Directed by John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is a snapshot of America at a crossroads. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography and noir lighting create a starkly beautiful realism rarely seen in Hollywood movies before or since. Ford’s naturally rugged aversion to manufactured glitz and his already well-established tenure as an auteur of grand westerns, capable of finding the extraordinary in the everyday landscape of human struggle and survival, were well suited for this movie. John Steinbeck’s novel had been born from a harsh narrative, the staggering loss of life and property brought on by the dust bowl. This crippling decade long drought had done more than wound the agricultural productivity of America’s bread basket. It had all but dismantled a way of life for the American farmer. These were very harsh times, and infrequently viewed as an embarrassment to the model of American prosperity that had once been instrumental in encouraging settlers to these wide open spaces.
It therefore came as no surprise that no Hollywood studio really wanted to make The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, despite the overwhelming popularity of Steinbeck’s work. Although the dust bowl had gradually receded by then and would continue to do so throughout the next ten years, the looming storm clouds of another world war had already blighted that promising horizon with the increasing reality that America was once again bound for more bloodshed. Viewed in this light in particular, it was Darryl F. Zanuck’s blind faith alone that persevered to make the film. The Grapes of Wrath would be more than just another movie made at the studio. It was going to have Zanuck’s personal stamp of approval and authority.
Our story begins on a lonely open road with the return of an unassuming loner, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda); a parolee from McAlester Prison who is going home – back to his family’s farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma - after serving time for homicide. But the world of Tom’s youth has changed considerably since his incarceration. A chance meeting with defrocked preacher and close friend, Jim Casy (John Carradine) results in a bittersweet reunion with Tom’s own family. It seems the Joads are being forced to abandon their farm after foreclosure due to the dustbowl.
In fact, grandpa (Charley Grapewin), grandma (Zeffie Tilbury), Rosasharan (Dorris Bowden), her fiancée Noah (Frank Sully), Pa (Russell Simpson) and Ma (Jane Darwell) are already well in the process of packing up, with plans to go to California. Ma Joad is seen quietly seated next to her wood burning stove, affectionately mulling over which of her modest possessions to retain and which to destroy in the fire before their trip out west. Packing up their meager belongings into a dilapidated 1926 Hudson, the family plus Casy begins its long and arduous journey along Route 66. Soon, however, tragedy strikes. Grandpa, who was in ill health to begin with, dies and is buried by the side of the road. The family arrive at a migrant’s camp where they meet a hobo returning from California. But the land of milk and honey that the Joads have envisioned is bitterly dismissed as a myth. Worse, the camp they are currently staying at is a dysfunctional and overcrowded reservoir seething with malcontents and rabble rousers. Joblessness is the norm and shanty houses overflowing with starving women and children greet the family.
The Joads press on to Keene Ranch. Although they find work in the fields, they are also alarmed by the high cost of living. Food and supplies are extremely expensive. Mob mentality breeds anger and resentment amongst the workers who organize a rally to discuss their grievances. A strike is declared and Tom and Casy go with the group to confront the owners of the ranch. Regrettably, the scene turns ugly. The workers revolt and the ranch guards open fire, killing Casy. During his own confrontation, Tom murders one of the guards to save his own life, before fleeing into the night with a serious wound on his cheek. The Joads pack up and steal away into the night, hiding Tom under a mattress to avoid being caught. Truly, this is the film’s darkest act. Grandma dies. With barely enough gas to sustain the rest of their journey, Tom manages to coast the family’s Hudson down a steep hillside before the engine overheats and the fan belt snaps. This is the end of the road for the Joads. Only, fate has smiled upon them. The road ahead is lit by a flicker of hope, and tower lights shining from the Farm Worker’s Wheat Patch Camp: a modern facility established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Welcomed into the compound with open arms, the Joads are introduced to many modern conveniences, including separate housing and indoor plumbing. And although the family’s prospects seem to be improving, Tom has since grown restless. He knows it is only a matter of time before the police will come in search of him. After a tearful farewell with his mother, Tom vows to continue Casy’s crusade for social justice. Ma and Pa pack up the rest of the family and move on to uncertain horizons, with Ma optimistically declaring “We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, cuz’ we’re the people!”
As a movie, The Grapes of Wrath differs in several key aspects from Steinbeck’s literary masterpiece. In the first place, Steinbeck’s novel explores the collective plight of all Americans, using the Joads as mere example of a much larger cultural tragedy uprooting the country’s moral fibre. The film, on the other hand, sets up the Great Depression as its backdrop, then focuses on the Joads as the central protagonists of its story. In the novel, Jim Casy’s loss of faith is paralleled with an outspoken left wing socialist viewpoint. Fearful of Washington’s perception of Hollywood as an inbred community infiltrated by communist sympathizers, Darryl Zanuck and John Ford struggled to find a common artistic ground that could temper the novel’s more controversial subtext. Henceforth, Jim Casy’s leftist views became the laments of one man who has lost his way, rather than a collective sentiment embodied in this one man – the adoption of his creed by Tom, now more a call for positive social change rather than a complete dismantling of the American capitalist way of life.
It should also be noted that the film’s ending is considerably more optimistic than the one in the Steinbeck novel. In the book Rosasharun’s child is stillborn. Heartbroken, she offers her breast milk to a starving man dying inside an abandoned barn. That The Grapes of Wrath was made at all is a minor miracle, and a testament to Zanuck’s commitment in bringing stories with a strong social conscience to the big screen. Dark, indeed, was the world in general in 1940 – this time blackened by the specter of another World War looming on the horizon. There had not been enough time between the fallout from the actual Great Depression and the movie’s premiere to reflect upon either from a more quaintly ‘historical’ perspective. This was still very much an open wound on the American psyche.
Nevertheless, audiences embraced the film version of The Grapes of Wrath as an America well known to them; a truthful reflection of those terrible years, intelligently preserved as a reminder of how far their country had come, and how far yet it had to travel along the road to prosperity. One man, however, was not at all impressed with the finished product. John Steinbeck, who had regarded the novel as his signature literary masterwork, was harsh when asked about Zanuck’s revisions. Arguably, Steinbeck was never entirely satisfied with Hollywood’s interpretations of his books. Fair enough, the movie does not share the novel’s sustained leftist sentiments. Nor does it end on Steinbeck’s dower note, sounding the death knell for an American way of life that was – but arguably would never be again. However, so much of what Steinbeck wrote is preserved on celluloid; enough, in fact, to satisfy most readers of the novel as well as those who had never read it in the first place.
In the final analysis, The Grapes of Wrath lives on, on film, because it cherishes the finer aspects of the novel. These are meticulously preserved on celluloid by John Ford’s superb attention to pictorial detail, by Nunnally Johnson’s well-crafted screenplay, and better still, by outstanding performances from the entire cast, with Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell’s instantly becoming iconic in the cinema firmament. We owe the film’s success to these, as well as the many other craftsmen behind the camera. Yet, in the long run, we are more deeply indebted to Darryl F. Zanuck than perhaps any of the rest, for having the courage, conviction and ultimately, the passion to bring Steinbeck’s controversial opinions to the big screen. No other mogul from Zanuck’s vintage even dared to try.
The Grapes of Wrath on Blu-ray gets a very solid 1080p transfer. The B&W image looks marvelous indeed, capturing all of Gregg Toland’s gorgeous camera work. Edge enhancement that plagued the Fox Studio Classic Series DVD has been eradicated on the Blu-ray. Fine detail is nicely realized, although some DNR seems to have been liberally applied. Grain is practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, age related artifacts are all but gone for a simply smooth visual presentation without that unflattering waxy look. The audio is DTS mono, but well preserved with no inherent hiss or pop. Extras have been directly imported from the aforementioned DVD release and include a comprehensive audio commentary track. We also get the Biography Special on Darryl Zanuck and theatrical trailer. To this mix is added the documentary, Fox Legacy – a series as seen on Fox’s own Movie Channel cable network. It should be noted that none of these extras have been upgraded to 1080p; their visual quality ranging from moderate to poor in 480i. That’s a shame because there’s a lot of good material covered in these archival segments. Otherwise, The Grapes of Wrath on Blu-ray is a no brainer. You must own this disc!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)