The Grapes Of Wrath

Dir: John Ford, 1940. Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Russell Simpson, Dorris Bowdon. Classics.
The Grapes Of Wrath

When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his Oklahoma farm after four years in prison, he learns that nothing is what it was. It’s the 1930s, the depression is on, and his family has lost their farm and home to the bank. So begins an amazing journey for Tom - as he sees the social injustice around him he grows from petty criminal to labor activist. The Grapes of Wrath is a monumental film by a monumental director, John Ford, based on a brilliant book by another monumental figure, John Steinbeck. The truths laid out in the book and film may be just as true today as they were then. Tom leads his family from the dustbowl in search of work and a promise for a better life in California, but all they find are lies, police corruption, and corporate exploitation of desperate workers. It sounds a lot like the plight migrant workers from Mexico and Central America still face in search of the supposed American Dream.

The Grapes Of Wrath almost plays like a post-apocalyptic adventure as Tom, along with his Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), and the preacher, Casey (John Carradine), pack the entire Joad clan into the truck and head west, where the world they encounter is a hostile and burnt out place. They are encouraged by pamphlets to head to California, but they get there to find themselves hoarded like cattle in a police state where their every move is monitored (another piece of futureshock, the dystopian state). Tom, at first naive, then confused, slowly realizes that all the cards are fixed against him and all the little people of the country. By the end, on the run from the cops, he tells his Ma in one of the great speeches in film history, "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there..." It’s a dark conclusion for the Joad family (and for the American Socialist dream, as WWII and then the Cold War are just around history’s corner).

Interesting, the screenplay, adapted by Nunnally Johnson (The Dirty Dozen), is actually much more upbeat than the book. The film does lend some glimmers of hope for the Joads and colors over some of the book's bleakness (as well as some of the more extreme political ideas). Talk about apocalyptic, the book ends with the young woman, Rose Of Sharen, losing her baby and then feeding a starving man with her breast milk in a barn. I can’t imagine superstar producer Darrell Zanuck testing that ending for audiences in Sherman Oaks.

Though The Grapes Of Wrath is his greatest achievement, John Ford is best known for his Westerns (usually with John Wayne), as far from Steinbeck’s left wing intentions as possible. Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, all may be important films but none stand up to Ford’s achievements with The Grapes Of Wrath (of his Westerns I prefer his follow-up collaboration with Fonda, My Darling Clementine). This is not to say that Ford’s non-Westerns are not acclaimed, Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley, and The Informer are all excellent. Throughout all his work there is a sort of moral code, an old-school Western code, a man ought to be able to stand up for himself, everyone should be allowed to stake their claim. His view on the American Indian may be rather right wing, though he does appear to share with Steinbeck a mistrust of the powers that control the state.

The Walker Evans photos of the Oakies and other migrants in the American west during the Depression may be the signature images from the era. The Grapes Of Wrath’s look perfectly captures those photos. The great cinematographer Gregg Toland (the man Orson Welles generously shared his title card credit with on Citizen Kane) was able to recreate those black and white images of the despair and the hungry need for proud people to hold on to their dignity. The cast impeccably realizes that vision, led by Fonda and Darwell in career-defining performances. As time passes, the film itself (and the book, along with Steinbeck’s other masterpiece, Of Mice And Men) may now be the greatest record of this bleak period in our history. The Grapes Of Wrath is a vital masterpiece.

___________________________

The Grapes Of Wrath won two Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell) and Best Director. It was nominated for five additional Oscars: Best Actor (Henry Fonda), Best Editing, Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Sound.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 8, 2011 5:33pm
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