The Grapes of Wrath is a heartbreakingly beautiful book, masterfully turned into a film that holds it’s own against all other as one of the best ever made. There are so many reasons why it is great: directed by John Ford, the plot of a John Steinbeck novel, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, starred Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. With that combination, there is no failing. The film tears you apart and leaves you with hope and determination. It is spectacularly brilliant and well worth the 129 minutes of your life. Please do yourselves a favor and watch The Grapes of Wrath again or for the first time, you will be very pleased with the decision.
Directed by: John Ford
Produced by: Darryl F. Zanuck, Nunnally Johnson
Screenplay by: Nunnally Johnson
Based on: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Shirley Mills, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Release dates: January 24, 1940 (United States)
Box office: $2.5 million
The Grapes of Wrath is a 1940 drama film directed by John Ford. It was based on John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson and the executive producer was Darryl F. Zanuck.
The film tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family, who, after losing their farm during the Great Depression in the 1930s, become migrant workers and end up in California. The motion picture details their arduous journey across the United States as they travel to California in search of work and opportunities for the family members.
In 1989, this film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The film opens with Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), released from prison and hitchhiking his way back to his parents’ family farm in Oklahoma. Tom finds an itinerant ex-preacher named Jim Casy (John Carradine) sitting under a tree by the side of the road. Casy was the preacher who baptized Tom, but now Casy has “lost the spirit” and his faith (presaging his imminent conversion to communism). Casy goes with Tom to the Joad property only to find it deserted. There, they meet Muley Graves (John Qualen) who is hiding out. In a flashback, he describes how farmers all over the area were forced from their farms by the deed holders of the land. A local boy (Irving Bacon), hired for the purpose, is shown knocking down Muley’s house with a Caterpillar tractor. Following this, Tom and Casy move on to find the Joad family at Tom’s Uncle John’s place. His family is happy to see Tom and explain they have made plans to head for California in search of employment, as their farm has been foreclosed on by the bank. The large Joad family of twelve leaves at daybreak, along with Casy who decides to accompany them. They pack everything into a dilapidated 1926 Hudson “Super Six” sedan adapted to serve as a truck in order to make the long journey to the promised land of California.
The trip along Highway 66 is arduous, and it soon takes a toll on the Joad family. The elderly Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) dies along the way. Tom writes the circumstances surrounding the death on a page from the family Bible and places it on the body before they bury it so that if his remains were found, his death would not be investigated as a possible homicide. They park in a camp and meet a man, a migrant returning from California, who laughs at Pa’s optimism about conditions in California. He speaks bitterly about his experiences in the West.
The family arrives at the first transient migrant campground for workers and finds the camp is crowded with other starving, jobless and desperate travelers. Their truck slowly makes its way through the dirt road between the shanty houses and around the camp’s hungry-faced inhabitants. Tom says, “Sure don’t look none too prosperous.”
After some trouble with a so-called “agitator”, the Joads leave the camp in a hurry. The Joads make their way to another migrant camp, the Keene Ranch. After doing some work in the fields, they discover the high food prices in the company store for meat and other products. The store is the only one in the area, by a long shot. Later they find a group of migrant workers are striking, and Tom wants to find out all about it. He goes to a secret meeting in the dark woods. When the meeting is discovered, Casy is killed by one of the camp guards. As Tom tries to defend Casy from the attack, he inadvertently kills the guard.
Tom suffers a serious wound on his cheek, and the camp guards realize it will not be difficult to identify him. That evening the family hides Tom under the mattresses of the truck just as guards arrive to question them; they are searching for the man who killed the guard. Tom avoids being spotted and the family leaves the Keene Ranch without further incident. After driving for a while, they have to stop at the top of a hill when the engine overheats due to a broken fan belt; they have little gas, but decide to try coasting down the hill to some lights. The lights are from a third type of camp: Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch Camp (Weedpatch in the book), a clean camp run by the Department of Agriculture, complete with indoor toilets and showers, which the Joad children had never seen before.
Tom is moved to work for change by what he has witnessed in the various camps. He tells his family that he plans to carry on Casy’s mission in the world by fighting for social reform. He leaves to seek a new world and to join the movement committed to social justice.
Tom Joad says:
I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, 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. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.
As the family moves on again, they discuss the fear and difficulties they have had. Ma Joad concludes the film, saying:
I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared…. Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.