The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is the oldest movie yet reviewed for The Legionnaire. It is part of a collection of movies I own for a course I teach on Film and Twentieth Century America. I miss that course. Aside from the thrill of being back in front of a live classroom, it is nice to take a step away from the glitz and slickness of modern movie making. When you have computers that can seemingly do anything you want in a film, and you are aware of these things, it kind of takes away from the magic of motion pictures. Before the advent of computer generated images (CGI), filmmakers had to really work at their craft in order to make a believable product. While a story about Okies leaving behind the Dust Bowl might not sound like the most exciting piece of cinema, in the hands of legendary director John Ford you can see the masterpiece that is this film.
The Grapes of Wrath begins with Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) shortly after being released from jail. He had been put there for accidentally killing a man. He expects to return home and find his parents and the rest of his family on their farm and awaiting his return. Instead, along with the former preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine) who Tom encounters on his way home, they walk up to an abandoned homestead and long fallow fields. The Joads had been forced to leave because of the dust storms that devastated the Great Plains during the 1930s and led to so many farmers (particularly in Oklahoma where it is set) losing everything. When Tom finally catches up with his family, the decision had been made for them to move to California as so many other Okies did at that time. Thus they load (probably overload) their truck and set off westward. The journey is fraught with heartache, especially when both grandparents die along the way. But the Joads continue on, buoyed by the same pioneer spirit that brought their ancestors to the plains in the first place. They believe that California will be a veritable New Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, and where work will be plentiful. What greets them is a state that is flooded with people like them, but even more desperate because they did not find things as they hoped and had been dealing with it longer. Still, they carry on trying to find employment, and get duped into being pickers at the Hooper Ranch. When Tom gets accused of killing Jim, and because their wages get cut, they end up leaving in the dead of night. They wind up at a government run camp called the Weedpatch, which is run by committees and do not allow its inhabitants to work without a contract. Unfortunately, the officials that thought Tom had committed Jim’s murder found Tom at the government camp, forcing him to flee. But his experience with seeing the awful condition of his fellow Okies and the terrible labor practices gave him a mission to help others like him, and the film suggests that is what he sets off to do.
The Grapes of Wrath is based on the classic novel of the same title by John Steinbeck, and it was one of those books assigned in high school that made my classmates roll their eyes. It was just something we were not terribly interested in at that time. As I have aged, though, it was John Ford’s adaptation of it that has piqued my interest. Ford was known for directing many of John Wayne’s westerns, and he did not need to stray too far afield to make this movie. One of the best shots of the film is when the Joads first get to the indigent camp soon following their arrival in California. As their vehicle makes its ponderous way, the camera is set on a track as it moves slowly along. You see everything you need to do about the world in which the Joads inhabit in the downtrodden faces of the onlookers they pass. The entire movie could probably be understood in this one scene, and I find that to be brilliant.
Speaking of the sequence in the indigent camp, the scene that gets me most in The Grapes of Wrath comes not long after they set up their tent. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) has made dinner for the rest of the family, but looks out from their fire to see a group of hungry children watching them intently. Despite Tom’s protestations, she decides to give the kids whatever is left over. It must be emphasized that the Joads are just as poor as the rest of the people to which they are now close neighbors, but being new to the area they still had a few resources left from their trek across the United States. Ma’s act, though, reminds me of the widow who gave her last two coins to the temple treasury. Jesus remarks that she had given more than every other person who had donated that day because she gave all she had rather than contributing from her surplus. To be clear, this does not mean that everyone should just hand over all their money. But the point is that, like the widow and Ma Joad, you do what you can. That is a mindset that seems so rare in our society today.
I can unequivocally recommend The Grapes of Wrath to any audience, though not all audiences will find it all that interesting, unfortunately. It is a slow moving black and white film, and so many movies these days are not that, to say the least. But at the end of the day it is a great example of a family staying committed to each other despite the awful struggles they experience. That is a film I can get behind any day.