Mississippi River History

The Government-Funded, Award-Winning Movie about the Mississippi River

Posted on Updated on

Pare Lorentz

By Ken Zurski

In the summer of 1936, documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz got the go ahead from the U.S. Government to make a short film about a rather long subject: the Mississippi River.

The film’s job was to throw more support towards the newly appointed Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a government agency created in 1933.  The $50,000 budget approved by President Franklin Roosevelt would be used to highlight the environmental and economic concerns along the river, specifically the catastrophic flooding caused by industries like farming and the timber trade that inadvertently sent large amounts of topsoil down the river into the Gulf of Mexico.

Two years earlier, Roosevelt had funded a mildly successful film project titled The Plow That Broke the Plains, also directed by Lorentz, which showed how uncontrolled farming led to the devastating and deadly effects of the Dust Bowl.

It’s fair to say that both Roosevelt and Lorentz had no intentions of making another documentary together. “The Plow” had gone over budget and the government balked, refusing to provide more money and forcing Lorentz to personally foot the bill just to complete the film. At some point however, attitude’s changed. Lorentz saw a map of the Mississippi River and thought it would make a good subject.  Roosevelt agreed and gave him a significantly higher budget than “The Plow.” Lorentz was also extended a $30-dollar a day salary.

Immediately Lorentz went to work, filming location after location on the ground and from the air.  The crew worked their way up the river from the Gulf of Mexico to Cairo, Illinois, oftentimes working for days on end until principal filming wrapped up in early January 1937. In the end the visuals showed less of the Mississippi and more of the many tributaries. This was as much a part of the river’s history as it was the problem, the film purported.

Lorentz (standing) and crew on location

Reaction to a film being made about the Mississippi River was mixed. Although it’s the most important body of drainage water in the U.S., perhaps even the world, to many, the river itself, was nothing particularly pleasing to look at. The water is drab and dirty looking and along it’s shoreline there is very little rock formations or scenery to enhance it. “If driving, you become aware of its presence miles before you reach it,” author Simon Winchester wrote about the river’s approach. “The landscape falls away. There are swamps on either side, dense hedgerows and copses, miles of small lakes of curious shape.”

Indeed the Mississippi River, especially its midsection, is banked by mostly mud.  Even Mark Twain’s flourishes of the river’s attributes from the perspective of a steamboat pilot couldn’t push the attitudes toward its appearance into anything more than just a very long strip of dirt-colored water and sludgy shores.

No question beauty is subjective. Hundreds of quaint cities dot the river’s shoreline and dense tree lines along the Mid to Upper sections provide a multi-colored vista in the Fall.

In St Louis, Missouri, a large man-made monument standing as tall as it is wide (630 feet), greet visitors at the river’s edge; a testament to the men who used the Mississippi’s offshoots to chart the west.

When Lorentz made his movie, however, the idea of a symbol like the “Gateway Arch” was nearly 30 years away. But like the early explorers, Lorentz found significance in its vast network. The tributaries and the people who live along them were the key to its resourcefulness.


The visuals, however, were just part of the overall experience of the 30-minute film. The script, dramatically narrated by an opera singer and actor named Thomas Hardie Chalmers, was not only informational, but poetic too. There’s a good reason why. To promote the project, Lorentz had written two articles for McCall’s magazine. One was wordy and statistical, he thought, so he wrote another version that was more lyrically composed:

From as far East as New York,
Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies
Down from Minnesota, twenty five hundred miles,
The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf.

Carrying every drop of water, that flows down
two-thirds the continent.
Carrying every brook and rill, rivulet and creek,
Carrying all the rivers that run down two-thirds
the continent,
The Mississippi runs to the Gulf of Mexico.

McCall’s chose to publish the latter version and readers responded by writing request letters for copies. Lorentz used the more poetic prose in the film. The music, which incorporated part folk and gospel styles, was written by composer Virgil Thomson.


While the unflinching subject matter certainly raised awareness of the need for more locks and dams, the film is best remembered for it’s cinematic achievements. It went on to win the “Best Documentary” at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival and the script was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The noted novelist and poet James Joyce, shortly before his death at age 60, called Lorentz’s script, “the most beautiful prose that I have heard in ten years.”

Before all the artistic accolades rolled in, upon release in October of 1937, the film titled simply “The River” received positive reviews and general widespread acceptance. The first showing at the White House , however, proved less than ideal. While Roosevelt was generally pleased, the president’s Secretary of Agriculture at the time, Henry Wallace, a Midwesterner from Iowa, didn’t know what to think.

“There’s no corn in it,” he said.



John Banvard and the ‘Three-Mile Painting’

Posted on Updated on

John Banvard

By Ken Zurski

In the 1840’s, artist John Banvard created the largest, longest and most ambitious painting of its time. Figuratively rather than literally, it was named “Three-Mile Painting” because it consisted of a series of large painted scenes in sequence called a “moving panorama.” 

Banvard chose the continuous landscape of the Mississippi River as his subject. He spent two years on the river traveling by boat and hunting for food to survive. He sketched hundreds of scenic vistas from St Louis to New Orleans and when finished holed himself up in Louisville, Kentucky to begin rolling and unrolling canvases. He then transferred the sketches at a breakneck pace. 

It was as massive an undertaking as the subject itself.

Each panel stood 12 feet high and together stretched for 1300 feet – not quite a quarter of a mile in total. That was far short of the “three miles” Banvard had advertised, but who was counting?


Banvard presented the work to packed houses and appreciative audiences and in 1846, by request, brought the massive painting to England and Queen Victoria for a private showing in Windsor Castle.

Banvard made a fortune and took his success personally. He fought with fellow panorama artists calling them “imitators” and in return they called Banvard ”uncultivated.” When Banvard built a castle-like estate on 60 acres in New York’s Long Island, it was admonished by locals for being overtly excessive, pretentious and impractical. They called it “Banvard’s Folly.” It later became a lavish hotel.

In 1851, in direct competition with Banvard, another panorama depiction of the Mississippi River was presented by artist John L Egan.  Although it was advertised as a whopping “15,000 feet” in length, a more factual estimate puts it closer to 348 feet.  Each panel was 8- foot high and 14-feet long.  The rolled canvas was so large that matinee viewers were treated to a stroll down the river’s stream in the afternoon while in the evening performance, as the canvas was rolled back in reverse, a trip upstream was presented. 

While Banvard claimed to be first to showcase the wonders of the mighty river on canvas, Egan’s deception is better known today because its scenes have been saved, making it the last known surviving panorama of its time.

John L. Egan’s panel depiction of the Mississippi River

Unfortunately that is not the case with Banvard’s “Three-Mile Painting.” It was never persevered or copied. Because of its size and quantity, the panels were separated and used as scenery backdrops in opera productions.

When the canvases became worn from exposure they were shredded and recycled for insulation in houses.