film to my students in Environmental Science in order to introduce them to the complex economic causes for many environmental causes. Both the script, a pastiche of contemporary headlines and campaign slogans, and Pare Lorentz's "montage" style editing connect the booming World War I economy to the environmental crisis that followed. The film does not provide answers, and subsequent research has provided new insights on the Dust Bowl crisis.



The links above provide a streaming version which I am currently providing to my students. Several versions can also be downloaded from the U. S. National Archives webage.

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6 Comments:

At 2:10 AM , Blogger One Wacky Mom said...

This is an incredible movie and amazing history. What's profound is how much land they covered with this little piece of wood. Which is all it really is. Its help one to understand now how far we have moved from an agrarian society...

This is tremendous, just fascinating. Thank you for this wonderful work.

 
At 6:10 AM , Blogger Don Thieme said...

I think that most of us have probably seen some of these images before and not realized that they came from this movie. You are right that we have come a long way since the 1930's. I fear, though, that some of the lessons may have been forgotten and may not have been learned yet by farmers and agricultural planners in the developing world.

 
At 6:30 PM , Blogger decrepitoldfool said...

I finally got to see this - had trouble playing it in my new Linux installation.

There are so many threads; the lack of environmental foresight, the current sorry state of the Oglala aquifer (how exactly would the water table be recharged?), the migration described in The Grapes Of Wrath. The loss of the buffolo, the emerging dependence of our food chain on cattle and wheat. (the casual phrase; "the indian had been cleared") You could build an entire history class around this film, and it makes the effort of preparing "environmental impact reports" a lot more worth it.

Did anyone raise the question of sustainability beforehand, and if they did, what was the reaction?

 
At 8:31 PM , Blogger Don Thieme said...

Glad to know that someone can still view it at all. I was beginning to suspect that my college was sabotaging me with a file size limit or something. I will have to try and view it myself again.

I was trying to make all of the connections that you mention. A few of my students definitely enjoyed and got some of the message. That style of documentary film is very different from the sort of direct advocacy that is being made today. The narration is very understated.

 
At 11:23 AM , Blogger decrepitoldfool said...

I just had a horrid thought; what if Michael Moore had made this film? How watchable will our documentaries be in 50 years?

 
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