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Masterpiece Memo: The Grapes of Wrath

Great films continue to speak to the human condition for decades long after they are initially released, and none begs the connotation, “Now more than ever,” than John Ford’s filmed version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck’s novel was unusual in that not only was it the bestselling book of 1940, it was also the most critically acclaimed, winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, making it tantalizing bait for Hollywood despite its considerably leftist views. While John Ford – certainly never considered to be one of Hollywood’s progressives – made a few changes to tone down the book’s politics, the core message is so universally powerful that it survives any “commie-fearing” tinkering.

The centerpiece of the film is Tom Joad, a character that has since become an icon all on its own. Henry Fonda, who had only been in Hollywood for fives years, grabbed the tail of the comet that is this character and then maintained its core of innocence and dignity of the everyman throughout his long and respected career. It is the role that made Henry Fonda. Anchoring Tom’s idealism is his pragmatic mother, Ma Joad, and Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her Mother Earth portrayal of a woman who sees life as a flowing river, complete with eddies and waterfalls. It is impossible to watch the two of them together onscreen and not be touched by the mother/son relationship that juxtaposes practicality and survival with youthful idealism.

Even if he avoids the political details of the situation, John Ford manages to capture the humanity of displaced people who, through no fault of their own, are forced from their homes and onto the road in a mass migration for a better life. Nunnally Johnson’s poetic screenplay, Alfred Newman’s folkloric score, and especially, the gloriously gritty cinematography by the visual genius, Gregg Toland, all capture the heart of the simple story set in the traumatic and very real events of the Dust Bowl, bank failures and Depression that occurred during the previous decade.

What sets the film apart and maintains its relevance as fervently today as it was in 1940 is the atmosphere it dares to portray. These people, although hardworking and decent, are not welcomed when they become uprooted and head out to find another home. They are seen as interlopers that threaten to destabilize the comfortable status quo of the communities through which they pass. Pushback creates pressure, which in turn causes events to unfold in which people are hurt and families torn apart. To the credit of Ford and his team, they don’t flinch at portraying this aspect of Steinbeck’s story.

And this is the theme that calls forth “now more than ever.” Geo-politically caused migrations continue to occur throughout history – we are witnessing yet another right now. The negativity these people face in their quest for survival is not all that different in that they are perceived as an unwanted burden, at best, and a danger, at worst. In a wave of thousands of people on the move one can find an equal thousand stories along the lines of The Grapes of Wrath. Life does not cease when events overturn a society – people continue to be born, live and die, even if it all take place on the road. Perhaps we need a re-viewing of the film every decade or so to put us back in touch with our own humanity. Maybe we need more films patterned after The Grapes of Wrath that are set in contemporary situations and spoken in their own language to ensure we don’t lose touch the idea that, “there, but for the grace of God…”

In the climax of the film, when Tom is forced to permanently leave his family and go into hiding, but he resolves to continue striving for social justice and answers his mother’s fearful question, “how am I gonna know about ya?”

His response is delivered almost as a soliloquy:

“I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

Whatever your social or political stance, it is impossible to watch this scene between mother and son with dry eyes. It is a moral stance that reaches beyond borders or class. John Ford recognized this and incorporating it elevates his film into the stratosphere where it will endure for decades to come to remind us to consider the plight for the unfortunate and the fragility of our own situations.

Yes, now more than ever.

Steve Schweighofer @banjoonthecrag


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