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The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
It's probably a good idea to watch this film every time we have a presidential election to remind us that the issues we face now have been with us for ages -- and on film for at least three-quarters of a century. The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford's masterful retelling of John Steinbeck's 1939 classic novel, documents one family's struggle to survive during what is arguably our country's harshest and most protracted ecological disasters.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the result of massive drought, ill-advised farming practices, and rapid mechanization. Farmers in the plains states, many of them sharecroppers, were forced off blighted land, homes destroyed by savage storms, and bank foreclosures. Steinbeck's novel documented not only the plight of displaced families searching for work, but also the exploitation and abuses they suffered at the hands of corporate farmers, banks, and politicians.
The first half of the film follows the book pretty closely: young Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) heads home to his family farm having just been paroled from prison for an unspecified murder. On the way, he comes across an old acquaintance, Jim Casy (John Carradine), a fallen preacher. They continue together to the Joad farm and find the family and most of the neighbors gone and their homes abandoned. The land has dried up, the banks have foreclosed, and the homes have been condemned. Tom learns that his family -- Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson, a John Ford regular), and his siblings -- are at his uncle's place preparing to leave for California where there is work to be had picking fruit, or so it says on this here yeller flyer. Thus reunited, the whole clan sets off on Route 66 for, literally, greener pastures.
Along the way they learn from migrants who have been on the road longer that opportunities aren't as plentiful as promised by the yellow flyer. The Joads come across Okie encampments filled with families who've been out of work for months and whose children are starving. Jobs present themselves in fits and for low wages. The Joads are offered an opportunity to pick peaches at a ranch that provides cabins for the workers and a store where they can buy supplies. Unbeknownst to them, the family are strike-breaking at half-wages and what little money they make must be spent at a "company store" (a time-honored, American tradition) where low wages buy groceries at inflated prices.
Once Tom learns of the strike, he sneaks out of the camp to a workers' meeting. The group is raided by deputies and in the ensuing scuffle, Casy is killed by one guard and Tom kills another while trying to protect his friend. The Joads leave under cover of darkness to keep from being found out. Eventually, they come to a New Deal camp, where the younger Joad children discover indoor plumbing and Ma is reacquainted with normal social conventions, like manners. The camp is kept orderly and clean by the workers, who organize themselves and social activities. Just as things are looking up for the family, deputies close in on Tom who decides he must run off to protect his family from further aggravation.
Ma, whose sole mission this entire picture has been to keep the family together, is unhappy about this development, but she understands. This is Tom's second murder, after all, and he assures her that he will devote his life to helping the little guy against the powerful and corrupt. Tom thus departs in one direction while what's left of his family (spoiler: not everyone makes it and I left out some players) heads off in another. Pa apologizes to Ma for not being stronger; for looking backwards on better times. Ma tells him that all of this has made her less afraid, because:
A woman can change better than a man. A man lives in sort of jerks. Baby's born or somebody dies, and that's a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that's a jerk. With a woman it's all in one flow like a stream. Little eddies and waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on.
And in spite of the massive beating they've taken, she is sure that they'll be fine, because they're "the people that live" and will go on forever.
The book is distinctly more critical than the film of the capitalist excesses (union-busting goons, company stores, police brutality) and it ends on a much bleaker note, but the notoriously conservative John Ford managed to convey the terrible conditions faced by migrant workers while offering a glimmer of hope at the film's end. Before agreeing to do the film, Ford visited some of the camps described in Steinbeck's novel to make sure the author hadn't sensationalized the conditions. He discovered they were worse. Ford downplayed the book's larger pro-labor and anti-corporate themes, deciding instead to focus on one family's experience. And in the end, Ford portrayed the government as a positive force: fair, solution-oriented, and important.
I wonder if in our current political climate, where one side is concerned about migrants taking all our good fruit-picking, toilet-cleaning, and ditch-digging jobs and the other is fighting for a minimum wage that meets the current cost of living, whether we can ever have a progressive book made into a movie by a conservative director -- at all. We still have labor problems, ecological disasters (regular and man-made) and poverty, but we used to just disagree on how to solve those problems, not whether they even exist.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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