#7 — The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
I stand by my longtime belief that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the tome most deserving of the well-worn honorific The Great American Novel. The appeal of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the default choice, is completely understandable given the way it weighs the toxicity of craving upper mobility along with the hollowness of wealth itself, but I find the gut-punch grimness of Steinbeck’s story to hold greater, more resonant truths. Gatsby has added layers, which tickles the inner intellect of literature aesthetes. The Grapes of Wrath gets down in the dust, almost literally, and simply relays the crushing challenges faced by those held outside of the pathways to prosperity. The Great Depression was still smarting when Steinbeck published the book, in 1939. Less than a year later, when John Ford’s film version arrived, the bruise was still aggressively purple.
At this point, I might be tempted to muse about how different this movie must have felt seeing it while the agony it depicted was still desperately fresh. That sort of mental exercise isn’t necessary with Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. The film fairly trembles with immediacy, demonstrating that nothing instills timelessness within the veins of a film quite like a ferocious commitment to telling a tale with accuracy and unwavering honesty. The pains and minor, easily thwarted triumphs within the film have correlate to those in vastly different eras because of the fearless precision brought to the depiction. As in the book from whence it sprung, Ford’s film keeps a sharp focus on the Joad family of Oklahoma, farmers who flee their dried out, desolate homeland for the feeble promise of opportunity in California. The moral core of the film is Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), recently paroled from prison and joining his clan for the journey. Injustice is something others are still adapting to, but Tom has had it pounded in to him with a uncompromising brutality. He sees the world for what it is, spotting every barrier that will keep him and his from ever succeeding, at least beyond the very limited boundaries that have been drawn by a power structure intent on preserving their rarefied place.
Ford works from a script credited to Nunnally Johnson, finding the harsh poetry within the story. The marvelous cinematography by Gregg Toland bathes the screen in shadow, as if darkness has swarmed in to take over the entirety of the national terrain. He is patient and serene, letting the indignation inherent in the work build slowly from a simmer to a boil. That’s a major reason why The Grapes of Wrath remains smart drama without ever becoming maudlin or a leaden treatise. As with the famed James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which arrived one year later, Ford’s take on The Grapes of Wrath makes its persuasive argument by presenting a stern, clear-eyed portrait of the dire situation faced by those left behind in the United States rather than through delivery of some feverishly angry treatise. A well-told story, imbued with empathy, carries more weight that any political diatribe.