John CarradineJohn QualenCharley GrapewinHenry Fonda
The Grapes of Wrath
Medium: film
Year: 1940
Director: John Ford
Writer: Nunnally Johnson, John Steinbeck
Keywords: Oscar-winning
Country: USA
Actor: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Sully, Frank Darien, Darryl Hickman, Shirley Mills, Roger Imhof
Format: 128 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 28 June 2010
Was that fun? Hell, no. It's an unpleasant world to visit, largely because it's a faithful depiction of what things were really like for those people at that time. In fact it's actually understating its case, both in the original novel because Steinbeck thought giving all the horrors in detail would have got in the way of his story and then later in the movie because this was the Production Code era.
The first thing that needs saying is that this story is famous. The movie was one of the first twenty-five chosen to go into the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", but the original novel was even bigger. It won John Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize, but importantly pretty much all of America was reading and talking about it. People burned it. It's been called the most discussed novel of twentieth century American literature. It's talking about the plight of the "Okies" (from Oklahoma) who'd been driven off their land and were in desperate straits as a result of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The latter was an environmental problem, caused by intensive farming of the Great Plains without any thought for soil erosion. The land just blew away and so the farmers had to go too. They couldn't grow anything in a man-made desert and they couldn't find jobs anywhere else, either. Employers exploited them, but quite often they just starved to death.
Cheerful, eh? I haven't read the book, so this is going to be all about the film.
Firstly, it's not even aware of the ecological angle. Secondly, it's not offering any easy answers. Early on our hillbilly family are asking who the bad guy is so that they can shoot him, but they're simply being crushed by economics. When the caterpillar tractor comes over the hill like a Martian invader to crush their home, it's being driven by a guy they know. He's facing the same troubles they are. He too has a wife and children and pointing a gun at him isn't going to change that. It's just that he's been given a job driving caterpillar tractors.
The film is apparently more political than the book, which is surprising since both the director John Ford and the producer Darryl F. Zanuck were right-wingers. Zanuck actually sent private investigators to Oklahoma, found that it was all true and decided he had a defence against the criticisms the film was going to face of being pro-Communist. There's pro-union talk in the face of brutal exploitation and the lead character being sceptical about Red-baiting. It feels left-wing even from a British perspective, so I'd guess that from an American one this must come across even more strongly. The heartlessness of the people running the fruit-picking concentration camp is also contrasted with an element of charity and working people helping each other, even when (as with the starving children at the camp) the givers are in exactly the same dire straits as the people they're helping.
In case anyone out there is feeling pedantic, by the way, obviously I was just using colourful language earlier and the fruit-picking camp isn't really a concentration camp. The people there aren't prisoners. There aren't many other points of difference, though.
So it's a powerful, famous film with something to say. We all knew that. However technically speaking it's also a message that's seventy years out of date, so why should we be watching the film today? I mean, you can't deny that these people are suffering. The film's a cry of rage on their behalf and back in the day I shouldn't think there would have been any excuse not to watch it. However their world is gone. It's so specific to the Dirty Thirties and the Great Depression, speaking so directly to America at the time, that I think these days it's practically a historical. The issues are still with us, but not in Oklahoma and no longer in this specific combination.
However of course we've still got dispossession, environmental problems and exploitation. They're often in more far-flung parts of the world, but they're out there. This is a film that cries out to be discussed and thought about. You're not meant to enjoy it. It's designed to hurt and leave an impact.
The actors are doing it justice. These people are deprived, poorly educated and in some cases simple-minded buffoons, but the film never points and laughs at them. They are who they are. Jane Darwell won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Ma Joad, while Henry Fonda was nominated for Best Leading Actor. Until this Fonda had been trying to avoid tying himself to an exclusive studio contract, but he agreed to a seven-year contract with Fox for the sake of winning this role. Everyone here is doing powerful work, but the most oddly charming is John Carradine as the fallen preacher Jim Casey. Back then he'd have been a pretty explosive story element, with his "few words" over someone's grave being a little shocking even today. I have to admit I've always thought he was rubbish as Dracula in Universal's "House of" movies, but here he's rather wonderful in a memorable role. Both actor and character share the same initials as Jesus Christ, incidentally.
The film's ending is very different to the book's, apparently. The book ends with a woman who's lost her baby breast-feeding a man so sick with starvation that he can't eat solid food. Three guesses as to whether that was going to make it through the Production Code. However that said, the film's still a good deal more hard-hitting than you'd expect and I'd say the Code's suggested list of alterations and cuts looks pretty reasonable. One of them even arguably toughens it up, with a recommendation that one particular killing be shown not to be just self-defence. I'd guess the project could get away with more because it was so high-profile and artistically worthy. Darryl F. Zanuck paid a then-extraordinary $100,000 for the rights to the novel, with Steinbeck only agreeing on condition that the material be adapted with due reverence and seriousness.
Am I likely to watch this movie ever again? I shouldn't think so. Would I recommend it? That's not a straightforward question. It's clearly a key work of cinematic literature that's going to get shown in schools and universities until the end of time, but don't expect to get many laughs from it. However it's memorable for its acting, its story and even its imagery, with for instance the distant people trudging in silhouette against a ruined landscape, or the starving children staring through the fence as if this were a zombie movie. Oh, and John Steinbeck loved the film and said that Henry Fonda made him "believe my own words".
"They ain't human. No human being could live the way they do."