You know those films that you fear seeing, with a story you are not sure you really want to hear, but know you should and are awfully glad when you have because it was an important story? “The Grapes of Wrath” is exactly that film. In a sea of movies meant to please, this is the necessary one that tells the story you need to hear, unpleasant as it is.
This is a story of the Depression. Maybe even The Story of the Depression. But that does not make it outdated at all, it is far too universal and particularly in this day and age we can find large chunks of the story happening all around us. It is awfully easy to close the eyes, but this is a movie to open them and hence the discomfort.
John Steinbeck’s legendary novel and John Ford’s equally famous picture from 1940 is about the Oklahoma farmers that got rooted up by the dust bowl and speculation and had to leave their homes for (rumors of) work in California. It is a tough story where we follow a particular family who loses everything that does not fit in their derelict truck and are reduced to be a scourge scorned by the surrounding society. It strains the cohesion of the family, which slowly falls apart. This is of course bad and the film is rightly praised for how well it depicts what such a crisis does to people on a personal level.
What I see in the film are the machinations of the crisis and the unfairness of it because this is also a politically agitating story. Not the over-the-top propaganda of Eisenstein, Bunuel or Riefenstahl, but the agitation you get when you reveal a social injustice so rampant that you just got to do something about it. Because very little if anything is exaggerated in this story, neither in the depiction of the fate of the migrant workers of the thirties nor in the analogy to migrant workers of today.
The Dust Bowl was a natural disaster (severe drought) exacerbated by poor land management (lack of shelterbelts and protection of topsoil) and combined with a financial crisis forcing the owners of the land and the banks to squeeze everything out of their assets including forcing tenants off the land. The tenants had no security at all and none was available for them and soon many of them were job and homeless. That sounds awfully familiar today in the present financial crisis but even more so when you consider third world farmers leaving their homes for the cities and wealthy western countries.
For the Joad family there is nothing to do but to hit the road and that fact causes the first casualty as grandpa Joad breaks down when they leave and never recovers. They are a sorry bunch, but they have heard that work is available in California. Plenty of work with generous pay, and so they are on their way. Again this sounds awfully familiar. I have been around the world and heard what is said about Europe and Scandinavia in particular. Many hopefuls out there buy into a fantasy that does not exist and end up being very disappointed.
The Joads cross the country and for a while the movie becomes a road movie, where we cross our fingers that they will make it to the land of milk and honey. In the eyes of the locals in the towns they pass through they are reduced to something akin to vermin and treated as such. Only occasionally they are treated with sympathy and respect even though they insist they are no beggars asking favors.
As they reach California this sentiment becomes rampant. The Joads are not the only Oklahoma farmers trying their luck in California and the invading horde is seen as exactly that. To be contained and neutralized and preferably evicted. There are camps (refugee camps) where the migrant families are setting up shanty towns and they are generally considered a burden and a scourge. Except by the ranchers and plantation owners who see the migrants as even cheaper labor than the already available workforce. A labor force that will work without question and can be abused at no costs. Which is exactly what is happening (again that familiar ring), both to the Joads and to all the other migrant workers.
Obviously the migrant workers are free game. They have absolutely no rights and no protection although they deserve all our sympathy and help. They want to be respected and live respectable life, but are treated as if undeserving of that. The authorities in the form of the police is not protecting the migrants against hostility and exploitation but instead enforce the blatant exploitation and become a tool for the brutality and xenophobia of the locals. Any defense of the migrants is considered communism and the work of “Red” (read un-American) agents. It is this unfairness which is at the core of Steinbeck’s and Ford’s story. These are fellow citizens. Just because they came on hard times they deserve to be treated with respect and given an even chance.
The movie gives its own (partial) solution in the form of the government camp where the migrants are treated as humans. This gives them a chance to regain their self-respect and treated well they behave well. With a flat command structure and a collective responsibility this is very much a social-democratic solution and part of the New Deal program that sought to alleviate the impact of the depression. Here it comes as a Godsend and saves the family in their deepest crisis.
This is a film of epic format, both because of the story, but also in production; just consider the sheer number of actors involved. The list of the cast just kept rolling, not to speak of all the extras. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad makes his character strong and wiry, but also a man of convictions who does what he got to do. Yet it is Jane Darwell as Ma Joad who steals the picture. She is very much the character that glue the group together, the epicenter around which the story progresses. And she does it with conviction and a realism that not for a second we doubt that she is the character. Only later as I started writing did I realize she got an Oscar as supporting actress. It is so very well deserved and the only surprise is that she did not get it for best actress. There is no other woman above her in this movie.
Migrant workers of the world, unite and take over!