There is a strong sense of melancholy that pervades John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath, and one will most certainly walk out of it feeling more sadness than hope (though to be sure, it ends on a hopeful note). But to leave the movie with sadness would be to overlook its message, or its political stance on the world, because its main character, Tom Joad, though poor and dejected, is a hopeful man who has used the mistakes of his past to right the wrongs of the present.
Tom is played by Henry Fonda (Once Upon A Time In The West), and he is the kind of young man who cannot tolerate injustice. He comes from a rural farming family in Oklahoma — his experiences of the world have been somewhat limited — but his upbringing has been straight and true. He’s a good boy, and Ma is ever so proud of him. The movie starts with him strolling down a farmland road, and he hitches a ride to his old farmhouse. Along the way, he meets the town preacher, Jim Casy (John Carradine), who says he’s not a preacher no more. Here we learn that Tom has just been released from prison after serving four out of seven years — “He got a knife in me and I laid him out with a shovel.” — and he’s about ready to return to his family and move on with his life. When he reaches the Joad home, he finds it empty, save for a scrawny man shivering in the darkness of one of its rooms. He informs Tom and Jim that everyone has been chased out of the house and land by large harvesting companies that have sent tractors smashing through property. The poor old farmers have migrated to California.
Tom meets up with his family, and together they head for greener pastures. Or what they hear are greener pastures. The orchards in California require fruit pickers, and so the Joads drive westward in their crumbling truck in search of jobs.
Ford, one of the all-time great American filmmakers and famous for his Westerns, perhaps knows more than anyone how to create poignancy in a simple road trip across Western America. The Joad family is forced to relocate against their will, but unlike the shivering man alone in the empty Joad house (he too has his farm taken away), they never express resentment or hatred. Instead, they look forward to the road ahead and the happiness of California. Their journey through New Mexico and Arizona is by no means a smooth one — their rusty truck breaks down more than once, and there’s a powerful scene in which Pa Joad buys a loaf of bread from a truckstop — yet they remain strong through the unity of the family, and the peace of the open road. Ford shoots these scenes of travel on location, and they solicit a strong sense of freedom as compared to the more claustrophobic farm sets of Oklahoma.
Gregg Toland, the cinematographer, films these farm scenes with a keen eye. In lighting conditions that reminded me of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, many a time characters are lit by a single candle or match, or sometimes just by the embers of their cigarettes, and never do they look unintentionally dark. The frame is always gorgeous, and Ford ensures that no shot is left to chance or filmed without careful design.
Once in California, the family’s bleak situation grows bleaker still. They are pushed around from farming camp to farming camp like bumper cars without their bumpers. The jobs they get pay little, and each time they are harassed by police officers who have little else to do. There is a scene of poetic justice that involves a bunch of police officers planning a raid on a peaceful farming camp during its weekly dance night. When their firestarters fail to spark the riot, the officers are forced to leave with their heads hung low.
The movie’s most powerful ideas come from the Joad family. Their plight is just one of thousands during The Great Depression, and it is told with an undertone of helplessness. The enemy here is not one man, or even a mob; it is Mankind in general, its relentless desire for bigger profits and quicker labour. As we find out early on, the companies order the evacuations, the banks order the companies, and tycoons you shouldn’t even be thinking of order the banks. It’s a chain that goes on forever, and the Joads realise quickly that they are right at the bottom. Their struggle is more psychological than physical. Their pain more emotional. Their loss more heartbreaking. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), perhaps the movie’s most sympathetic character, displays this in two scenes, one where she goes through old belongings the night before they leave their farmhouse, and the other when she pours her heart out to Tom, lamenting the gradual implosion of her once jovial family.
Best Moment | The failed raid. It is a well-received glimmer of hope in an otherwise downcast story.
Worst Moment | Nope.