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he River represents Pare Lorentz' greatest achievement as a filmmaker. Made in 1938, the film is similar in premise to The Plow That Broke the Plains. Where that film traced the history of the Great Plains and the abuse of the land that led to the creation of the Dust Bowl, The River documented the history of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Inspired by a map that hung in the office of the Secretary of Agriculture, the filmed traced the path of the tributaries that merged together to form the great Mississippi River. Lorentz set to work filming The River in 1936.

In his film, Lorentz wanted to show that only through the building of dams could the country hope to control the Mississippi River and put it to use in helping the American people, instead of allowing its flood waters to wreck havoc, destroying crops and property. While he attempted to show the ways in which the rivers had been misused, the film also stands as a paean to the American natural landscape and the rich history with which it is imbued.

In his second film for the Resettlement Administration, Lorentz used many of the stylistic techniques that he had developed in The Plow That Broke the Plains. He combined stunning visuals, a magnificent score by Virgil Thomson and his own moving narration to paint a vivid portrait of the necessity of the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The River built on the lessons that Lorentz learned in making The Plow That Broke the Plains, both stylistic and bureaucratic. The River was filmed in fourteen states, as opposed to five in which footage was shot in the making of The Plow That Broke the Plains, with a considerably larger crew and the budget two and one half times the size of the first film.

The River was both a critical and commercial success. Although it was not nominated for an Academy Award, it won the Venice Film Festival in 1938, beating among others Leni Riefenstahl's highly acclaimed film Olympiad. Lorentz was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the poetic narration that he composed for the film.


Department of Agriculture map that inspired The River


The script that Lorentz wrote for the narration of The River is a free-verse masterpiece which was praised by James Joyce as "the most beautiful prose that I have heard in ten years", and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1938. Whitmanesque in quality, the narration matched in form the epic character that Lorentz attempted to give to the work of the TVA as well as the heroic quality of the American landscape which he believed so passionately had to be conserved.

Lorentz did not originally intended for the script to take on this poetic format. He had been asked to write a lengthy article for McCall's about the condition of the Mississippi River Valley in the spring of 1937. He hoped that the article might provide a basis for his next documentary project. Upon completion of an essay that he believed to be too long and technical, he spent a weekend writing the poem that was to become the narrative of The River. He sent both to McCall's, allowing them to decide which would appear. They chose to publish Lorentz' poem in the May 1937 issue. After 150,000 requests by readers for copies, Lorentz decided that the poem should be used as the narrative of The River.

In his listing of the names of the different rivers of the American continent,

the Yellowstone, the Milk, the White and
The Cannonball, the Musselshell, the James
and the Sioux;

of trees,

Black spruce and Norway pine,
Douglas fir and Red cedar,

as well as the cities that line the waterways,

New Orleans to Baton Rouge,
Baton Rouge to Natchez,
Natchez to Vicksburg,

Lorentz evoked the magnificence of the country's natural landscape and resources and the rich history that stands behind the names and places. The listing of names and their repetition throughout the film gives the story an epic quality that compliments the sweeping visuals that accompany the narration. Lorentz' words recall the free-verse poetry of Walt Whitman who also used the style to evoke the sweeping grandeur of America, a country whose physical beauty and rawness was a perfect match for the democratic principles upon which it was founded. In particular Lorentz narration alludes to Whitman's poem Starting from Paumanok from Leaves of Grass in which he lists states, lakes, rivers and mountains in his praise of America.

Land of the Eastern Chesapeake! Land of the Delaware!
Land of Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan!
Land of the Old Thirteen! Massachusetts land! land of Vermont
and Connecticut!
Land of ocean shores! Land of sierras and peaks!

Similarly, Whitman lists attributes of the land,

land of coal and iron! land of gold! land of cotton, sugar rice!
Land of wheat, beef, pork! land of wool and hemp! land of the
apple and grape!

Lorentz echoed this passage in his own list of the resources with which the country was rich.

There was lumber in the North
and coal in the hills.
Iron and coal down the Monongahela.
Iron and coal down the Allegheny.

But Lorentz did not just use this style to praise America. He also used it to explore the enormous problems that the country was facing. When he began filming The River Lorentz intended to use stock film footage of earlier floods to illustrate the damage that the Mississippi had done when it overflowed its banks. But just as he finished the location shooting, the Mississippi flooded again, and he shot actual footage from the 1937 flood for use in the film. The flood's consequences also found their way into his narrative.

Food and water needed at Louisville: 500 dead,
5000 ill;
Food and water needed at Cincinnati;
Food and water and shelter and clothing
needed for 750,000 flood victims;

Lorentz suggested that misuse of the river and the river valley bore the responsibility of the horrible financial situation that many Americans found themselves in during the Depression. According to Lorentz, over-cultivation of the land and the drive to urbanize striped it, and left it unfit for farming, and economically crippled many of the poor people that depended on it for their livelihood. Quoting Roosevelt's famous phrase "ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed", Lorentz lamented the fact that hundreds of Americans had been reduced to poverty in the "greatest river valley in the world."

Lorentz felt that it was important that the film mention the Civil War and the effect of the Southern economic system on these areas. This was met with strong objections from an Executive Branch that feared that the way the War was portrayed would anger either Northern or Southern congressmen. Lorentz decided simply to include the text of General Robert E. Lee's final letter to his troops, which Lee had read to them at the War's end. Lorentz notes in his autobiography that he never received any complaints about this from anyone who saw the film. Further, he recounts that at the film's world premiere in New Orleans the entire audience rose in silent unison as the letter appeared on screen and wordlessly took their seats after Lee's name had passed off.

The film's Epilogue, while it retained some of the poetic quality of the body of the narration, was a lesson in the necessity of the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the other New Deal programs set up to conserve the American landscape.


As with The Suite from The Plow That Broke the Plains, The Suite from The River was composed by Virgil Thomson. Both have been highly praised, not just for their individual beauty and creativity, but for the way that they work with the visual and narrative elements of the film to create a single work of art. It is perhaps the score for The River that was Thomson's most influential work and best loved work. Aaron Copland called it "a lesson in how to treat Americana", a lesson he took to heart in his own score for The City as well as many of his other famous compositions, such as Appalachian Spring and Rodeo.

Thomson did a considerable amount of research before he set to work composing the score, which was divided into four movements, "The Old South", "Industrial Expansion in the Mississippi", "Soil Erosion and Floods" and "Finale". He wanted to incorporate American folk music. Included in the suite are adaptations several pieces of traditional music, including Resignation: My Shepherd will supply my need, Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight and The Bear Went Over the Mountain. These he combined with his own original compositions as well as influences from Walker's Southern Harmony and Rapsody in Blue by Gershwin.

Thomson put together a rough version of the score, he and Lorentz worked together to edit the movie, cutting the film to match the score in some places and changing the music to match the visuals and narration in others. As Lorentz explained in an interview

"Virgil made piano sketches of each section of the movie, each large sequence, and then the crew and I tried to edit it down to a preconceived time, at which point Virgil would get some ideas, genius ideas, and we would work back and forth so that you didn't have a completed score put on top of a completed movie or vice versa."

This technique gave the film a sense of balance and harmony. It was especially dynamic in the scene which traces the river's development from a raindrop to a swirling current. Here sound and visuals seemed to be one and function together to express a single idea.

The score was originally recorded by General Services Studio, but Lorentz and Thomson were unhappy with it. The budget for The River was extremely tight, due in great part to the political challenges that the New Deal programs were facing. It was during the making of The River that the Resettlement Administration was dissolved, and there was a time during its creation that Lorentz was working without a salary. But Lorentz found enough money to subcontract the re-recording of the score to Samuel Goldwyn Studios, who agreed to do the project at cost instead of for profit.


In a letter, Lorentz described his concept for The River and the footage he hoped to capture.

"Having read the (Mississippi Valley Committee) report, and knowing that 51% of the population of the country lived in the Mississippi Valley, my proposal was simple - to take an engineer's boat, put a couple of pick-up trucks on it, and start at Minneapolis and go clear to the Gulf."

This, however proved impractical, and his plan for the film changed as he did more research into dams and the work of the TVA. As he came to understand, in order to control large rivers, it was necessary to control the smaller rivers and tributaries that feed into them.

Splitting his crew into two groups, Lorentz began in October of 1936 to shoot footage of sharecroppers, erosion and the dams, both those that had been completed and those under construction, of the TVA. They worked primarily in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, but also shot footage in a total of fourteen states including Minnesota, West Virginia and Louisiana. Lorentz wrapped the filming the beginning of January, 1937. He planned on using films of earlier floods to fill out the movie, but before the month was out, he had reassembled the crew to shoot the flooding Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. They finished filming on March 1, and it took Lorentz 6 months to edit the film.

Lorentz decided that the film should premiere in the Mississippi River Valley from which it drew its subject, and it was enthusiastically received in New Orleans on October 29, 1937. Although some critics looked at it as a piece of governmental propaganda, most newspapers gave it glowing reviews. The River did not face the same distribution challenges that had plagued The Plow That Broke the Plains. The government made the film available to theaters for no charge, and it was picked up for national distribution by Paramount Pictures. The Farm Security Administration lodged a protest against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the exclusion of The River from the Oscar competition, but the film went on to win the Venice Film Festival in 1938, the first American film to ever win the prize.

The opening sequence from The River is particularly important because of its relationship to the film as a whole. It incorporates Lorentz' spare and poetic narration and Thomson's beautiful score. Special attention should be paid to the way in which the visuals match the narrative, following water as it falls from the clouds to earth and down the smaller rivers into the Mississippi, all reflecting Lorentz' belief in the majesty of nature and the power of names.


View The River

The River

The River in Quicktime
Part I      Part II

Introduction | Pare Lorentz and the Films of Merit | The Plow that Broke the Plains | The River | The City | Works Consulted