One of the serious potential environmental costs of most mining operations is pollution of downstream streams, rivers and lakes with excess sediments and toxins. One of the most serious examples in 19th century USA of excess river sedimentation was caused by hydraulic mining of gold-bearing gravely hills on the sides of the Sacramento Valley in the period from the 1850s to the early 1880s. This process involved directing a high pressure jet of water onto the hillside, causing the material to wash downhill, where the gold could be separated from the gravel and sediment. The sediment then collected in a ditch or stream and most found its way to the Sacramento River or its tributaries. The sediment that stayed in the river bed increased the likelihood of floods in the downstream agricultural fields and towns and created permanent marshes in some areas. Some of the sediment spilled over onto the agricultural fields, where it might cover a standing crop or cover more desirable soil or make plowing difficult. Thus, the conflicting interests of the companies that used hydraulic mining and of the downstream farmers adversely affected by these operations is the subject of this nearly forgotten 1938 color film by Warner.
First, we might ask why Warner decided to shoot this film in a rather poor Technicolor, a very rare treatment in 1938. A story about wheat farmers and gold miners wouldn't seem to justify the expense and difficulties of color filming at this time. The answer seems to be the inordinate film time spent indoors, with fancy colorful clothes and ornamentations. Then, we might ask why colorless George Brent was chosen as the leading man and ultimate hero, to be paired with Olivia de Havilland. Among other things, this film really needed a charismatic leading man to carry it. Even the usually colorful Gabby Hayes, in his small role, seemed unusually subdued. Unfortunately, I fell asleep before the apparently more dramatic last part of the film. The portion I saw spent too much time establishing a complicated set of relationships between too many people at the expense of graphically portraying the plight of the chosen wheat baron and perhaps nearby town folk and their attempts to deal with their flood and sedimentation problems. It needed to be more like "The Good Earth", released just the year before. Just maybe it would then have been suitable for a charismatic leading man, such as Errol Flynn. Finally, there is the matter of the inane title. Surely, Warner could have come up with a catchy or more appropriate title. "Gold or Grain" is short and to the point. Incidentally, I understand there is still plenty of gold in 'them thar hills', waiting to be extracted by means other than hydraulic mining.
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