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The Grapes of Wrath Movie Review

Director: John Ford

Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O. Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Sully, Frank Darien, Darryl Hickman, Shirley Mills, Roger Imhof, Grant Mitchell, Charles D. Brown, John Arledge, Ward Bond, Harry Tyler, William Pawley, Charles Tannen, Selmer Jackson, Charles Middleton, Eddie Waller, Paul Guilfoyle, David Hughes, Cliff Clark, Joseph Sawyer, Frank Faylen, Adrian Morris, Hollis Jewell, Robert Homans, Irving Bacon, Kitty McHugh

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell), Best Director

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Henry Fonda), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Screenplay, Best Picture

The opening scene of The Grapes of Wrath is anything but inviting. It’s eerily flat and desolate, windblown and empty. The grey Oklahoma sky melts into the earth, creating a sad, almost depressed landscape. In the distance we see a gaunt man making his way through this depraved land, heading back to his family farm after serving a four-year prison sentence for manslaughter. It’s man vs. wild during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is about to embark on a life-changing journey towards the promise of opportunity, prosperity and success.

When I first read The Grapes of Wrath, I hated it. I must have been in 6th or 7th grade and found it so depressing that I just blocked it from my memory. All I remembered was the breast-feeding scene, which apparently scared me for life. So, when it came time to watch this film, let’s just say I was less than excited.

Foot, meet my mouth.

Here’s the problem with reading books like this in freaking middle school – there’s no way I could have appreciated this story when I was 13 years old. But now, after adulthood has tarnished my very soul, this story speaks to me on a very different, very personal, level.

In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl brought severe drought to farms throughout agricultural America. Families who resided in parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska were forced to abandon their homes and head west to California, chasing the hope of a better future. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad’s are one such family, leaving their Oklahoma farm to the wind and traveling in an over-laden jalopy to the land of plenty.

However, what awaits them on the road to California is anything but. Hundreds of other Dust Bowl refugees are frantically searching for work as well, and the shocking visual imagery brought to life by director John Ford speaks to the situation in the American heartland. The land is barren. Children rummage through piles of garbage looking for food. Simple dialogues cut to the very heart of what it means to say goodbye to the land you know and love.

Now, the Joad family are not all saints – faithful brother Tom is a killer, after all – but they come to act as a representation of those displaced by circumstance, while the policemen tasked with running the hostiles and unemployment camps, represent corruption, cruelty and greed. These two “characters” are our main players, the displaced and the displacers…the haves and have-nots. And the fight, seemingly, never ends. Even in Tom’s Marlon Brando-esque farewell speech to Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), he proclaims, “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…”. They may be physically displaced, but their spirits remain undefeated, and the Joad’s come to embody the strength of the American people.

Readers of John Steinbeck’s novel may also remember the infamous ending to the book, where Rose, having lost her baby, offers her milk-filled breast to a starving man in a railroad car. Clearly, this scene was not allowed in 1940s Hollywood. I mean, they barely let Clark Gable utter “damn” the year before in Gone with the Wind. The film ends in a much more hopeful way, with Tom heading off to fight the good fight and Ma and the rest of the Joad family embarking on their own Exodus towards redemption.

The Grapes of Wrath was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Fonda), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording and Best Adapted Screenplay. It would win two, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Darwell). In 1989 it was named one of the first 25 movies to be included in the National Film Registry and is considered by some to be one of the best films ever made.

Though it takes place during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath still speaks to today’s concerns: Mexican families seeking a promised land across the border, banks foreclosing people’s homes, police abusing their power. This story is built on a foundation of fear and for those of us who have felt that fear, who have gone hungry or been homeless, this story will always be relevant. In fact, The Grapes of Wrath will most likely go down in history as one of the only stories to truly capture the fantasy most commonly known as ‘The American Dream’.


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