THE RIVER is a 1938 short documentary film which shows the importance of the Mississippi River to the United States, and how farming and timber practices had caused topsoil to be swept down the river and into the Gulf of Mexico, leading to catastrophic floods and impoverishing farmers. It ends by briefly describing how the Tennessee Valley Authority project was beginning to reverse these problems.
It was written and directed by Pare Lorentz and, like Lorentz’s earlier documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains, was also selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, going into the registry in 1990. The film won the “best documentary” category at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival.
Both films have notable scores by Virgil Thomson that are still heard as concert suites. The film was narrated by the American baritone Thomas Hardie Chalmers. Thomson’s score also references his concert work Symphony on a Hymn Tune. The River later served as the score for the 1983 TV movie The Day After.
The two films were sponsored by the U.S. government and specifically the Resettlement Administration (RA) to raise awareness about the New Deal. The RA was folded into the Farm Security Administration in 1937, so The River was officially an FSA production.
There is also a companion book, The River. The text was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in that year.
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.
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