The Plow the Broke the Plains: The Dust Bowl as an End to Agrarian Romanticism in the U.S.


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Pare Lorentz’s 1936 documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains, claims to be “the story of lands, not of people.”  The first scene of the documentary displays a map of the Great Plains Area and the nine states that comprise it.  Next, Lorentz features numerous sprawling shots of the Plains, and the cattle that graze there.  After the exposition however, Lorenz focuses more on human activities on the Plains.  His true focus demonstrates that Lorentz, whose stated purpose was to tell the story of the lands, would have done better to amend the wording of his focus to “the story of how people overused the lands.”

Lorentz indicates a bias about early human activity by Romanticizing the lone cattle rancher.  He films the rancher seated on a white horse from below, indicating a motivation to make the rancher seem larger and more dominant than he might otherwise appear.  One of the shots of the rancher looking after his cattle actually looked very similar to the Romantic painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich.  Lorenz makes it clear that he has no qualms with ranchers using the Plains.

Lorentz later accompanies footage of a fence with the statement, “the first fence—progress came to the plains.”  He describes man’s increased activities on the Plains as progress, but quickly follows this statement with the phrase, “The rains failed them,” when referring to early plowmen.  With progress, Lorenz points out, came more problems.

At around 13 minutes, Lorentz juxtaposes scenes of tractors coming from the right with enemy tanks coming in from the left, suggesting through powerful imagery that the people of the time believed that, “Wheat will win the war.”  Plowmen waged war on the lands, just as enemies waged war on the allies.

The land, Lorentz suggests, got its revenge.  After the war and the golden harvest, “the sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”  As Koppes points out in his evaluation, early accounts of the Dust Bowl ignore factors like economics and policy.  Lorentz gives nature a great deal of agency here, and by ending with this line, suggests that ecological factors caused the Dust Bowl.

I agree with Price and Jean that Koppes used his book review “as a platform to voice his own argument.”  Because he presents his bias early on and fails to support his claims with enough evidence, I cannot agree with his final evaluation of the texts without conducting further research.  However, I enjoyed reading the review as helpful in filling in a number of gaps that The Plow the Broke the Plains left in its narrative.