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about the writer

A. S. Hamrah is the film critic for n+1. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Grapes of Wrath
By A. S. Hamrah

"The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that's us." - The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 9.

The Grapes of Wrath

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, whenever someone asked me what my favorite science-fiction movie was, I said The Grapes of Wrath. Back then, John Ford's 1940 adaptation of Steinbeck's novel had the quality of being a film from the past that seemed to be about the future. The Grapes of Wrath was predicting something.

Since I first saw it around the time The Road Warrior came out in the US, that made sense to me. The Grapes of Wrath had more in common with that movie, or with another post-apocalyptic dystopia, Escape from New York, which also came out around then, than it did with movies about the contemporary rural poor. I shunned rural-poor movies as preachy and boring, overly emotional and fake-actorly. The Grapes of Wrath is preachy and boring and those other things, too, but in a way wholly unrelated to something like Norma Rae (1979). The relative artistic conservatism of Norma Rae makes The Grapes of Wrath seem like Ivan the Terrible, which also seems like science-fiction now. Black-and-white used to be a signifier of greater reality. Now it makes movies seem fantastic and otherworldly.

The Grapes of Wrath, with its trip through a blighted, alien land, has a Jules Verne side - it's a trip to the moon. Like John Ford himself, the film seems a product of the 19th century, explicitly concerned with production instead of consumption. Travel in The Grapes of Wrath is in no sense leisure. Today the film is as much Méliès as Lumière, although on the surface it is pure Lumière, documentary not fantasy, and clearly influenced by trends across the political spectrum of 1930s documentary, from Ivens to Riefenstahl.

Or maybe since Ford's film was such an obvious influence on Orson Welles we should say it has an H. G. Wells quality. Toland's photography makes it seem like time travel, like La Jetée (1962). Many of the people in The Grapes of Wrath have the get-in-and-get-out quality of 1950s science-fiction movie bit players. The Grapes of Wrath is filled with petty officials using great catastrophe as an excuse to hector bug-like, semi-anonymous lumpens. It is not a Wellesian/Wellsian Martian invasion that causes them to scatter and scurry in The Grapes of Wrath, or organize themselves into protective camps. It's man-made natural disaster, the destructive changes brought on by the sharecropper system of overfarming that was so easily exploited by land companies, farming conglomerates, and banks. Today we call it climate change or global warming. In the 1930s it was drought and floods.

Steinbeck plays up this dystopian aspect in his novel. Huge Caterpillar tractors manned by insectoid drivers in goggles and face masks plow over fields and shacks. The film's one montage sequence is based on Steinbeck's description of those tractors, and Sovietized by Ford. But these aren't the heroic tractors of Soviet films. The "cats" raze everything in their path. They are destructive machines from a mechanized future in which tiny humans like the Joads have no place. The tractors are alien overlords commanded by banks so far away from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, they might as well be on another planet. The Joads are powerless against them.   

In its time The Grapes of Wrath was a film about the recent past - the soil erosion and windstorms of the Dust Bowl, a period in the history of the American prairie that lasted through the 1930s and up to the time of the film's release. That had seemed a quaint era in US history, wrapped up in WPA photographs that had become art pictures used to decorate the white walls of suburban homes and city condos, part of our visual heritage on display in chain store coffee shops along with Bob Dylan CDs. Even if Bruce Springsteen tried to keep the Woody Guthrie tradition alive by writing a song about Tom Joad - and Ford's film was an influence on Guthrie - by the 1980s The Grapes of Wrath seemed hopelessly dated. It appealed to a small minority concerned about the disappearance of family farms or people who loved scratchy music transferred from 78 rpm records. It appealed to John Ford fans, but not like The Searchers (1956).

The film's message in the Reagan era was completely out of step with the times. The famous speeches in the film, which are lifted directly from Steinbeck's novel, echoed in the culture only in the vaguest way. People knew those speeches and sometimes repeated them, but they said them the way Bible verse is intoned, without thinking what they meant, just knowing they had something to do with "the people" and helping the poor and downtrodden. It's true they were said a little more reverently than the Schwarzenegger catchphrases that define that era. They were used to invoke gravitas, the kind the fake gravitas of "I'll be back" didn't have.

"Wherever a cop's beatin' up a guy, I'll be there." In the last thirty years, that "I" became a video camera. We abdicated responsibility to our machines and put what they captured on TV news and then on YouTube. Reality became novelistic, reversing Steinbeck. Just now we are starting to deal with the legacy of that abdication. Until recently The Grapes of Wrath seemed quaint. But like all good science-fiction it has come true again. "I'll be there," said Tom Joad. Not "I'll be back" but "I'll be there in the dark."

Reading the novel now you realize that if every eighth-grader in the US had had to read The Grapes of Wrath instead of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which is what I had to read in eighth grade, probably because it's shorter, we might live in a different country now. The Grapes of Wrath was still banned in certain municipal libraries as late as the 1990s, and many incidents in the book are still deemed unsuitable for young people to read about. Read today, The Grapes of Wrath is practically the Communist Manifesto. The novel seems exactly like that - its anti-capitalism, not to mention its socialism, is blatant and powerful. Even the Nunnally Johnson-Darryl Zanuck screenplay, which tries hard to downplay the story's radicalism, can't bury the book's inherent hatred of bosses, cops, and the faceless rich, its disgust with the unfairness and stupidity of a system that benefits only a tiny fraction of society.

The Grapes of Wrath

That comes through in the film, and Ford, in what's really an act of hostility, extends it more deeply into the characters than Steinbeck did. Ford is much less loving than Steinbeck. His eye is more machined and his Joads have an inhuman, tiresome edge. At times we want them to die. When some of them do, the way the remaining Joads move on from their grief is different than it is in the novel. They just go on to the next scene, to more humiliation and confusion, terser and less reflective than Steinbeck makes them. Born of an ignorance that Ford observes but doesn't have time to explain or to be kind about, the Joads' cockroach resilience becomes as threatening as the Californians trying to keep them at bay imagine it is, but in an entirely different way. We begin to picture a world inhabited entirely by Joads, displaced zombie farmers sliding into dementia and starving to death.  

This is subversive to the screenplay and to certain of the actors' performances, specifically to Jane Darwell's Oscar-winning turn as Ma Joad. Darwell rolls through the film like a slow-moving cannonball getting closer and closer to the lens. She is Eisensteinian in the worst way, and gets the last word - a quiet speech she grinds into us - after Henry Fonda's Tom Joad has departed the film alone, like a regular Ford hero. Much of the film is a long breakup between this mother and son. Tom has to escape many things to try to make a better world, and one of them turns out to be his monstrous, speechifying mother, endlessly stirring up mush.   

The Grapes of Wrath

The film has never been as controversial as the book and in fact it is one of those movies that has to be saved from its status as a masterpiece. The screenplay is a distillation of the novel, "factory liquor" that lacks the afterburn of Steinbeckian rotgut. It is concise but it is not a model of concision. The Johnson-Zanuck screenplay is essentially ameliorationist and Hollywoodized. Ford works against that, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Although it is not well constructed, Ford's Grapes of Wrath has the virtue of seeming to have been made quickly with an eye to keeping down the running time.

On one side we have Zanuck-Johnson-Darwell, producer-screenwriters and an actress who was imposed on Ford over his choice, the scrawnier, less lovable, less maternal and altogether more appropriate Beulah Bondi. On the other side, we have Ford-Toland-Fonda, director, cinematographer, and the only actor in '30s Hollywood who could have played Tom Joad with the haunted dignity the part required. The film lurches between these two competing groups, one section dominated by one, the next by the other almost that schematically.   

The first reel is all Ford-Toland-Fonda, with contributions from John Carradine's preacher Casy and John Qualen's Muley Graves, a man who has gone crazy by staying behind on his land when everyone else has left; he calls himself a "graveyard ghost." Carradine and Qualen were never better than in The Grapes of Wrath, and 1940 is also the year Qualen played another lost soul, the hapless killer Earl Williams in His Girl Friday. Both seem to have given themselves over to a higher power here, to have momentarily escaped their theatricality and character-actor elbowing, although for a film considered naturalistic, this section of The Grapes of Wrath is highly theatrical, stark, austere, and lonely. 

Henry Fonda, John Carradine, John Qualen
The Grapes of Wrath

The film's greatness rests on this first section, which begins with Fonda walking down a road alone, the same way the film ends before the Zanuck-imposed coda of Darwell's "we're the people, we keep a-comin" speech. (Searchers fans, she does not add "sure as the turnin' of the Earth.") Toland makes the blacks very black - black telephone poles jut into the scene at angles - and he and Ford frame everything funny, with heads too low or too big. The composition, seen from inside a truck, in which Fonda gets out, says "homicide" to the truck driver who has given him a lift and pronounces it HO-micide, is the first indication that the film can be better than the novel. Yet Ford-Toland-Fonda almost throw the scene away. The truck door slams, adding a period, not an exclamation point to Fonda's three syllables. This is a triumph of mise-en-scene over whatever Zanuck and Johnson had in mind.

The shots switch between location work, a set at Fox, even a stock insert of a storm a-brewin'. Fonda meets Carradine. The two men share a pint of bourbon, when they're finished Fonda throws the bottle out of frame. When it lands and smashes that's another kind of subtle punctuation. Fonda's hand goes out of frame, we don't even see the bottle leave it because Ford refuses to cut into the shot or even to pan away from the two actors. It is a gesture, and it seems radical today, and not because the scene is too good to mess with but because Ford didn't do something that was unnecessary, he refused to do something he didn't have to do.   

So Fonda and Carradine move through this post-tornado Wizard-of-Oz farmland in black-and-white and come upon Fonda's old house and then Muley Graves. Never have three actors with more haunted eyes shared a night interior. Ford plays all this for as long as he can but we get the sense of Zanuck's hand in the editing room. There are things missing but it works here. This long section of the film is too short, the night is long but before we know it it's morning and we're meeting the rest of the Joads.

Ford's Tobacco Road, which he made the next year, deals in similar hillbilly antics and seems like some kind of revenge on the more outré aspects of the Joads' domestic life. After The Grapes of Wrath comedy became the way American culture dealt with the more unsettling aspects of Southern rural poverty, its decrepit old age, too-close quarters and too-young pregnancies. From Ma and Pa Kettle to The Beverly Hillbillies on TV, this kind of material had to be made funny to be looked at at all. When Granma and Granpa Joad die on the road we are not far from the death of Aunt Edna in National Lampoon's Vacation forty-three years later or Little Miss Sunshine twenty-five years after that. The death of an older relative on a western road trip haunts our national psyche and begs to be turned into comedy.      

This journey west is pure Ford, as is the dance scene at the nice Department of Agriculture camp where Tom and Ma have their farewell dance to "Red River Valley." Both are in the novel and it's amazing how Fordian Steinbeck's book already was. The difference between this journey west and other ones in Ford films is that The Grapes of Wrath takes place in the present, so road signs direct the Joads and tell the audience where they are at every moment. So insistent are these signs that when Fonda walks by a sign at the government camp instructing people to turn off a water faucet after use, he turns it off even though he hasn't seen the sign, which is facing us, the audience, not him, who approaches it from behind as he walks toward the camera.

People are crowded into small spaces in the vast landscape of the West in The Grapes of Wrath, and this is uncharacteristic of Ford, as is the way the camera is mounted to the Joads' truck as they pull into a Hooverville. We see out-of-work migrants moving aside as we travel through the crowd in this striking shot that shows how Ford and Toland knew the West they were depicting was not the West of Stagecoach (1939), and had figured out how to show it, how to expose it in every sense of the word. The scene ends in a kind of urban violence removed to the West. A deputy - not a deputy in the western sense, he's just a cop - accidentally shoots a woman in crossfire and she falls to the ground. Another cop gets dialogue straight from Steinbeck: "Boy, what a mess them .45s make." In the book, the fingers were blown off her hand, like in Taxi Driver (1976), which reverses the Ford-Toland process by reimagining the Fordian West in New York City.

More than any other, The Grapes of Wrath is the John Ford film that most deserves to be revived today. The world it predicted has come to pass. The Grapes of Wrath proves George W. Bush was another Herbert Hoover as much as anything does. Bank foreclosures have forced people out of their homes. We are going through a depression marked by catastrophic climate change, which is the one aspect of the previous depression everyone has forgotten in the recent wave of predictable '30s nostalgia. Man-made natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina have forced populations to relocate. Maybe we don't pay as much attention to the people displaced by that catastrophe because they are not white like the Joads - 20th Century-Fox, now owned by Rupert Murdoch, has not made that into a film like Zanuck decided to do with Steinbeck's novel. The Depression was not just an urban phenomenon limned in Warner Brothers gangster films and Gold Diggers musicals. It was a rural phenomenon, too, and hit the rural poor as hard as anybody. Anyway, let's not forget that in 1938 John Ford also directed The Hurricane.

One of very few films that has come close to dealing with the world as it is today is another science-fiction, George Romero's Land of the Dead (2005), which predicted the world of Hurricane Katrina two months before it happened, and went on to describe a world we are now beginning to glimpse. It is as anti-capitalist as The Grapes of Wrath and deals with a small band of people escaping an untenable community against the backdrop of a vast migration of Okie-like zombies into a city. As a side note, I feel compelled to mention that the ending of Steinbeck's novel, which was considered obscene, improbable, and unfilmable in 1940, actually happened this year, and with a real actress. In the book's last paragraph, Rosasharn, a Joad daughter who has just delivered a stillborn baby, offers her breast to a starving man to feed him so he won't die. In February of this year, Salma Hayek did the same thing for a starving baby in Sierra Leone and allowed the TV news show Nightline to film it.

A. S. Hamrah




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issue #5 (5.2009)

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