The Dust Bowl is a well-known, man-made environmental catastrophe.
In the 1930s a severe drought struck the Great Plains. Topsoil, which had become more vulnerable to wind erosion by the failure to apply dry land farming methods, was lifted into the air, and scattered for hundreds of miles. The “Black Sunday” dust storm that took place on April 14th, 1935, for example, displaced over 300,000 tons of dirt, and was seen as far off as New York City and Washington DC. Between 1930 and 1940, over 3 million people left the Great Plains, perhaps the biggest refugee crisis in American history. The Roosevelt Administration did address the problem. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene, Texas to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. But the economic effects of the Dust Bowl persisted right through the 1950s.
In 1935, the United States Resettlement Administration, a New Deal era federal agency, commissioned a writer and film critic from Clarksburg, West Virginia to make a documentary about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. His name was Pare Lorentz. They gave him $6,000. They got their money’s worth. The Plow That Broke The Plains is one of the most extraordinary documentaries ever made. In only 25 minutes, narrative compression that’s rarely been equaled, Lorentz sums up the history of the agricultural holocaust that took place during the height of the Great Depression.
In the 1880s, as Lorentz demonstrates, cattle ranching gave way to wheat farming. The Homestead Act, and the illusion that “rain follows the plow,” transformed the Plains into an over-exploited resource headed for a disaster that was put off only by the uncharacteristically wet years of the early 1900s. World War I and the Russian Revolution increased the demand for wheat. The real estate interests who marketed farmland to returning soldiers made things worse. By the end of the 1920s, what had formerly been known as “The Great American Desert” was a pile of gunpowder waiting only for the match that came in the form of the extended drought.
Everything about The Plow That Broke the Plains comes together in a harmonious combination of images, music, and words. From the powerful score by Virgil Thomson, to the dramatic baritone of the narrator Thomas Hardie Chambers, to the parallel images of tanks on the Western Front in 1917 and tractors on the Great Plains, Lorentz hammers his message home. The Dust Bowl was man made. It could have been prevented. It was part of the destructive, runaway, capitalist exploitation that came to it’s shattering climax in 1914. It was the moral equivalent of war. The late film critic Dennis Grunes, who put it on his 100 Greatest Films in English list, also sees it as a metaphor for the Great Depression as a whole. “It is a piece of poetry,” he said, “finding in the topic of land erosion an implicit metaphor for America’s torn, beaten, eroded spirit.”
That’s quite a bit to accomplish in only 25 minutes. The Plow That Broke The Plains is on Youtube in full. I recommend watching it, now. Follow it up with John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. If The Plow That Broke The Plains is the greatest American documentary — and it just might be — then surely The Grapes Of Wrath is the greatest leftist film ever to come out of Hollywood. That might seem odd. John Ford was either a conservative or a liberal nationalist, but he was certainly no Marxist. It makes more sense when you realize that, whatever his politics, Ford was above all a master craftsman, not a propagandist. When American nationalism briefly came together with the left during the New Deal, and he decided to make a film from the socialist point of view, he made a great one.
Give The Plow that Broke the Plains a second viewing after The Grapes of Wrath. Notice the contrast. Lorentz shows us the aftermath of the Dust Bowl in all its brutal reality. How can people live in such a place. Is it the surface of Mars? John Ford, on the other hand, is a natural poet. Anything he touches turns lyrical. In the first half hour of The Grapes Of Wrath, he’s nostalgic then gothic then apocalyptic all in turn, humanizing the landscape that Lorentz visualizes as man made hellscape. The Plow that Broke the Plains is reality. The Grapes of Wrath is reality re imagined as poetry.
Tom Joad, Henry Fonda, is hitchhiking back to his parents’ house after a 4 year sentence for manslaughter. He killed a man in a bar fight. The rich grey scales, the dreamy golden hour photography along the sparse, almost gentle highway picture Dust Bowl Oklahoma, not realistically, but as Joad’s subconscious longing for the security of his boyhood. Those longings are cruelly disappointed when he arrives “home,” and realizes it’s not home anymore, and, truth be told, has never been “home” at all. The Joads, and their neighbors, poor share croppers, have all been evicted to make way for industrial agriculture. The mood turns gothic. Muley Graves, a former neighbor and one of the few tenant farmers who would resist the order of eviction, is squatting in Joad’s childhood home. “I’m just a poor barnyard ghost,” he says as the wind blows up, the dust storms hover just over the horizon, and the almost idyllic scenes are revealed to be nothing more than images of a dead land, a once great agricultural region that has been depopulated and reduced to sterility.
The Joad family heads west, not as pioneers, but refugees. When Tom Joad’s grandfather dies — uprooting him kills him — Joad writes out a short, ungrammatical, but powerful note on a slip of paper, the old man’s only testimonial a brief explanation that he hadn’t been murdered but had died of a stroke. Sometimes the only thing standing between us and an anonymous burial in a mass grave are a few words. Tom’s simple, uneducated father knows in his bones what capitalism requires of proletarians who have lost their economic usefulness, that they die. His overwhelming drive to take on even the most demeaning job testifies to how well he understands what America demands of him in exchange for a few more years of life. Everything conspires to destroy the Joad family. A series of migrant labor camps progressively resemble concentration camps, a more subtle, but still insidious reflection of the Soviet Gulag or Nazi system of forced labor. Only by proving themselves “worthy” of exploitation do they prove themselves “worthy” to continue eating.
This is no melodramatic contrivance on my part. The Great Plains are, above all, a landscape of genocide. Indeed, the only fault I can find with Pare Lorentz and John Ford is that they fail to ground their narratives in the history of the extermination of the Plains Indians. Lorentz, to his credit, includes a brief mention of how the plains have been “cleared,” but makes no attempt to contrast the destructive agricultural techniques of white Americans with the sustainable hunter-gatherer societies of the Lakota and Apaches. Ford, to his credit, finds his great subject in the exploited “Okie” tenant farmers, but he, in turn, fails to point out how many were, in fact, at least part Native American. Indeed, a more historical Grapes of Wrath might have envisioned Tom Joad as Cherokee, not as the WASP Henry Fonda.
If The Grapes of Wrath is a socialist film, then it’s a socialist film imagined along the lines of John Ford’s own personal combination of Irish Catholic spirituality and Progressive Republican American patriotism. If Jim Casy, a “reformed preacher” played by John Carradine, is Ford’s Lenin, then the unnamed director of a Bureau of Agriculture migrant labor camp is his Franklin Roosevelt. Jim Casy, like Jesus, is the perfect mixture of homeless proletarian and aristocratic nonchalance. His blessing at the funeral of Grandpa Joad is beautiful in its halting simplicity. Casy, who claims to have lost his faith, finds it again briefly out of necessity. His explanation of why the Keene Ranch is using the Joad family as “scabs” just before he’s clubbed to his death shows us that his new faith, socialism, is Christianity by another name, yet more grounded in reality, in history. The government migrant camp is a practical utopia, its director, Grant Mitchell, a striking vision of benevolent and progressive authority. When the Joad children come upon the modest, yet clean, and well-maintained camp bathrooms, you can almost imagine what life would be like after the revolution, the ideal society made concrete in the most understated way possible.
The real life Joads would have a happy ending. The children of those impoverished Oakies who made it to California would get to listen to the Beach Boys on the drive to Big Sur, or to the then tuition free University of California. The whole American working class would also have a happy ending, enjoying the highest standard of living the world had ever seen in the coming decades. But it’s not quite accurate to say that “they endured.” A better way to phrase it might be “they got lucky.” The United States would belatedly enter World War II, and stick around to pick up the pieces after European civilization all but committed suicide. It would become the greatest empire the world had ever seen, and the American working class, at least until the 1970s, got to come along for the ride.
The Wizard of Oz,a far weaker re-imagining of the Dust Bowl than The Plow That Broke The Plain or The Grapes Of Wrath, therefore, just might be more true to life. Filmed a year before The Grapes of Wrath, the Wizard of Oz is also set in a dust bowl state, Kansas to Ford’s and Lorentz’s Oklahoma. It’s barely necessary to summarize the plot. Dorothy, Judy Garland, lives on a Kansas farm with her Aunty Em and little dog Toto. Like an American worker in the 1930s, she finds herself the victim of unjust authority. A local bigwig, Alvira Gulch, will use her clout to have her dog put to sleep, claiming that the little Scotch terrier bit her. The Sheriff issues the kill order. Dorothy runs away. A travelling fortune teller, the model for The Great Oz, talks her into going back home. Then her world breaks down. There’s a gigantic storm. She can’t get down into the shelter with the rest of her family. A tornado pulls her aunt’s house up out of the ground off the ground as if it were so much topsoil on Black Sunday. She gets a bump on the head, loses consciousness, and has a dream where her house gets lifted up and carried away to Oz, a magical land “over the rainbow.”
If John Ford’s utopia is a social democratic California, then for Victor Fleming — the director of The Wizard of Oz —the perfect society as an elaborate musical number in an Art Deco Manhattan, Busby Berkeley in Metropolis. Dorothy travels to Emerald City. New York? LA? She vanquishes the Wicked Witch of the West. She demonstrates that the Great Oz is a fraud. Glinda the Good Witch of the North, who she had met earlier, returns to tell her she’s been home all along and is free to go back to her happy family on the plains any time she wants. She does. It’s a miracle. Everything is back to normal. There was no Great Depression. Alvira Gulch no longer threatens Toto. The tornado didn’t destroy the family homestead. The Dust Bowl never happened. It’s all one big narrative cop out, but it’s true to life. The Plow That Broke the Plains is forgotten history. The labor struggles of the 1930s are long gone. But the Depression-era generation had their world turned upside down then landed on their feet in front of a TV set and a booming economy. The American working class got so lucky in the 1950s and 1960s that it almost seemed as if all they had to do was click their ruby slippers together and say “there’s no place like home.”
But if The Wizard of Oz fit the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, surely The Plow that Broke the Plains and the Grapes of Wrath are once again relevant. Global warming, the sub-prime crash, 9/11, the security/surveillance state, the return of massive, long-term unemployment, Dorothy and the Emerald City have had their day. Once again, we’re in the world of company goons, migrant labor camps, environmental catastrophe, Tom Joad, Jim Casy, a loss of national identity and a loss of faith. We probably won’t get lucky again. Will we, like Ma Joad’s “people,” endure? We will end up like Muley’s “old barnyard ghost,” a passive wraith blown whichever way the wind carries it? Or will we be like Tom Joad’s spectral every man, a collective spirit that, inspired by the Christlike sacrifice of his friend Casy, hovers over the downtrodden and dispossessed like a guardian angel?