The Grapes of Wrath is one of the great American movies, to be sure. It's more than simply faithful to the tone of a great book, the instant Depression epic. It was probably the first modern social-conscience issue picture, and certainly the most effective. A daring Darryl Zanuck's activist film, it rests like a crown on the head of director John Ford. If Ford's mainstream pictures often bore right-wing sentiments, he nevertheless showed a broad liberal streak through his entire career, a sentimental alignment with the underdog and the rebel. There's perhaps no other director whose career can be analyzed as successfully in discredited auteurist terms. His later The Searchers, a genre fantasy that at first seems superficial, derives much of its depth from the spirit of films like The Grapes of Wrath.
John Ford was a military man as much as a film director and became a big supporter of Vietnam and the Republican point of view. But he also condemned the blacklist and with George Stevens and others fought attempts to let the Director's Guild enforce HUAC loyalty oaths. His westerns can be downright racist (particularly as regards American Indians) but the rebel in him always embraced the nobility of the losing side and the righteousness of the underdog. The Grapes of Wrath is the closest mainstream Hollywood ever came to advocating communism, or at least socialism, as the cure for the country's Depression woes. Since the movie is more visually specific and immediate than Steinbeck's book, we quickly get a picture of America that must have drained the blood from right-wing anti-labor fat cats like Louis B. Mayer: Rich bankers and trusts have seized the land from the salt-of-the-Earth farmers. Law and Order is represented by hired thugs who use brutality, terror and murder to keep the "rabble" under control. America has devolved from the frontier dream (Joad's grandfather's generation with their plows that broke the plains) into a class system where the wealthy and landed use the dispossessed like expendable cattle.
This was big news to us early 70s "radicalized" UCLA film students. We considered ourselves politically aware but The Grapes of Wrath made it obvious that we were pampered baby boomers, idealistic and naïve. We hadn't lived the hardships some of our parents had seen in the Depression. Some of us had the hand-me-down inability to enjoy spending money that our parents had gotten from that experience, but that was about it.
In The Grapes of Wrath we see a vision of an America in dire need of a revolution. Tom Joad mixes common decency and mid-west pragmatism with the spiritual faith of lost preacher Casy (John Carradine in his greatest role) and emerges as the future hope. John Ford knew that when Joad finally walks off in the night on his future mission, viewers would associate him with Abraham Lincoln. Is Tom Joad supposed to represent a future Lenin for America? It's an interesting thought.
The Grapes of Wrath really works because we believe it in the same guilty way we understand that the towns between St. Louis and Los Angeles were built by hardy people who in most ways were more deserving than us modern-day inhabitants with our "lifestyles." Steinbeck's Okies are the same hicks that were lampooned in L'il Abner and Ma Kettle movies, the kind of people who were likely to be intimidated by indoor plumbing. Ford uses Gregg Toland's camera to ennoble the Okies but he also believes in their spirit, so the careful compositions and lighting aren't just decoration.
Steinbeck's book is a harrowing ordeal that Nunnally Johnson's script simplifies and does not distort, at least until the conclusion. The route taken by the Okies is authentic; you can still cross the Needles bridge over the Colorado river at the same point. When they reach the "promised land" and marvel at the huge expanse of green fields and groves, the Joads are looking East from the Stony Point landmark where the San Fernando Valley meets the entrance to the Simi valley. The promised land isn't some evil corner of California, it's right here next to Los Angeles.
There are some interesting continuity gaps that could not be avoided - Wrath's 128 minute running time already tested the patience of theater audiences. A slightly addle-pated member of the Joad party called Noah simply disappears when they reach the Colorado river and is never mentioned again. The film is so close to the book in tone, that we who had read it assumed everyone else knew what had happened. After playing with his toy boat in the river, Noah just walked away down the river, vanishing without a word for no good reason.
The Grapes of Wrath isn't very cop-friendly. Although most of the brutality is dealt out by hired goons who club unarmed men to death and shoot indiscriminately into crowds of women and children, the border guards and highway patrolmen aren't exactly benevolent either. The film was an eye-opener for 1940 audiences. Earlier Hollywood newsreel accounts of labor strikes, mainly showed out of control rioters while avoiding depictions of police brutality.
Henry Fonda is an ideal Tom Joad, a symbol incarnated as a real man. Andrew Sarris said that when Henry Fonda is oppressed in America, something has to be wrong with America. A supporter of liberal causes, Fonda finally found his stride in The Grapes of Wrath, but his earlier attempt at portraying a leftist oppressed by fascism in Blockade had been something of an embarrassment. There he shouted "Where is the conscience of the world!" at the audience, as if a movie could be as simplistic as a cheap political cartoon. It didn't sway anyone. In the The Grapes of Wrath Fonda makes Tom Joad's plight the first concern on every viewer's mind.
The story also twists events to create a hopeful ending to counter the complete horror of Steinbeck's book. There's a government migrant farm worker's camp set up by the federal government as an antidote to the tent cities and Hoovervilles often raided and burned by local law enforcement. In the book, this slight respite is the exception to the abuse dealt the Okies. When the remaining Joads move on, things go from shaky to untenable. Then the family falls apart and disaster strikes.
In the movie, the federal camp episode is placed near the end. Tom still goes out on his own like an avenging spirit, now scarred Cain-like and dedicated to effecting some kind of social change. The rest of the family strikes out for new work, with mother Jane Darwell delivering a speech from the book. It's about the people who work the land being more permanent than the decadent sons of the rich. The words provide a feel-good lift, but the sentiment is all wishful thinking - as a functioning family unit there's nothing in the cards for these people but a slow descent into chaos.
Modern editorials often relate The Grapes of Wrath to the plight of today's migrant farmworkers in California. There's some parallels; both groups are treated as a pliable workforce by agri-business. It's interesting that even the Okies, the real descendants of the pioneers that the culture lauds as the Americans who won the West, were dismissed by America as silly fools in broken-down flivver Fords. If that's how Anglo Americans from the midwest were treated, I'm not surprised by the abuses directed at the Mexican-American farmworkers.
Fox's Studio Classics DVD of The Grapes of Wrath looks beautiful. The image is not only superior to earlier video releases, it's framed wider all around. The famous Gregg Toland B&W cinematography that so inspired Orson Welles is faithfully represented.
The extras are pretty good, starting with a full-length docu on Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck from the Biography channel. It's thorough and insightful.
There's a still gallery, a restoration demonstration that shows the new framing on this release, and an audio commentary by knowledgeable Ford authority Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw. If you think my review is overly political, give this track a listen. I liked it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Grapes of Wrath rates: