The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Directed by John Ford
Written by Nunnally Johnson

A while ago I started an idea for a marathon which entailed me reading famous books and watching their equally famous movies with them. It was spurred on by my Harry Potter Marathon and I started the series with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and its companion, the miniseries starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. Then I went headlong into John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. However, it appears that no matter how good a book is, I am only a reader under the forced circumstances of academia or long road trips. So alas, while loving every page of the book while reading on my kindle, I never complete the book before sitting down to what John Ford’s famed adaptation of story.

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) has just been released from prison on parole in Oklahoma. On his way home he encounters his old minister, who has given up the faith, and the two of them head to the Joad homestead. What Tom soon discovers however is that the Dust Bowl and Depression era have taken their toll on the Oklahoma farmland and the Joad’s are being forced off their land. Faced with this terrible circumstance, they load up and old jalopy and head west to California, where it is rumored their are green lands ripe for workers to migrate, but once they get there, they find all the other Okies have made their way to the land of milk and honey too, and the job market is as thin as the soil left on the lands of the Great Plains.

While reading Steinbeck’s novel, I pictured a wonderful, sweeping film in my mind’s eye which was better than most any film I have seen. His style of prose is wonderful and the asides make it a novel of its time that paints a beautiful picture, but this is not a review of Steinbeck’s book, which I didn’t quite finish anyway, but a review of John Ford’s film, released only a year after the book. If anything, like the book, the film is an important social moment in America. On the back end of the Great Depression, there were many people out of work and living troubled, impoverished lives, so it is important as ever to put the film in its historic context. I imagined what it must have meant to have seen the film in 1940 instead of 2011, even if some of the characters and storylines hold true today as well. In that regard, the film is a massive success.

Henry Fonda is the perfect actor to play Tom Joad, massively likable and courageous and brave enough to be just the right protagonist. The story unfolds in a quite conventional way, which is pretty much the only way to do the story justice. To mess with Steinbeck’s prose would be too daring and it would take more than I can imagine to do anything too artistic to alter the story. But that being said, it did come off as simply melodramatic and safe. I was never brought in or touched by any part of the story or any of the moments in the film. The film was not as soaring and sweeping as I had hoped heading in, which is more a fault of my own than the film or Ford, but I can’t help but feel that way.

While I might be able to recognize the film as a great accomplishment and an extremely timely film, I also have to admit that I had no overtly positive reactions to the film. I was never fully engaged with the journey or its characters. It is merely a film of great importance that will be too soon forgotten by myself. I have had great reactions to some of Ford’s other films, and this type of story seems perfectly suited for him, but maybe the actors just were’t great enough, Fonda aside, to pop off the screen like James Stewart did in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or the countless times he worked with John Wayne. I think the greatest evidence I have in my lukewarm reception of what is considered a classic would be my struggle to find the words to explain, and my struggle for the words to simply talk about the film in any way.


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