THE GRAPES OF WRATH is not only one of John Ford's greatest films, it documents an American social tragedy, giving the victims a voice through art. Based on the classic John Steinbeck novel, the film recounts the painful, poignant odyssey of the Joad family, Steinbeck's Depression-era
tenant farmers from Dust Bowl Oklahoma, whose story has come to represent the plight of the "Okies" for generations of readers--and, through Ford's masterpiece, generations of moviegoers too.
As the film opens, Tom (Henry Fonda, in possibly the greatest performance of his career), eldest of the Joad sons, hitchhikes home to the family farm through the desolate Oklahoma landscape, having completed a four-year prison term for manslaughter. After getting a short ride from a suspicious
trucker, Tom hoofs it to a clearing where he meets the slightly mad Casey (John Carradine), a former preacher who's "lost the call" and no longer ministers to the spiritual needs of the local farmers. The two walk to the Joad farm but find it abandoned except for Muley (John Qualen), who's even
more mentally unbalanced than Casey and is hiding in the house. Muley tells them that sheriff's deputies working for banks and farming combines have been looking for him ever since he knocked one of them unconscious. Muley tells Tom that the Joad family, too, has moved on, the victims of
foreclosure. Tom and Casey head for the farm of Tom's Uncle John (Frank Darien), where all the Joads have gathered, preparing to head westward to California in search of jobs advertised in a handbill Pa Joad (Russell Simpson) received. Ma (Jane Darwell) joyously greets her eldest son, and the next
morning the whole family piles into a broken-down truck overloaded with their belongings and sets out in search of a better future.
Ford's visualization of Steinbeck's novel is so emotionally gripping that viewers have little time to collect themselves from one powerful scene to the next. Shooting mainly in California in the migrant camps around Pomona, with a second unit filming some backgrounds in Oklahoma, the director
framed his shots to show that vast, almost barren landscapes, overcast skies, and bleak exteriors are omnipresent, giving a pervasive sense of the harshness of the displaced Okies' lives.
The sense of doom is dispelled, however, with the film's optimistic turn after the Joads find the government camp and its guardian (Grant Mitchell), a benevolent figure representing security, who, not coincidentally, bears a resemblance to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Though Ford does not hesitate to
show the banks and the companies which took advantage of the farmers as land-grabbers without conscience, he also turns the Okies' bleak tale into one of hope by showing the Joads to be more than victims. Physically displaced, but not emotionally or spiritually defeated, they come to embody faith
in the future and in the American people, and therein lies the film's greatness.
It took considerable courage to make THE GRAPES OF WRATH at a time when the Hollywood studios, on guard against unionization and attempts to challenge their monopoly, were in no mood to indulge its indictment of capitalism. In 1989, when it was named among the first movies included in the National
Film Registry, the picture had lost none of its power as a social document, a historical testimony, or a work of cinematic art.
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