#23 The Grapes Of Wrath

“Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”
Tom Joad

John Ford brilliantly brings to life Steinbeck’s epic about the formation of unions and the exodus of Oklahoma farmers to California during America’s Great Depression.

When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is released from prison, after being paroled following a murder of self defence, all he wants to do is rejoin his family. But when he arrives home his family is no where to be found. They have, along with most of the families in the area, been pushed off their land by various faceless corporations that are able to do the job of hundreds of men with just a handful of tractors.

When Tom finds out that his family is currently staying at his uncle’s farm he wastes no time to reunite with them. Sadly their reunion is short lived. As soon as Tom arrives on the farm his family is once again told that they must evacuate. The group sees only one option, they must head west and search for work in the land of milk and honey, California.

The family immediately begins their travels to California with nothing more than a hundred and fifty dollars and a jalopy truck.

Along the way, the family is forced to deal with many hardships. The death of their two most elderly members, along with dwindling funds, nearly breaks the family’s spirit. But the family pushes on and finally makes it into their proverbial “promised land.”

After finally making it to California it would seem like all should be good for the Joad family. This makes the harsh realization that life in the west is not much better than it was in the mid-west even more difficult to bear.

Forced into a transient camp the Joad’s are confronted with the harsh reality of true poverty, overbearing employers, and police corruption. The camp is eventually burnt down and the Joad’s are forced out on to the road again.

When it appears that all hope is lost for the Joads a miracle happens, they are offered work. A peach ranch’s workers had recently gone on strike when their wages were cut by fifty percent, and the Joads, are offered the job as scabs. But when Tom kills a corrupt cop, again in self defence, and their wages are cut, the Joads are forced to flee once again.

Once again the Joad’s find themselves on the brink of oblivion. Their Jalopy runs out of gas, and their pockets have run out of money. They decide that their only option is to pull into the next camp they find and hope for the best. This is the first bit of good luck they run into. The camp they stumble upon happens to be one of the only camps that is free from police corruption. The camp will allow them to work to earn their keep, and best of all, it will allow them to retain some sense of dignity.

The family resides happily in this camp until Tom sees police officers checking the licence plates of all the trucks. It appears that they are on the hunt for Tom. Tom is again forced to flee, but develops a new resolve. He intends to unify the workers of California against the oppressive force that is America’s top one percent.

This film is important for so many reasons. During its release in 1940, the film’s sympathy for the lower-class, along with its disdain for corporate ruthlessness, could not have been more topical. But this is why the film was great. The film is great because its themes are universal. It holds a mirror to the ideal of capitalism, and reveals just how ugly it can become.

The socialist undertones of this movie cannot be ignored. The one moment of peace that the family receives is while they are living in a camp that requires all its citizens to do their part to keep the place clean and working efficiently. That being said, this movie was not a call to communism, socialism, or any political ideology at all. It was instead, a “dear John” letter to the American dream of capitalism.

The Joad family is the picture of the American dream. They work hard for their food, their land, even the air that they breath. And they thought that this was what America stood for. This was capitalism at its finest, people who are willing to work hard, are able to make a good life for themselves. Unfortunately for the Joads, and everyone in the quickly dwindling middle-class, the American dream came true, Capitalism as an ideal came to fruition. This meant that the few, the hardest working, the smartest, or perhaps even the luckiest, were able to use the wealth they already had to create more for themselves, while forcing the “simpler” members of society into the dust that they are all to willing to till.

Capitalism is perhaps the world’s first ideal to ever be completely realized in a way that is uncompromising. And the result of this was, and is, disastrous. This does not mean that Capitalism as an idea is bad, or that any other ideology is better. Steinbeck and Ford were simply pointing out the flaws that they saw in society, and they were given a lot of flaws to work with.

This film works because nothing is overdone. The acting is well done, Henry Ford is certainly an engaging leading man, but it was not overly dramatic. Likewise, the direction was phenomenal, but the film was not overshot, or over paced. The film is an exercise in minimalism and it did well to be this way. Nothing took away from what was truly important about this film, and that was the story. The actors told Steinbeck’s story, Ford allowed them to, and the screenwriter (Nunnally Johnston) trimmed Steinbeck’s story down to its most basic form, eliminating the many layers of carbon Steinbeck had created, to reveal the diamond that is at the heart of this story.

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#12 The Searchers

“Some day this country will be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”
Mrs. Jorgensen

Not sure how I feel about this one. It was an enjoyable enough movie, but placing it in the top twenty movies of all time feels like a little bit of a stretch. I say this with no disrespect intended. The film is, at times, both beautiful and horrifying, and the central character, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), is a mirror of both of these sentiments.

The Searchers focuses on Ethan, a Confederate fighter who has recently returned to his brother’s Texas house. Ethan’s hopes of living with his family come to an abrupt halt though when a Comache raid results in the death all but one member of his family. This leads Ethan, and the aptly dubbed “one who follows” Martin Dawley, on a six year journey to reclaim the soul survivor of the raid, Ethan’s niece Debbie, and exact revenge on the Comache people. As the quest to find Debbie progresses Martin quickly realizes that Ethan’s motives may be questionable at best. That is all I would like to say about the plot at this point.

Many people will probably be put off by the overt racist and unsympathetic nature of the film’s main character. While all white characters in this film have some sort of prejudice against the Comache people, Ethan’s prejudice obviously has deeper roots than anyone else’s. There are reasons for this prejudice (if you read tombstones you can find out that his mother had been killed in a similar raid 16 years earlier), yet Ethan remains unsympathetic throughout the film, despite a somewhat redeeming shot at the end that was probably meant to sugarcoat the reality of the character. It is unfortunate that it was deemed necessary to add this redemption because a completely racist, unredeemable, lead character was exactly what this movie needed.

Ethan could have been a perfect anti-hero in this movie. Unfortunately that would have created a far too depressing ending.  In any event the ending probably would have been lost on a 1956 audience had there not been this redemption. It really is sad that the obvious has to be frequently pointed out to the audience, it robbed this film of its perfect ending, but it also made the film easier to understand. Worthy trade-off?

That’s enough of dissecting themes and my disdain for lazy viewers. The technical merits of this film are quite high. The location shots and sets shots flow together successfully causing a story to play out in a way that is both grand and intimate. Visually the film is quite satisfying.

As far as the acting goes, you know what you’re going to get from John Wayne, so I’ll focus on his support staff. Jeffrey Hunter, who played Martin, for the most part was able to hold his own with the Duke. There were a couple of scenes that felt over-acted, but nothing that was unforgivable. The next most important character was that of Martin’s love interest Laurie Jorgensen, played by Vera Miles. She was okay, but nothing special. She was supposed to play Kim Novak’s role in Vertigo but due to pregnancy had to drop out, and based on her performance in this movie, that was for the best. I would never question Hitchcock, but, Kim Novak was nearly impossible not to fall in love with in Vertigo, Miles was quite easy to resist in this movie.

The Film’s main fault, other than it’s ending, was its time lapse. The first Lapse lasts a year, and the second lasts five, yet neither of these periods have any feeling of time actually passing. The only indication of this passage is the coming of snow, and maybe this is just because I live in Edmonton, but showing snow once isn’t enough to illustrate that five years have passed. This is damaging to the film. It is hard to understand why certain characters feel the way they do because the significance of five years is impossible to feel. Thankfully the story is compelling enough to raise the film above this flaw.

As far as the Western Genre, and the 1950’s, will allow, this film was quite powerful. It is a solid film that, if it were granted an American History X style ending, could have been nearly perfect.