#317) The River (1938)


#317) The River (1938)

OR “A Tribute to Tributaries”

Directed & Written by Pare Lorentz

Class of 1990

The Plot: Narrated by the commanding Thomas Chalmers, and with an epic score by composer Virgil Thomas, “The River” is a documentary about man’s effect on the Mississippi River. Thanks to frequent deforestation along the river, topsoil has travelled down to the Gulf of Mexico, leading to massive flooding. But fear not: the Tennessee Valley Authority is here to provide the Mississippi with dams! Brought to you by your friends at the Farm Security Administration.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “artistic and persuasive scenes”, though points out the number of critics who derided its “propagandist approach”. There’s also a detailed essay by Robert J. Snyder, whose father, Dr. Robert L. Snyder, wrote a book about Pare Lorentz.

But Does It Really?: Sure it’s another “staring at water movie”, but “The River” may be THE “staring at water movie”. It’s government propaganda to be sure, but effective nonetheless, and brings up an important issue in a cinematically compelling way. A pass for NFR inclusion from me, but I’ll be curious to see how Lorentz’s other NFR documentary, “The Plow That Broke the Plains”, holds up by comparison.

Everybody Gets One: Most of Lorentz’s team for “The River” was the same collaborators from “Plow That Broke the Plains”, but one of the newcomers was co-cinematographer Stacy Woodard. Prior to “The River”, Woodard and his brother Horace directed and filmed the “Struggle to Live” series for Educational Films. Stacy died of a heart attack at 39 years old, just a few years after “The River”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Steamboats! Plus a shoutout to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a major player of the New Deal agencies. In fact, this whole thing is pure New Deal propaganda.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Documentary category in 1938, so no nomination for “The River”. The film did, however, win Best Documentary at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival.

Other notes

  • Around the time of the film’s release, Lorentz wrote a complimentary article for “McCall’s”. The article’s prose proved to be popular, and was even nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The winner that year was Marya Zaturenska for “Cold Morning Sky”.
  • “The River” is yet another “staring at water” movie that the NFR loves to induct, but at least this one has narration. Thomas Chalmers was a professional opera singer and stage actor. Fun Fact: He was the original Uncle Ben in “Death of a Salesman”!
  • The print I watched actually changed reels. Seriously, the first reel would play to completion, followed by the very beginning of the second reel, complete with film leader. This may be the only film on this list that is available in a literal uncut version.
  • I’m also enjoying the score abruptly stopping so the next track can play. Was Pare doing the needle lifting on this one?
  • The flood footage is from an actual flood that occurred along the Ohio River in January 1937, shortly after production had wrapped. The aerial shot of an entire town underwater is just devastating.
  • It is mentioned, “Congress appropriated millions to aid the flooded cities and villages, and to rehabilitate the flood victims.” I’m just going to pretend that Congress still does this while I breathe heavily into this paper bag I have at the ready for such occasions.


  • Shortly after completion of “The River”, Franklin Roosevelt named Pare Lorentz director of the United States Film Service. The unit only made three films before being discontinued in 1940.
  • After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Lorentz made perhaps his most impactful movie, 1946’s “Nuremberg”; a government-funded film about Germany’s involvement in the war, culled from thousands of hours of Nazi footage. Successful in Germany, “Nuremberg” was not screened in America until 1979.
  • The Farm Security Administration dissolved in 1946. Various programs were moved to other agencies, and the FSA morphed into what is today the USDA Office of Rural Development.
  • The Tennessee Valley Authority is still going, but not without its share of controversies.
  • Lorentz passed away in 1992, but his films are available for viewing at the Pare Lorentz Center in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Further Viewing: The flooding of the Tennessee Valley got the dramatic treatment in the coincidentally titled 1984 film “The River”, starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. It was Mark Rydell’s first film after “On Golden Pond”. The man loved movies about water, I guess.

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