One of the things that’s slowly and steadily been removed from our cultural identity is a sense of place. The world has gotten smaller and borders have become a bit more mutable. Families move from place to place because of work or circumstances, and with the housing market the way it is it’s impossible to imagine one family owning a home that’s passed down from generation to generation. It’s strange to think that this is a relatively recent development, that losing one’s home was a much bigger deal “only” 80 years ago.
The Grapes of Wrath follows a farming family as they’re removed from their land by the bank and sent packing to California, where they hope a land of new opportunity awaits them. We identify with Tom Joad (Fonda), the eldest son, as he goes back home after a stint in prison. He’s just in time to see the last gasp of his farming community — the Dust Bowl has ruined the land and made it impossible for anyone to grow enough food to sell. They can’t make enough money to keep the land, so the bank has been steadily taking homesteads for their own ends.
Tom meets up with his family just as they’re packing up an ancient, creaking car to make the long trip out west. The trip is hard; Tom’s grandfather dies and they are forced to bury him near a river. His grandmother soon succumbs to the rigors of the journey as well. Once they arrive in California, they’re bounced from camp to camp trying to find work and finding conditions much less favorable than they’ve been lead to believe. Those with power and resources take advantage of those without, trying to squeeze as much labor as they can for as little pay as possible. Yet despite all of this, the Joads end up in a camp that’s not so bad (provided by the government) and Ma Joad (Darwell) ends the film with a pragmatic, optimistic monologue about the survival of the clan. Considering all they’ve been through, how much they’ve lost, it’s genuinely affecting. Her hope is hard-won.
There are so many memorable sequences here; the family trying to defend their homestead against a neighbor’s kid on a Caterpillar, forced to raze the houses in his community to make a living; the crazed homesteader who chose his land over his family, and slowly succumbed to mad loneliness on his own; Ma Joad feeding as many children as she could in the first migrant camp they come to. What unfolds is a story of a family that is poor but proud, and won’t be treated like dirt by those in power. They move through their worsening predicament with as much dignity as they can muster, and they bear their misfortunes with a quiet, contemplative grief.
At the same time, they’re willing to fight back against obvious injustice. They speak up when something’s not fair, and they help other people where they can. The Joad family serves as something of a model set of citizens — wherever they go, they create community just by being decent, open people. It’s impressive that the rigors of the road and the cruelty of some people they meet don’t harden them. Ma Joad becomes especially fearful, but she doesn’t let it skew her moral compass.
It’s no surprise John Ford won an Oscar for his direction, or that Jane Darwell received the Best Supporting Actress award for her role. Ford really knows how to bring out the best traits of a character — his handling of Stagecoach was similarly impressive, but several steps higher here. Darwell exemplifies his approach; she’s stoic, vulnerable, hardy and soft-hearted all at the same time. A scene where she sits in the empty house she’s lived in for so long, burning the keepsakes she can’t take with her, is mostly silent but breath-takingly effective.
The story takes these mythic themes and brings them down to an earthly, even vulgar level in a way that I simply love. The Joad clan, for all their dirtiness and lean hunger, represent some of the highest ideals of civilization. In a world that seems to be crumbling all around them, growing harsher by the minute, they’re firm enough to demand better treatment and kind enough to give it to the people they meet. What’s best is that they don’t make any fuss about it; the charity they give and receive is given automatically, in quiet moments where “thank you” and “you’re welcome” are silently spoken in the looks they give one another. One can only hope that you can manage such quiet, simple grace in similar circumstances.
I can’t compare this film to the novel it’s based on, but I hear they’re quite different especially in the back half. Thanks to the movie, the novel has earned a place on my to-be-read pile; I’ll have to see just how different it is. If you’re a fan of Steinbeck (who isn’t?), then this is a great thing to see. Even without reading this particular book, I can say it retains his sense of humanity and the things that make us great.