Written and directed by Pare Lorentz for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, The River is a follow-up to Lorentz’s groundbreaking documentary of the previous year, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936). As with the earlier film, Lorentz sought out the finest cameramen working in documentary filmmaking—in this case hiring Willard Van Dyke, Floyd Crosby, and Horace and Stacey Woodard—and brought back composer Virgil Thomson to write and score the music. Unlike the first film, however, The River was fully funded and promoted by the Roosevelt administration, and it achieved wide distribution through Paramount. Striking photography and rhythmically insistent editing tell the story of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, their tendency to flood their banks regularly and with great destructive force, and the American grit and ingenuity that tamed the river valley and turned it into a productive, power-generating landscape. The River suffers from a weak, if hopeful, finale—as with all such stories, the problem is more dramatic and visually arresting than the solution. But at its best, Lorentz’s film became a model for the new documentary cinema of social advocacy.
Publication excerpt from In Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of the Museum of Modern Art by Steve Higgins, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 169.