There is no such thing as an ideal river in Nature,
But the Mississippi River is out of joint.
As the Mississippi River flows well beyond its usual course, I cannot help but think of the poetry of Pare Lorentz’s documentary film, The River (1938). When I first saw the film, I was mesmerized by its hypnotic narration. Today, I find the poignancy of its images remarkable. Rushing muddy water, houses half-covered in stagnant ponds, dogs on the roofs of homes, and refugees in small boats drifting along what were once dry streets are all images I’ve seen in recent newscasts about the 2011 flooding of the same river.
Pare Lorentz was a film critic when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hired him to oversee government films. After his portrayal of the Dust Bowl, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), the Farm Security Administration commissioned a film that would highlight the improvements to the Mississippi River and its valley since the devastating 1927 flood after which they created a series of locks and dams, levees and spillways, and harnessed the power of the river to bring electricity to impoverished rural areas.
With this pragmatic mission, Lorentz instead made poetry:
From as far East as New York,
Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies
Down from Minnesota, twenty five hundred miles,
The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf
The Mississippi River is a central environmental feature of the North American continent. Lorentz, inspired by a spiderweb-like map of the river and its tributaries, identifies every droplet of water that flows into its course:
Down the Rock, the Illinois, and the Kankakee
The Allegheny, the Monongahela, Kanawha, and Muskingum;
Down the Miami, the Wabash, the Licking and the Green
The Cumberland, the Kentucky, and the Tennessee;
Down the Ouachita, the Wichita, the Red, and Yazoo.
Lorentz’s lyrical listing of ordinary rivers and streams rolls off the tongue and builds a momentum akin to flowing water itself. Clips of such powerful white water that Lorentz filmed during the 1936 flood accompany the narration increasing in speed as they reach the main artery of the Mississippi.
Combining the environmental history of the Mississippi with its cultural past, The River captivates viewers through its juxtaposition of fact and emotion. Lorentz portrays the depletion of resources, the coming of steam power, and factory production with a mixture of patriotic pride and regret. Agriculture and deforestation depleted the valley’s topsoil and it washed easily away with the river. Harnessing its power for electricity made the river “work.” Even as Lorentz praises that mission, he mourns the continuing consequences of human activities along the river’s natural course:
1903 and 1907.
1913 and 1922.
We built a hundred cities and a
thousand towns –
But at what a cost!
- Watch the full thirty minute film, The River, on the Internet Archive.
- Read Lorentz’s Pulitzer Prize nominated script of The River at UVA’s American Studies Crossroads.