C onsidered one of John Ford’s best movies and made after Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Award-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath is a classic you either love or despise. It all depends on if you choose to look at it as to a cinematographic masterpiece about the drama people in Oklahoma lived during the Great Depression when they had to leave their homes and lands and try to find a new fortune in California or as to a quite melodramatic ideological movie that promotes socialism. The truth is that, if you are watching it for the first time while having no or little idea about the social context, you may think everything is exaggerated, from the actors’ play to the intense blackness of the shooting, which makes people and landscapes look artificial. Yet a very short incursion into the history of the Okies and the director’s vision may make you understand why this film brought Ford the Oscar Award for Best Director.
The movie presents the story of the Joad family, which is forced to flee from the lands on which they were born, where some of them were killed, and some of them have died, as a secondary character recounts, by a greedy company who has sent its tractors to demolish people’s homes on which they have no papers. A hard journey is about to begin, during which the Joads and other families who found themselves in the given situation will experience hunger, tiredness, loss of faith, and death, but will also discover for the first time the strength they didn’t know they had inside them. The setting is 1930s Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, which was known as a period of severe drought.
The Joads are represented by Ma Joad, who is played exceptionally by Jane Darwell, Pa Joad (Russel Simpson), Grandpa Joad (Charley Grapewin), Grandma Joad (Zeffie Tilbury), Tom Joad, magisterially played by Henry Fonda, Ruthie Joad (Shirley Mills), and a few other close relatives who embark on the same trip to California, which will be made on a 1926 Hudson “Super Six” truck that was modified to accommodate the family and their belongings. Tom Joads’ road is followed in particular as he is forced to leave his family (he commits a murder and needs to hide) to enroll in the fight of the unions for the rights of the workers and the poor in general.
A heartbreaking scene is the one presenting the death of Grandpa Joad while on the road. Since the family has no money to do him a proper burial, Tom rips a page from the family’s Bible and writes the circumstances in which he died (a stroke) so that, if anybody finds his burial place, they understand that he wasn’t killed. As the family reaches a migrant camp, Pa’s little hope begins to shatter as somebody tells him about life in California, which is not as bright as he had imagined it. Grandma Joad also dies before reaching California, and Tom’s friend Casy is killed in one of the camps by a guard.
Although the film doesn’t completely abandon Steinbeck’s social criticism, it isn’t really as acid as the novel. Ford has sweetened some scenes and rewritten some dialogues, turning the movie more into a representation of the story than into a manifesto. In the end, both the novel and the film are based on real facts and, beyond the possible socialist propaganda, poor people did suffer on the road, their children went to bed hungry, and their elderly died from stress and improper feeding. This is why, in The Grapes of Wrath, the accent is put on the Joad family and not on the administration, which is the one responsible for their situation. The viewer can see the effects but not the machinery behind them because the director refuses to turn the oppressors into main characters. This situation in which the government allies with the corporations and banks to demonize the unions is the one that makes Casy and Tom see socialism as a better alternative and justify Tom’s vision about the idea of property:
Maybe it’s like Casy says. A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody.
Today, this movie can still get a few tears from the people watching it from their couch or on a huge inflatable movie screen at an outdoor festival, but it certainly doesn’t have the same effect it had in the 1940s on the people who saw the big crisis with their own eyes or heard the stories from people who really lived them. This can be seen as an explanation for the movie’s position drop in the best movies ever top from the first place it held when it appeared to the second position when Citizen Kane was released and to the 10th position today.
Yet, it may fit better with the present social context than some may believe, and this is because it speaks about division and otherness. In Ford’s movies, there is an invisible line that functions as a border between the poor and the rich. The rich choose to regard the poor as “the others”, a social category that doesn’t function by the same rules, that shouldn’t have the same rights, that needs to be repressed so it doesn’t somehow reduce the rich’s rights. On the other hand, the poor need to regard the rich as “the others”, and this functions as a protection mechanism against their oppressors.
The division in the 1930s society is deep, but it seems to be emerging again in today’s society, and this is one of the reasons The Grapes of Wrath is still very popular, especially after it was restored and is available online and on DVD to be played on TVs and computers or to be projected on screens by the latest generation short-throw projectors. Today’s crisis may look different – it seems almost inconceivable that the darkness represented in Ford’s film may catch us or that we may return to working the land in such a technologized society – but poverty and division can take many forms.
When looking at the technical side of the movie, it is easy to observe that the rhythm is slow, which is specific to any of Ford’s movies. As Orson Wells once observed, Ford either forgets to move his camera or his actors, and some scenes may seem particularly slow. Moreover, some of the lines don’t sound natural, yet it is incredible how unpretentious can be Henry Fonda when he utters them. Going for black instead of grey for photography is a strategy Ford choose purposefully for this movie as a way to underline the darkness of the times. The lighting is also a bit strange – sometimes people are illuminated as if they were statues – and this can send to the objectification that is practiced by the rich.
Is it still worth watching The Grapes of Wrath today? Will you like it? I think you should try, as it remains one of the best movies ever made, a masterpiece that contains some memorable lines like, for instance, Ma’s final utterance:
We’ll go on forever, Pa. ‘Cause … we’re the people!
Yes, it comes with the flaws of the time, when the transition from theater to cinematography wasn’t yet perfectly made, so you will see some exaggerated gestures and pathetic lines. But you will also get a glimpse of what it meant to be poor in the 1930s. The anguish and sadness are real. Plus, there is a character evolving there who will impress you, and this is Ma, who grows from being a desperate, poor woman into a strong human being who would do anything to protect her family.