Sunday 16 February 2014

Movie Review: The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

A monumental story of persistence countering pestilence, The Grapes Of Wrath honours working families struggling to survive in the face of economic catastrophe.

It's the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression. In Oklahoma, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is released from prison after serving time for killing a man during a fight. On the long walk home through dry fields suffering from a horrific drought, Tom meets Jim Casy (John Carradine) a former preacher who has abandoned his faith. The dry fields in Oklahoma are being repossessed, the workers thrown off the land, the farmhouses razed to the ground. Tom and Jim eventually connect with Tom's family, including Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), Uncle John (Frank Darien) and the pregnant Rosasharn (Dorris Bowdon).

With no prospects for work in Oklahoma, the Joad family members pack up all they own onto a single ancient truck and head along Highway 66 to California, which holds the magical promise of work. Along their journey they meet fellow travellers escaping the Oklahoma dust bowl, and they face suspicion, along with some mercy, at various stops along the way. The strain of the trip means that not all the Joads survive, and once in California, instead of work they find an abusive environment were workers are being treated barely better than slaves, and hired guards are quick to unleash violence on the newly arriving economic refugees.

An ode to the working class, The Grapes Of Wrath is a tender salute to the backbone of the economy. John Steinbeck's book is brought to the screen in an expansive adaptation by Nunnally Johnson, the story unfolding as the ultimate unwanted family road trip, an escape from abject despair in search of the faintest hope.

For a family that can only offer the sweat of manual labour, the search for fertile land is the search for life, and the Joads are at the mercy of land owners who can take advantage of the increasing number of desperate workers to drive down wages. It's a grim theme, both a call for workers' dignity and a celebration of their determination, Johnson and director John Ford allowing the film's leftist tendencies to breathe without resorting to indoctrination.

The prevailing mood is one of a prolonged struggle, against nature, against faceless capitalists, against distance, against enforcement authorities quick to deploy brutal tactics, and finally against Californians looking to take advantage of the desperate incoming workers. But the trial of the Joads is sustained by a dogged hope, where the promise of a better future waits just out of reach, behind every curve in the road. Without the hope there is no cross-country trek, and the Joads soldier on after every setback, a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of piled adversity.

The Grapes Of Wrath is a visual masterpiece. Ford alternates wide open on-the-road scenes that convey the exhaustion of bouncing down dusty highways with intense dramatic episodes, filmed in close-up, to drive home how close to the brink the Joads are. Just as that rickety truck always appears to be one mile away from a total breakdown, Tom is always one move away from again falling afoul of the law, the elder members of the family are frail and struggling to survive the rigours of the trip, and the young Joads are experiencing life-altering uncertainty.

It is left to Ma Joad to hold the centre together, her positive spirit often the only thing standing between her family and disintegration. Jane Darwell received the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, and her role grows into the quiet but forceful voice of all workers. Henry Fonda stepped into stardom and was nominated as Best Actor, Tom Joad so much more interesting for being a flawed young man already carrying the burden of a stint in prison, and Fonda imparts the suspicions of a man now not sure how far he can trust anyone in a position of authority.

The small story of one family and a grand socioeconomic commentary, The Grapes Of Wrath is a rich harvest.

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