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The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Producer Darryl F. Zanuck and filmmaker John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is, surprisingly, a deeply political film and timeless in all its own ways.  Ostensibly about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and one family’s journey to California looking for work and, in a sense, hope for their future, the film also tackles heady ideas about community and the government’s role in taking care of the downtrodden when there’s no one else there.  Accused of Communism and the like in its day, the film’s themes revolving around people who society just doesn’t have room for anymore are just as vital and important today as they were when John Ford originally set out to film Steinbeck’s novel.

Henry Fonda top-lines a stellar cast as Tom Joad, a man just released from prison returning home to his family’s farm in Oklahoma, only to find it abandoned and his family ready to move on for work and the promise of a better future in California.  Loaded up in a rusty old jalopy, Tom, his parents, grandparents, uncle, brothers, and sisters and the like head west, facing tragedy and hard ship all along the way.  The family is met with kindness in spots but, ultimately, once they’ve reached California, find only deep corruption and mistreatment, as if they were animals rather than people by the local police and citizenry.

Despite the dark passages of the book, Ford takes a gentle hand to the film crafting a warm, softhearted story where things can easily become cynical and prone to deep despair.  In fact, it is deeply un-cynical in its treatment of a family facing every misery and hardship one can face.  Their unity and strength comes from family and Ford works that aspect time and time again.  With beautiful black and white photography by Gregg Toland, the Dust Bowl and the poverty-stricken Joads are lit warmly and though the dirt and grime of their situation permeates every frame, Toland and Ford take every chance they can to capture a bit of beauty that surrounds them.

But truly, the movie’s heart and soul lies in Henry Fonda’s deeply felt, honest and pure work as Tom Joad.  Tom is a man with a deep urge to anger and violence but is often kept in check by the love of his family and Fonda’s natural gentleness is a great underpinning to the character.  His inner turmoil and search for why these economic circumstances have met his family is the central tenet of this film and he only just barely gets his answers at film’s end.  Fonda is joined by a wonderful supporting cast all pulling in just as strong work.  John Carradine plays Casey, an ex-preacher brought along from their home town on their journey and he is wonderful, playing that underlying tragic loss of faith with a gentle humor that’s difficult to pull off.  Jane Darwell rightfully won an Academy Award for her performance as Tom’s mother, providing a moral compass to her wayward son and the entire family.  If Fonda is the heart and soul of the film, Darwell is the glue that holds the family truly together and Darwell portrays that earnest rock with great aplomb.

Ford’s film is as timeless as ever.  Shot as if it was a documentary providing a real feeling of living in that time and place, Ford’s film demonstrates how the treatment of the migrant workers, merely looking for a way to provide for their families, has an eerie similarity to the current economic troubles of today.  Though nowhere near as deep a depression, America faces tough troubles now and one can certainly draw some unpleasant parallels between the horrific treatment of the migrant workers to the illegal immigrants migrating from Mexico today, looking for work but only finding malice, contempt, and exploitation once they cross that border for a better life.  The cruelty is almost even more disturbing when taken to the fact that it is America’s own citizens being treated so cruelly, unlike today where we have taken that malice to the outsiders.

Ford builds California as the great sanctuary and hope for a family that needs it and today the entirety of America is that and is almost just as false a mirage.  But Ford doesn’t treat it as such and, in effect, builds to a much more upbeat ending than the book.  There is a slice of hope left at the end of all things and Ford finds that optimism in the love and unity of family.  It’s a heartfelt message and, thankfully, it doesn’t discount the deep cruelty and cynicism that can bump up against that but to the filmmakers it’s the warmth and decency of the individual that triumphs.

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