Pare Lorentz Government Film Maker

Par Lorentz

He was born Leonard MacTaggart Lorentz was born on December 11, 1905 in Clarksburg, West Virginia to Alma MacTaggart Ruttencutter Lorentz and Pare Hanson Lorentz.

He attended both West Virginia Wesleyan College and West Virginia University.  At the later Lorentz worked on the school paper which lead to his career in journalism. Eventually, he changed his name from Leonard to Pare in honor of his father (Lorentz, 5).

Lorentz created a name for himself as a film critic, actively speaking out against Hollywood censorship and would eventually co-authored the 1929 book Censored: The Private Life of the Movie with Morris Leopold Ernest.   He was exceedingly vocal about the dangers of censorship as it could detract from the message of a film, particularly if censorship went unchecked.


Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 33.

Despite his non existent career in film he began working for the government producing movies that addressed social and agricultural issues.

Due to the economic crisis, caused by The Great Depression, President Roosevelt implemented New Deal policies to help the vast number of Americans, facing unemployment and hardship, obtain food and shelter.  The New Deal polices would provide relief, recovery and reform to individuals from 1933-1938 and examined complications associated with agriculture. (Fishback, 1-2).

Lorentz and Camra

Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 41.

Through funding, from the Resettlement Administration (RA), Lorentz was able to produce several documentaries concerning the impact farming had on the environment. In 1936, the Resettlement Administration agreed to sponsor Lorentz’s first film, The Plow that Broke the Plains.

Lorentz Page 46

Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 46.

The Plow that Broke the Plains follows the lives of American farmers affected by the Dust Bowl throughout The Great Depression.  America’s landscape has been the inspiration for various forms of propaganda, paintings and novels and holds a spiritual element that continues to intrigue the public.  Unlike most artists and photographers, who display the American landscape as the pride and joy of American culture, Lorentz presents the American landscape as diminished and devastated.  The Plow that Broke the Plains portrays the once proud landscape in its ruination of the “American Dream” caused by drought that has been exacerbated by human interaction.  In this documentary, Lorentz uses old weather stained and dilapidated buildings to emphasize his backdrop.

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Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 42.

Lorentz relies more on imagery than narration to convey his message.  Some of the more prominent scenes use little to no dialog to convey his message.   Lorentz disliked narratives and tried to avoid unnecessary dialog whenever possible.  This stylistic choice is evident in most documentaries today that use limited narrative and rely on interviews, historic interpretation and archived footage.  Similarly, imagery, even when videos are not available, is still heavily utilized to intrigued audiences. The Plow that Broke the Plains would become the inspiration for other forms of entertainment in light of The Great Depression and the New Deal.  This is also true with his work on The River.


Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 65.

At this time, government sponsored films, outside of propaganda, were a relatively new concept and met with mistrust by critics.  Both professional and nonprofessional critics were harsh in their opinion of Pare Lorentz’s film seeing it as nothing more than government propaganda.  Many reasoned that his film ending was exaggerated in its support toward government interaction and capabilities.  In later films, he would avoid optimistic ending that promise certainty of the United States government to intervene and save America’s future.  Producers in Hollywood and other organizations did not see a market for this film believing city dwellers would not watch it, as it did not relate to them, while those who experienced these hardships would not wish to see it nor have the means to do so. (Pinkerton, 1).

Lorentz 62

Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 62.

Man’s use of America’s natural resources for the use of industrial means was proven hazardous for the Mississippi River.  Lorentz presents the Mississippi River as a powerful resource that is also a means of transportation.  In a montage of scenes he shows how the river was used to transport goods between states.  However, as the population of America grew, men left work along the river to seek out employment elsewhere, mainly in the mountains of the Midwest.  There they found jobs with the manufacturing and production of coal and lumber.  In order to meet production quotas, the land was completely deforested with no plans for reforestation.  As a result, the barren land was unable to absorb rain water.  This runoff destroyed, the quality of water with debris, flooded homes and endanger families. (The River, 28.48)Lorentz was adamant in his mistrust of man’s use of technology in the environment.  According to writer Peter Rollins, Lorentz also recognized the need for technology in modern life.  He states:

“In harmony with New Deal Thinking, this intellectual montage asserts that man is essentially a tool user despite previous excesses.  What the nation needs is not a rejection of technology, but the intelligent guidance of planners who can coordinate its application.  The controlled consumption of resources will yield a better life for all.”(Rollins, 41-42).

Lorentz 63

Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 63.

Lorentz believed it was the responsibility of mankind to help resolve the environmental issue that damaged the land.  While The River shows the destruction of the Mississippi River, Lorentz also shows how man can regain control of this powerful resource.  He states, “But where there is water there is power.  Where there’s water flood control and water navigation, there’s water for power.  Power for the farmers of the valley….Power to give a new Tennessee Valley to a new generation.  Power enough to make the river work!” (FDR’s Moviemaker, 76).  The idea of power and being empowered, particularly during times of economic crisis, was appealing and would have enticed audience goers.  In 1938 The Great Depression was still affecting Americans who had little control over their circumstances in their personal and professional lives.   The River places control back into the hands of the public, as it is ultimately the individual who has the power to make the changes necessary to sustain themselves and the environment.

Lorentz 67

Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 67.

While some were still skeptical about government sponsored films, critics were less critical regarding The River and Lorentz’s partnership with the Resettlement Administration. While Lorentz received mixed criticism on The Plow that broke the Plains, he received unmitigated praise for The River.  Many academic articles and books have provided various interpretations of The River.   Philip Sterling’s “Following ‘The River’” discusses how Lorentz was among other organizations and business men, such as Walt Disney, who were using the New Deal policies to further their own agenda (Sterling, 1).  William M. Pinkerton’s “Pare Lorentz-Producer for Government,” also addresses the challenges Lorentz initially faced when he first began working in entertainment.  After the release of The River, film directors and produces, that had ignored him previously, now wanted his input on their work.  His influence would continue to escalate and Lorentz was able to implement more changes regarding the use of actors, extras, and the running time in his own projects.  However, one criticism of the film, according to Nugent, is the running time as it is not long enough to address and resolve every issue Lorentz presents (Nugent, 1). Time was steadily becoming a challenge for Lorentz as he would stay up nights trying to fit documentaries, meant to tackle broad and complicated issues, into a neat story lasting only thirty minutes.  Two years later, his next project, The Fight for Life would be one of his first full length feature films that addressed social issues in an urban setting.


Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 156. 

The Fight for Life released in 1940, was not as recognized in academic and popular culture.  The film centers on a young doctor working in a lower class neighborhood, delivering babies, and addresses the challenges associated with providing adequate care under difficult circumstances.  The Fight for Life, has the most ambiguous ending, offering no solutions to poor living conditions and poverty experienced by mothers and children.  Unlike his previous films, this documentary focuses on issues within an urban setting and utilizes many of the technological and emotional techniques he developed over the course of his career.  Technology, for Lorentz, was a means to help those affected by the economy as well as promoting public awareness for social issues.  Lorentz convinced President Roosevelt, a full length movie was a better technique for audiences to truly understand problems within society (Nisbett, 234).  Despite being an impressive milestone in Lorentz work, little academic scholarship has explored the reasons behind Lorentz transition from agriculture to urban settings.  This type of transition required him to change his filming techniques.   In an agricultural environment, Lorentz did not need to utilize actors or worry about dialog and staging.  With an urban scenario and its focus on social issues, a director must rely on dialog with archival footage or actors to recreate a scene.


Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memories & Scripts. Reno: (University of Nevada Pres, 1992), 182.

With the onset of World War II there was little need for documentaries addressing agricultural and urban issues.  Lorentz continued to work on government sponsored films, for the United States Armed forces.  After the war, he only produced a few documentaries, as there was no longer a need for government sponsored films to address the concerns of the public. (Britannica Biographies, 1).   While Lorentz never received the same recognition after the Second World War, it is still important to understand how documentaries developed over time.  Lorentz initially began his career in the film industry out of self-interest and his disdain for Hollywood produced films.  However, his work has contributed to ideas of how the American landscape was presented as well as how the government was portrayed in agricultural and social issues.  His use of imagery and ability to stimulate emotions from audiences makes his work more prevalent to the study of history.  However, through Lorentz’s work, viewers see that documentaries continue to be influenced by the opinions and agendas of producers, directors and organizations sponsoring the film and therefore can be controversial.  Ultimately it is the responsibility of the viewer to know the facts and not rely on a single sources as the only piece of information on a particular issue.


Lorentz, Pare. “FDR’s Moviemaker” The Memoires & Scripts. Reno: University of Nevada Pres, 1992.

Pinkerton, William M. “Pare Lorentz-Producer for Government.” The Sun (1837-1989), Oct 09, http://search.

Nisbett, Robert F. “Pare Lorentz, Louis Gruenberg, and “The Fight for Life”: The Making of a Film Score.” The Misical Quarterly. 79, no. 2 (summer, 1995):

Nugent, Frank S.  “Dragging “The River,’” New York Times (1923-Current File), Feb 06, 1938. (accessed November 16, 2015).

Rollins, C. Peter. “Ideology and Film Rhetoric Three Documentaries of the New Deal Era (1936- 1941).” In Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context. Ed. Peter C.  Rollins. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983.




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