Film #60 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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During the 1930s the Great Depression held all of America in its tight grasp. But one are of the country that particularly struggled was the American Southwest. But this swath of country of wasn’t just affected by the economic hardships of the time, it also saw an onslaught of environmental disasters. While the state of Oklahoma was once a fertile land that went through booming periods of farm productivity, it was now an increasingly arid land. Years of over farming had given rise to infertile land that were then effected by draught. Consequently, thousands of residents began to leave their homes to journey out west in search of work. This great migration gave rise to the mythical “Oakie” archetype in the American consciousness. This was crystalized in the great American author John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. The book was a huge bestseller, leading to Hollywood to option the film rights. The filmmaker who was chosen to helm the project was John Ford, who had already garnered a twenty year career of acclaim.
The young Oakie Tom Joad ( Henry Fonda) has just been released from prison after killing a man in a bar fight. He returns to his family farm only to discover that the Dust Bowl Storm has made the land both environmentally and economically inhospitable. Most of the county’s residents have packed up an left. Many of them have set out for California, which prominent handbills advertise as being full of work. The Joad Family themselves are about to set out for the west when Tom joins them.
Along the way, the family encounters strife and the deaths of their older members. When they finally reach California, they find that they are just one family of thousands who are fled to the state in hopes of work. They are soon exploited by cruel farming corporations as they are paid little for their work. Tom Joad again finds himself on the wrong side of the law after assaulting a police officer, forcing the family to flee to a new location.
The Joads settle in a government run camp, which provides them with humane living conditions and hope for the future. But after getting word that the law will soon discover his location, Tom decides to willingly leave his family. But before doing so, he tells his mother ( Jane Darwell) that he will devote his life help organizing the working class in order to bring about a better world.
Director John Ford may have once remarked that “ none of my better pictures were westerns”, but his portrayal of Depression era America was as stark and rugged as any of his cowboy adventures. Ford introduces us to the film’s hero, Tom Joad, not in a sparkling or glamorous close up, but as a small figure trekking across dust bowl Oklahoma. Tom Joad may be a conduit for the struggles of the American Working Class, but he is by no means portrayed as the kind of idealistic go-getter that may have been found in a Frank Capra film. The introduction of Tom Joad portrays him as someone who is crushed under the existential weight of his existence. Joad is a figure who has lost control over his environment. Instead, his environment controls him. As the film opens, Tom Joad has just gotten out of jail for manslaughter. Though his family constantly asks him whether he “ busted out” of jail, Tom repeatedly, and even spitefully, tells them he has only been paroled. But as Tom reacquaints himself with his old homestead, he finds that everyone he used to live with is also at the mercy of their environment. His old neighbor Mulely Graves (John Qualen) recounts to him about how all of the county’s homes were bulldozed by the monstrous and faceless bank that owns the land. The furry that the team of bulldozers unleash upon the land is shown to be as every bit as unfeeling as the storms that swept through the land. Despite this, Mulely still can’t break himself away from his land, though he has been reduced to “ no more than a ghost”.
The Joad Family differs from their begotten neighbor, as they optimistically look forward to a better life in California. Despite this, there is still great emotional pain that is felt as they break away from their homeland. This pain is encapsulated in the scene in which Ma Joad stares, meloncholically, into a mirror while she tries on a pair of nice earrings (perhaps recalling the hopes of her youth). This scene is accompanied by an instrumental rendition of Red River Valley, the film’s mournful theme song that tells a painful story of leaving a loved one behind. Beyond the musical score the scene is completely silent, bringing to mind Ford’s quote that the “ main thing about directing is: photograph people’s eyes”.
Despite Ma Joad’s pain, the family able to wrench themselves away from their home and journey across the American landscape. But through their journey, they still find themselves at the mercy of their environment, finding little hope for work and money even in their destination of California. That is until they reach a transit camp that is run by the Department of Agriculture. The camp is hospitable and its managers are kind. It is at this point in the film in which the preceding depiction of individuals struggling under their harsh environment is rescinded in favor of New Deal era optimism. The Caretaker of the camp (Grant Mitchell) even resembles Franklin Roosevelt in both looks and mannerisms. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the whole third act of the film is the only significant part of the plot that is a rewrite of the novel. While the novel ends the Rosasharn Joad (Doris Bowdon) giving her breast milk to a dying man, the film concludes with an inspirational speech from Ma Joad extolling the need for “ the people” the go on and fight. This ending is such a departure in tone from the rest of the film that it almost seems as though a different director filmed it. In fact, it was! John Ford hated the idea of ending the film on Ma Joad so much, that producer Daryl F Zanuck stepped in to film it.
To see Ford’s preferred conclusion to the film, one must look only to the penultimate scene of the film. This scene features Tom Joad giving a monologue to his mother that culminates his entire dark journey. In the speech, Tom reminisces on the lessons that were imparted onto him by Jim Casey (John Carradine) the former preacher who accompanied the Joads on their journey. Upon their first meeting, Casey tells Tom that he lost faith in the traditional Christian notion of salvation. Casey muses to Tom that “ Maybe there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue, they’s just what people does. Some things folks do is nice and some ain’t so nice, and that’s all any man’s got a right to say”. Later in the film, Casey is shown to have completely turned away from musing over esoteric spiritual questions. As the Joad’s beg him to say a prayer for their deceased grandfather, Casey remarks “ I wouldn’t pray for an old man who’s dead, ‘cause he’s all right. If I was to pray, I’d pray for folks who are alive”.
Casey’s devotion to the material world, as opposed to the spiritual, ultimately leads to his death at the hands of the police. But Tom takes his inspiration when he himself must flee from the police. But before he does, he tells his mother that he will now devote his life to no longer fleeing from the forces of the world that control him. Instead, he will devote his life to working with others to bringing about change in the world for the better. Tom Joad entered the film as someone who’s anger resulted in the death of another human being, but he leaves the film as someone who will take control of himself and the world around him for the good of all mankind.
There is a reason why The Grapes of Wrath has endured far more than other films that dealt with the struggles of the Great Depression. John Ford remarked that he “ wasn’t interested in The Grapes of Wrath as a social study”. Instead, Ford sought to portray what is exposed about humanity in times of great struggle. What is exposed, is both the extent of human suffering as well as the will power to change the world. This is complimented by Greg Toland’s cinematography, which takes inspiration from German Expressionism in its depiction of a world built upon fear and uncertainty. Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad drives to the heart of the strife felt by America’s forgotten man, while never being sentimental about it. But the true unsung performance of the film is John Carradine’s. Carradine’s character and performance embodies the heartbreak and confusion of losing faith, but also the triumph in gaining a new one. John Ford’s adaption of The Grapes of Wrath isn’t just a snapshot of specific time in human struggle, it captures human struggle, as it has always existed.
- Henry Fonda was so affected by the role of Tom Joad that he kept the hat that he wore in the film with him for the rest of his life.
- Tom Joad’s iconic final monologue was nailed in one take. This, however, was not unusual for John Ford who never like doing any more than two takes for every shot.
- Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda’s real life best friend, was almost cast in the film. That same year Stewart would beat Fonda for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Philadelphia Story ( George Cukor, 1940).