The Grapes of Wrath

Heartbreakingly beautiful adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a poor family of sharecroppers from Oklahoma who lose their land and must travel West in search of a better life. Set during the Great Depression, the story opens when Tom Joad returns to his family’s farm only to find it deserted. He soon learns farmers all over the area have been forced from their land by the deed holders. In a flashback we see a heartbreaking scene where a local boy is hired to drive a Caterpillar tractor right through a farmer’s home knocking it down like a house of cards. It’s a frustrating image and one that only hints at the hardships they’re about to experience.

The Grapes of Wrath is arguably the most epic film to tackle the plight of the Midwest farmer during the Dust Bowl. The script masterfully takes a complicated subject and centers the focus on the Joad family, a group we come to love and identify with. They radiate goodness and dignity. Somber and bleak, their helplessness is presented in devastating detail. When the family arrives at the first transient migrant campground for workers, the conditions they find are less than desirable: the camp is overcrowded with other starving and jobless travelers. The desperation is palpable. The brilliant cinematography recalls real depression era images of photographers like Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. The movie’s release in 1940 was a particularly impressive document considering the Great Depression had only ended a year earlier with the advent of WWII.

Everyone in the production is memorable. Director John Ford won the Oscar for directing. So too actress, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, the tenacious matriarch. And let’s not forget how fascinating it is to see John Carradine, patriarch of the real life acting dynasty, in his first important role as an ex-preacher who has lost his faith.  But what grounds the story is Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad. Just released from prison his heartfelt performance becomes an almost mythic hero of social justice. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those films that surpasses its literary source and actually improves on the novel’s pessimistic tone. There is much despair, but there is also an uplifting feeling of hope. Tom Joad’s poetic final speech is legendary.

4 Responses to “The Grapes of Wrath”

  1. Beautiful review, Mark! 🙂


  2. This film invites comments on things other than its undoubted dramatic impact. It represents an era in which people were looking for strong political leaders to get them out of the mess that previous generations of politicians had got them into. In their enthusiam for the programs those leaders promoted, artists in lots of fields turned their talents to producing propaganda. In Europe, Eisenstein and Brecht had built their careers on doing just that. In the United States people like John Steinbeck, Frank Capra and John Ford got caught up in writing books and making films that presented a view of society that would lend popular support to the federal government in its efforts, first to alleviate the effects of the depression, later on to wage war in Europe and the Pacific.

    The writers, however, were prone to incorporating such broad biases into their scripts that they often produced laughably exaggerated results, like those nasty cigar-smoking Fat Cats Frank Capra always had preying off the simple common folk, and the almost-heavenly New Jerusalem the government had built for the Joads just off some highway in California. Nevertheless Steinbeck, Capra, Ford and others like them undoubtedly had the talents they needed to engage the emotions of their audiences, and the films that came out of their efforts – “Grapes of Wrath” being maybe the best example – must have significantly affected the beliefs of the people who saw them. Your reaction to the movie was more positive than mine, but I can’t deny that “Grapes of Wrath” is a stirring presentation of the attitudes it was intended to foster.

    For my money though, John Ford, Henry Fonda and the other artists who got caught up in making films of this sort took a turn for the better when they – or their studio executives – limited the amount of sentimentalizing and and sermonizing they could do, and got back to telling stories that were more about people and less about archetypes.


  3. This was such a beautiful and heartbreaking film. Such a strong family, kept together by their Ma. Loved it.


  4. This movie is a real tear jerker. Unfortunately too much of the depression was caused by government policies. Many of “corrective ” policies only lengthened the duration. The camps for dust-bowl victims probably were very beneficial in providing short term care for displaced farmers, but the government also used funds to support depression artists painting awful and unuseful murals. This movie was propaganda for government assistance in areas other than dust -bowl farmers, paving the way for tax assistance to select groups at the expense of the general populace.


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