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Playback: Pare Lorentz' 'The Plow That Broke The Plains'

By William Greaves

From Pare Lorentz’ 'The Plow That Broke The Plains'.

I first saw The Plow That Broke the Plains in Canada in 1952, when the 1936 film was already legendary. I had recently arrived in Canada hoping to hone my skills as a filmmaker at the National Film Board. In “apartheid” America of the 1950s, the US movie industry was completely closed to any African-American who aspired to work behind the camera. I had heard and read of the world-class work that was being done at the Film Board, so I packed my bags and headed north. I was lucky enough to have been accepted as an apprentice on the NFB staff. For me, it was a dream come true: At that time, the Board was producing some of the most technically advanced and innovative films in the documentary field.

The Plow That Broke the Plains opened my eyes to the possibility of film as a social force, as well as an artistic medium. As a young filmmaker learning the craft, I was fascinated by the way Lorentz, like Sergei Eisenstein, used images as metaphors, and by his skillful use of montage in combining stock footage and original shooting. Lorentz knew how to use sound effects and music, as well as narration, in relation to the visuals to achieve maximum impact. What impressed me most about the film was that it combined an aesthetic, even poetic style—one that seems sentimental today—with a strong political message. Ultimately, the film makes a powerful—and prophetic—statement about the dangers of unregulated, profit-driven exploitation of natural resources.

I appreciate the impact this film had on me, and continues to have on the work I do today. As a documentary filmmaker, I don’t want to simply convey information; I want to do it in such a way that the viewer has a meaningful experience. Lorentz showed me that a documentary can be both artistic and educational. One of the problems with so many documentaries is that they are completely lacking in dramatic impact. Not so with The Plow that Broke the Plains. It carefully sets up the conflict, identifying the protagonist (greed), then moves the story inexorably toward the climactic moment. As I worked my way up from apprentice to director at the National Film Board, one of the most important lessons I learned was how to orchestrate sound and picture, much in the way that a composer orchestrates a symphony. Sound can create the illusion of images—even when they do not appear on the screen—which, nonetheless, become part of the visual montage. I worked on more than 80 documentary films at the Board, and I consciously—and unconsciously—tried to apply the cinematic devices that Lorentz employed so skillfully in The Plow That Broke the Plains.

Even though filmmaking styles have changed radically in the years since Lorentz made this film, aspiring filmmakers would do well to study it—particularly those working in today's digital environment, many of whom seem to have little understanding of the aesthetics and craft of filmmaking. The filmmaker should aim to stimulate thought, provoke insights and stir the hearts of audiences. Filmmaking isn't just a quick cut to a quick cut. The final product is a series of cinematic syllogisms that nudge the viewer along an intellectual and emotional path toward certain predetermined conclusions. In this respect, the skill and sophistication of The Plow That Broke the Plains is amazing, especially when one considers that it was made 65 years ago. Of all the documentaries made during that early period, The Plow That Broke The Plains probably exerted the greatest influence on my work, and towers in my mind above most documentary films then and even now, in terms of its technical and cinematic sophistication.


William Greaves is an independent filmmaker based in New York. His latest documentary, Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, an award-winning PBS special, was broadcast primetime in February- and was selected for competition in the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.