The River - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1937

Director: Pare Lorentz

Production: Farm Security Administration, United States Government; black and white, 35mm; running time: 32 minutes. Released 20 October 1937, premiering in New Orleans. Filmed October 1936–1 March 1937 along the Mississippi River Valley, beginning in West Virginia and concluding in New Orleans. Cost: budgeted at $50,000, plus additional funds for shooting flood sequences.

Screenplay: Pare Lorentz; photography: Floyd Crosby, Stacy Woodward, and Willard Van Dyke; editors: Pare Lorentz with Lloyd Nosler; music: Virgil Thomson; conductor: Alexander Smallens.

Cast: Thomas Chalmers ( Narrator ).

Awards: Venice International Film Festival, Best Documentary, 1938.



Lorentz, Pare, The River: A Scenario , New York, 1938.


Snyder, Robert L., Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film , Norman, Oklahoma 1968, 1993.

Barsam, Richard, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History , New York, 1973.

Dyer MacCann, Richard, The People's Films: A Political History of U.S. Government Motion Pictures , New York, 1973.

Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film , New York, 1974.

Alexander, William, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931–1942 , Princeton, New Jersey, 1981.

Ellis, Jack C., The Documentary Idea , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1989.

Lorentz, Pare, FDR's Moviemaker: Memoirs and Scripts , Reno, 1992.


Time (New York), 8 November 1937.

Ferguson, Otis, in New Republic (New York), 10 November 1937.

Seldes, Gilbert, in Scribner's (New York), January 1938.

Barnes, Harold, in Herald-Tribune (New York), 5 February 1938.

Nugent, Frank, in New York Times , 5 and 6 February 1938.

Saturday Review of Literature (New York), April 1938.

"Award to Pare Lorentz." in Magazine of Art (New York), July 1938.

Goodman, Ezra, "The American Documentary," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1938.

White, W. L., "Pare Lorentz," in Scribner's (New York), January 1939.

"Pare Lorentz," in Current Biography Yearbook , New York, 1940.

Lorentz, Pare, "The Narration of The River ," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1965.

Van Dyke, Willard, "Letters from The River ," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1965.

"Conscience of the 30s," in Newsweek (New York), 5 August 1968.

Engle, Harrison, "30 Years of Social Inquiry: An Interview with Willard Van Dyke," in Nonfiction Film: Theory and Criticism , edited by Richard Barsam, New York, 1976.

Rollins, P. C., "Ideology and Film Rhetoric: Three Documentaries of the New Deal Era," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C.), no. 2, 1976.

Miller, C. A., "A Note of Pare Lorentz's The River ," in Film and History (Newark, New Jersey), December 1980.

Georgakas, D., "Cinema of the New Deal," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 21, no. 4, 1995.

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Persuasive and poetic, The River is probably the best film ever made about conservation of natural resources. Produced by the U.S. government during 1936, released in theatres in 1937 to extraordinary critical acclaim, it competed with 70 other films to win the prize for documentary at the Venice Film Festival in 1938. For many years, The River was a popular rental item for 16mm libraries for classroom use, and it is still used to evoke the spirit of the 1930s in history courses. Brilliant and beautiful today, especially when projected in an auditorium from a recent print, it is a prime example of art bearing a message.

The River is usually thought of in connection with The Plow That Broke the Plains (1935–36), also produced for the special New Deal relief agency called the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) and also written and directed by Pare Lorentz. The first film had been about the overplowing of midwestern land, resulting in the devastating dust storms of the 1930s. The second film was about the erratic and widespread cutting of trees and destruction of grass cover which resulted in repeated floods on the Mississippi.

Lorentz was a young maverick liberal from West Virginia who used to hear his father and friends sound off on the dangers to the land when timber was cut from the ridges and chemicals were dumped in the rivers. He left the state university to go to work as a writer in New York City, working for the General Electric house organ, for Newsweek (where he did a long piece on the dust storms), and for ten years as movie editor for Judge magazine. Friends of his wife in Washington brought him together with Rex Tugwell, one of the Franklin Roosevelt "brain trusters" who had plans for publicizing widely the need for conservation and for government action.

Although as a critic he was something of an expert on movies, Lorentz had never in his life been responsible for making any part of a motion picture. He learned how on The Plow That Broke the Plains , which was originally proposed as a training film for RA staff people helping farmers to be "resettled" on good land and use it more effectively. It developed into a highly controversial documentary shown in theatres, reviewed by critics, and used in the 1936 campaign by Democratic candidates for Congress. In style and approach, it came out as strong negative propaganda, ending with dust and displaced people, leaving audiences with a sense of guilt and hopelessness,

The River became a different kind of persuasive statement. It ended with an extended coda, starting with a map of the valley, from the Missouri down to the gulf, then closing in on the Tennessee River, where the Tennessee Valley Authority had begun the taming of the floods, the control of navigation, and the kind of planning for power distribution which would bring safety and prosperity to that valley. It was a positive and heartening conclusion, an affirmation of man's political ability to plan.

The River was also a unique attempt to offer a kind of American frontier style of poetry in its narration. Twice a list of the major rivers in the Mississippi system is given a rhythmic reading, once to suggest how the waters come down every spring, again to show how they come down disastrously at time of flood. This risky kind of monologue occurred to Lorentz as an ideal way to write an article in McCall's magazine. It received such a big response of reader mail that he decided to adapt it for his film.

The communicative virtues of the creative imagination are nicely illustrated in this U.S. government film, which was in large part based upon an official document. The Mississippi Valley Committee had written about forest and grass cover: "When this protective cover is disturbed by forest destruction, tillage, or overgrazing of livestock, erosion is accelerated." Lorentz the artist put it this way: "Year in, year out, the water comes down, down from a thousand hillsides, washing the top off the Valley."

The trusting, powerful narration, combined with the compelling use of U.S. themes in Virgil Thomson's musical track and the aesthetic values of the black-and-white photography—evoking beauty in the early scenes, stark tragedy later—made The River a striking achievement from almost every critical standpoint. Frank Nugent in the New York Times , called it "poetic, stirring, and majestic," Gilbert Seldes in Scribner's gave the film a special write-up, and Howard Barnes in the New York Herald-Tribune praised its "brooding beauty and impact," its unity and economy, making "social history vital, understandable, and dramatic." As for popular response, theatre managers reported to Paramount, which had agreed to release it, that The River drew audience "applause at every showing."

Lorentz went on to make and to supervise other films for an agency Roosevelt and his advisers called the U.S. Film Service. He hired Robert Flaherty to do a film called The Land for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and Joris Ivens to dramatize the services to one family by the Rural Electrification Administration in Power and the Land. But his own melodramatic feature-length story about a local maternity centre, The Fight for Life , was objected to by Congressional committees and by Senator Robert Taft on the floor of the Senate. The threat of World War II and a history of conflict between the Congress and Pare Lorentz's various sponsors overshadowed any possibilities for good in centralized U.S. government film making comparable to such agencies in England and Canada. Appropriations for the Film Service were finally denied in 1940.

—Richard Dyer MacCann

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