The Grapes of Wrath, 1940. Directed by John Ford, and starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck.
At #23 on the AFI Top 100 list, The Grapes of Wrath was yet another film that I was familiar with, but had never actually seen. Set in the midst of the Great Depression, the film tells the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers from Oklahoma who lose their land and then set off with thousands of others for the promised land of California. Along the way, they experience the kindness and the cruelty of the American people, and discover the harshness and the beauty of the American landscape. The Joad family’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs represent the shared experiences of the people of America’s heartland during the terrible drought known as the Dust Bowl days.
This is an important film for these reasons. Americans should never forget the events of that time, events that shaped the way our country developed through the mid-twentieth century. Although the style of the film is a bit dated, especially in the way the actors tend to speachify occasionally, the message itself is timeless, and the film contains some great moments of cinematography, directing, and acting. Director John Ford took full advantage of the bleakness possible through black-and-white film to give the movie an almost visceral feel of dust, dirt, grime, and despair. One especially intriguing moment comes early in the film, when the Joads’ neighbor, Muley, describes for Fonda’s character, Tom, the destruction of people’s homes, and the community in general, by what he calls the “cats” – the Caterpillar tractors used by the landowners to clear the land for large-scale, machine-enabled farming. Ford uses a montage of clips of tractors, usually shot from below to make them seem larger and more threatening. The montage is overlaid on footage of the ever-rolling track belt of a tractor’s wheel assembly, which imparts a sense of encroaching and inevitable doom. When Muley describes the actual annihilation of his own home, the camera focuses on the imprints of the track belt’s ridges left behind in the dirt of his now-destroyed front yard. The implication of man’s powerlessness in the wake of the machine is clear and lasting.
By far, the most riveting performance was that of Jane Darwell, in the role of Ma Joad. Darwell’s careworn yet tender face imparts infinite depths of feeling, suffering, insight, and wisdom. Her loving acceptance of Tom’s (Fonda’s) past is balanced by her determination to remain decent, kind, and forgiving in the face of incredible suffering. She worries that Tom’s experiences in prison have made him hard and mean, yet her love and devotion are clearly present in her every interaction with him. It’s obvious, even before any mention of the fact is made, that she is the one who is holding the family together, through her own strength of character, persistence, and stubborn dignity. At the end of the film, it is Ma’s character who makes the closing speech, rather than Tom or any of the other male characters. The speech is almost like a soliloquy, because she seems to be addressing a larger audience than her husband and son who ride with her in the front seat of the truck. She muses on the hard days they have survived, and confesses that there were many times when she thought all was lost. However, she concludes by expressing hope for her family’s future. She reiterates the family’s close ties to the land and unbreakable bonds with each other. But it’s not just her words that infuse the viewer with optimism — it’s her face, and especially her eyes. You can see the light of hope and determination in her expression, and you begin to share her vision for a better future. This must have been very inspiring to the audiences of 1940, who had themselves suffered, to one extent or another, the kinds of deprivations and humiliations depicted onscreen. Ma Joad’s vision for tomorrow did not just encompass herself, or even her own family, but the entire country as well. She spoke hope for all Americans.
(author’s note: I wrote this a few years ago, when my plan was to review all of the films on the AFI’s Top 100 American Films list. I recently rediscovered this post, which was ready to publish when I lost track of it.)