At the 1938 Venice Film Festival, Pare Lorentz’s “The River” won best documentary for his New Deal film about the flooding and “taming” of the Mississippi River, beating Leni Riefenstahl’s far more ambitious “Olympia,” a visual symphony shot at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Riefenstahl’s celebration of athletic competition had strong Nazi undertones, but it was Lorentz’s Mississippi film that was the more forthright exercise in propaganda. It was bought and paid for by the U.S. government, an effort to convince the public that Roosevelt-era projects, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, would make the United States a more fair, livable and humane society.
It is such good propaganda that watching it 70 years later on a new Naxos DVD feels a little creepy.
“The River” was one of two major projects that Lorentz filmed with music commissioned from composer and famous music critic Virgil Thomson, and the DVD includes vibrant new recordings of the soundtracks by the D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble. Thomson’s music, combined with the Whitmanesque torrents of poetry in Lorentz’s script and powerful images of natural grandeur and squalid poverty, makes “The River” and the earlier “The Plow That Broke the Plains” disturbing examples of what a full-fledged American propaganda machine might produce. There are moments, especially involving tractors (the great fetish object of 20th-century propagandists), when you are certain that this film could have been produced in one of the political film mills of the totalitarian states of Europe.
The music draws on Thomson’s study and appreciation of cowboy ditties, church hymns and other folk melodies, all of which have such deep and far-reaching associations that few Americans will fail to find something that is both familiar and unconsciously haunting. Lorentz was smart enough to recognize great music when he heard it, and he cut his films to fit Thomson’s scores when necessary. The result is a quasi-operatic film that comes as close as anything this country produced to the great collaborations between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev in the Soviet Union.
Although Thomson recycled his music into popular concert suites, hearing it in its original context is revelatory. He was taking film music in a very different direction from the composers who took root in Hollywood in the mid-1930s (Max Steiner, Franz Waxman), who were working in a lush, heavily orchestrated, post-Wagnerian vein. Often described as “deceptively simple,” Thomson’s music was leaner and more transparent, but filled with little flourishes, such as fugal passages, that set it far above the hackwork that accompanied so many commercial films. He followed the progress of the film’s editing closely, and his music is always in subtle dialogue with what one sees on-screen.
Given the state of camera technology at the time, it was prohibitively expensive, and unwieldy, to film outdoors with sound for a low-budget documentary. So Lorentz’s original soundtrack was made mostly in the studio, with Thomson’s music, a Voice of God narration and the occasional bit of “diegetic” sound (whistles, explosions, etc.) added when the visuals demanded it. That made it easy to rerecord the entire soundtrack from scratch for the DVD — which puts these often difficult-to-find films into general circulation again. The DVD also includes an option to play the film with the original, rather tinny sound, but most viewers will be far more satisfied with the new version, including the voice-over (by Shakespeare Theatre favorite Floyd King) that miraculously captures the orotund and overheated rhetorical style of the original.
The DVD also includes commentary from George Stoney, who showed “The River” often while he worked at the Farm Security Administration. Stoney’s observation that the film is structured like “an evangelical sermon” nails it. Both films build from a loving description of the landscape and then introduce the depredations of man into this state of innocence. The land is overtaxed, man has squandered his inheritance, nature takes its revenge. But through the benign grace of your government, help is on the way. If you’ve never teared up at the sight of a reforestation project or a new hydroelectric dam, well, maybe you haven’t seen Lorentz’s work.
Perhaps the most haunting images here are flooding scenes on the Mississippi. As Lorentz was finishing up “The River,” a huge flood overwhelmed the vast Mississippi system — and Lorentz sent his cameramen to capture the devastation. The film offers the hope that the river might one day be tamed, from the Gulf of Mexico to its farthest reaches into the continent. That was a false hope and now, after Hurricane Katrina, we know just how false. But the power of propaganda overwhelms any nagging questions raised by our sense of historical hindsight. Even if the idea of the government’s funding these films is abhorrent to you, even if the message they offer was premised on questionable land management ideas, cinematically they still work.
The propaganda impulse would move, in the 1940s, to Hollywood, as the major studios got behind the war effort. But mostly, American artists have shunned the idea of “Show Business for Uncle Sam,” as Thomson titled the chapter in his biography that covered his work with Lorentz. That doesn’t mean we don’t get plenty of propaganda — presidential photo ops, “video news releases” that masquerade as local television reporting — but we have not, very often, had propaganda of this quality and mastery and detail. These films are a lot of fun, but you’ll leave relieved there weren’t more of them.