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The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)

Unrated | | Documentary, Short, Drama | 10 May 1936 (USA)
This documentary is about what happened to the Great Plains of the United States when a combination of farming practices and environmental factors led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.


Pare Lorentz


Pare Lorentz
1 win. See more awards »


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Complete credited cast:
Thomas Chalmers Thomas Chalmers ... Narrator (voice)
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Bam White Bam White ... Farmer


This documentary is about what happened to the Great Plains of the United States when a combination of farming practices and environmental factors led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


The Picture They Dared Us To Show! See more »


Unrated | See all certifications »






Release Date:

10 May 1936 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Der Pflug See more »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


| (Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente)

Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Three of the four cameramen (all but Paul Ivano) who worked on this film were fired by director/writer Pare Lorentz. Basically, they considered him too verbally script-oriented and not sufficiently visually oriented. One of these cameramen was Paul Strand, who went on to become one of America's most honored still photographers. See more »


Narrator: [Last lines] The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.
See more »

Crazy Credits

The film's opening prologue: This is a record of land . . . of soil, rather than people -- a story of the Great Plains: the 400,000,000 acres of wind-swept grass lands that spread up from the Texas panhandle to Canada . . . A high, treeless continent, without rivers, without streams . . . A country of high winds, and sun . . . and of little rain . . . By 1880 we had cleared the Indian, and with him, the buffalo, from the Great Plains, and established the last frontier . . . A half million square miles of natural range . . . This is the picturization of what we did with it. See more »


Referenced in Donald Brittain: Filmmaker (1995) See more »


Mademoiselle From Armentieres
Composer unknown
Played as part of the score during the WWI sequence
See more »

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User Reviews

The Cause of the Dust Bowl
14 September 2010 | by romanorum1See all my reviews

Some of the old time westerns often featured the late 19th century struggles between the cattlemen, who fought for the open range for cattle grazing, and the families of homesteaders / farmers who wanted to break ground and fence-off their respective properties. It was easy to observe early on that, in the movies, the homesteaders were the "good guys." History tells us rather differently, at least in one respect: Clearing the prairie of its great grasses was highly ecologically damaging and far worse than sporadic overgrazing.

This factual documentary was produced to explain the reasons for the dust bowl that occurred in the Great Plains in the 1930s USA. The affected area was vast: 625,000 square miles (400 million acres) that included ten states from Montana to Texas. By 1880 the settlers had cleared the prairie of the Indians and the buffalo. What did the settlers do with the land? Well, there was grazing and farming, and all seemed fine until the first drought. But the rains did return, and as long as there was enough water, agricultural ignorance was put on the back burner. And when the USA went to war against Germany in 1917, there was great demand for grains, especially wheat, and prices soared. Farmers were encouraged to break more sod, seed, and grow even more wheat, which was needed for the allied war effort. Even after the war there was speculation, and more and more settlers were encouraged to purchase more and more "cheap" land, which was placed under cultivation. By 1923, much of the old, hardy grasslands became wheat lands. Times were good; after all it was the new "Jazz Age." Then the lands, without many rivers or streams, experienced a worse drought than that of the 1890s. There were no longer the long, natural grasses to hold the moisture against the wind. Being hardy and with deep root systems, the natural grasses were naturally resistant to many kinds of weather conditions, especially drought. They stood their ground. On the other hand, wheat, with shallower root systems, requires occasional rainfall in the course of a season. When the amount of rainfall began to drop precipitately in the 1930s, the weaker rooting systems of the wheat plant gave way. There was nothing left to protect the dry topsoil, which was blown into large black clouds, the "dust bowl." Then there was the great departure: homesteaders abandoned their lands and animals for western places in order to start over. This film shows that government intervention was meant to encourage methods of erosion-prevention farming. Overall the film is a very good visual record of a difficult time in the Midwest. The music is dramatic, the narrative limited, and the photography excellent!

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