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(Jan 11, 2010)
Pare Lorentz was an American original. His documentary films The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936), The River (1938) and The Fight for Life (1941) were among the first to demonstrate that films can educate and rally a nation around its history, its greatness, and its problems.
Both The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River made in support of Roosevelt's New Deal are considered seminal works in the development of the American documentary and earned Lorentz international acclaim. After first working as a journalist and a film critic, Lorentz became a director in the 1930s and was appointed as film advisor to the U.S. Resettlement Administration. It was during his tenure in this position that he made the two highly praised films. The Plow That Broke the Plains was a poetic chronicle of the Roosevelt Administration's efforts to help drought-devastated Oklahoma farmers, while The River provided a lyrical history of the Mississippi Basin that emphasized the ruin caused by soil erosion. Though both films received the highest praise, some in the film industry protested them because they had received government sponsorship. In 1939, Lorentz wrote the narration and treatment for The City, another landmark documentary. That year, Lorentz founded and began running the U.S. Film Service. While in that capacity, he made another great documentary, The Fight for Life, a devastating look at infant mortality among the impoverished. After making a few better-received documentaries, Congress denied the Film Service funds and it fell apart. In 1941, Lorentz produced a few short, undistinguished films for RKO. During the war, Lorentz turned to making training films for the military. He also was in charge of supervising film, music, and theater arts re-education programs in occupied countries following the war. Following service in two more government agencies, Lorentz went to New York and began producing commercial and industrial films dividing his time between that and college lecture tours during which he would talk about making documentaries.
THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936)
With The Plow That Broke the Plains, his first film and the first US Government-sponsored documentary, Pare Lorentz won praise and wide recognition for using sensitive photography, dramatic editing and a beautiful score by composer Virgil Thomson to illuminate a local problem of national importance - the challenges faced by wheat farmers and cattle ranchers in the Great Plains. As the film climaxes in a vivid portrait of the record drought that produced the dust bowl and the plight of the "blown out, baked and broke" people who felt its impact, it becomes clear that a new master of the documentary form has found his voice. 25 minutes
THE RIVER (1938)
In The River, Pare Lorentz deploys powerful images, a poetic Pulitzer Prize-nominated script and another score by Virgil Thomson to illustrate the problems of flood control on the Mississippi River and the efforts to correct it. While arguing that the building of dams would put an end to the destruction of crops and property brought about by the havoc of annual floods, Lorentz reveals the ways the river has been misused, and presents a stirring paen to America's natural landscape, and the proud history with which it is imbued. 31 minutes
THE FIGHT FOR LIFE (1941)
In this short feature, based on a book by Paul De Kruit, Lorentz presents a staged re-enactment of an emergency childbirth in an urban hospital. As the story of the mother's difficult delivery and death in spite of valiant efforts by the doctors to save her unfolds, The Fight For Life reveals the crisis of health and pre-natal care among the urban poor of the period, and explores the impoverished lives of the working people of the cities, who live in slums and tenements where they are forced to suffer from the disabling diseases endemic in such environments. 69 minutes
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