There may have been better America directors before John Ford, and there were certainly better ones after, but no other director so completely epitomized that vague yet long-enduring image of "America." Indeed, no other director of any nationality likely represents that country's image quite like Ford. He was the one to bring majesty to the Old West in cinema, reviving the romanticism of its mythology after talkies sidelined the Westerns for a decade; with Stagecoach, he not only made the genre popular again but brought it for the first time into the level of high art, and subsequent efforts only solidified his indelible mark in the Western and cinema as a whole.
Only a year after Stagecoach, however, Ford made a film set in the wide expanse of the West but wholly antithetical to his typical, romantic vision. The Grapes of Wrath, based of course upon the beloved John Steinbeck novel, trades the open, inviting beauty of Stagecoach's endless landscapes for an engulfing, foreboding perversion of it. Through this vast emptiness blow shrill winds that kick up dust, massive clouds of dust that swallow the characters more than the environment.
Tom Joad enters this terrible new world after his release from a four-year prison sentence. Incarcerated for murder, albeit in self-defense, Joad emerges from prison aiming to see his family for the first time since his trial. He hitchhikes all the way to the old dusty trail that leads home, and we can immediately see that something is wrong. Ford frames Tom in an extreme long shot against dry, infertile farm ground. Once he gets to the Joad family farm, he finds it deserted, save for fellow sharecropper Muley, who tells Tom what happened in a flashback.
Both Ford and producer Darryl F. Zanuck were conservative, which makes their decision to film the most famous left-wing publications of the time baffling. Ford certainly doesn't compromise Steinbeck's original vision with this flashback: the company that holds the deeds to the Okies' land comes around to announce that the farms are losing money because of the dust storms and the company is evicting the residents to hire a handful of tractor drivers to do the same amount of work. These farmers are second, even third-generation descendants of the people who signed the sharecropper agreements. They don't understand that the land they grew up on doesn't belong to them, and one farmer is so outraged that he asks the rep who is doing this. It's not a person, it's a company, the rep replies. No point in killing the company president, though; he just does what the bank tells him. However, the local bank is run by a manager who doesn't remotely have the power to make such decisions. "So who do we shoot?" the farmer seethes. "Brother, I don't know. You find out, you tell me." This scene is The Grapes of Wrath in a nutshell: the rich have created a system that allows them to survive even in a depression, one that works by completely casting aside the working class to starve.
Tom finds his family at his uncle's house, which is next on the chopping block. He is welcomed back with open arms, and he finds the family teeming with excitement over a letter they've received promoting jobs in California, with positions for 800 crop pickers. Oblivious to the full implication of this impersonal message sent en masse throughout all of Oklahoma -- possibly the whole Midwest -- the family speaks of California as if the promised land, and each of the family members sits at the bare table thinking of all the delicious fruits and sweets that await them.
And so, like the hopeful, naïve optimists a century ago, the Joads head west in search of prosperity. At every step, tragedy abounds, at all times revealing Steinbeck's original leftist messages. The grandparents die of old age and malnutrition. A man returning from the empty promise of California bitterly attacks the Joads' bumpkin sunniness with a gruesome description of his family's slow death from starvation. In California, the Joads shuffle through a series of worker camps, where land owners have refined class oppression to an art form: they drive wages down, charge outrageous prices at the only stores in town. Hell, even the cops are in on the shakedown. No matter where the Joads turn, they find only destitution and corruption, all of it brought on by the lingering stench of unrepentant capitalism. Even when the Joads at last stumble onto a clean and just camp, run tellingly by the government as one of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, the corrupt deputies from the other camps come to wreak havoc on those who would find happiness in a community not run on greed.
The epic tragedy of America's collapse is perfectly accentuated by the photography of Gregg Toland, greatest of the cinematographers. Compared to the softer photography of most classic monochrome films, The Grapes of Wrath looks as real as if it were made today. Toland would help revolutionize cinema a year later with his work on Citizen Kane, but here he displays a command of the craft no less impressive, and Wrath contains some of the most strikingly realistic cinematography since Dreyer's 1928 opus The Passion of Joan of Arc. The film is on the cusp of its 70th anniversary, currently available on an old DVD master, yet in some shots you can practically count the pores on Tom Joad's face clogged by grime and dust. Those who believe in hell mistakenly describe it as a place of fire and brimstone, forgetting or simply neglecting that the Bible makes no mention of such a place until Revelation. No, a fundamental definition of hell is simply the absence of God, and the starkly photographed sparsity of the desolate western farmland interspersed with America's children reverted back to the humbled masses who spawned them is as chilling a depiction of the falsity of the American Dream, even of the notion that God blesses America, as anything in the Godfather saga.
For all of Ford and Toland's gorgeous and haunting visuals, however, they place all of the emotional and metaphorical weight on three steadfast and basic symbols. The first is the Joad family vehicle: they ride in a sedan converted into some garish flatbed truck, a revolting blob of warped wood and rusted metal, to house the family and their few remaining possessions. Due to The Beverly Hillbillies, this image is now a parody and a symbol of the stereotypical hick, but here it's as tragic as any of the stories of starvation and destitution. This rickety, decaying eyesore is the sad aftermath of a once-beautiful product of American ingenuity and prosperity, representative of America's shambolic descent in the Depression. Nevertheless, it must be noted that, for all its instability and obsolescence, the car always pulls through in the end.
The second symbol is Jim Casy, whom Tom meets on the way to the abandoned Joad farm. The preacher who baptized Tom, Casy is now an alcoholic disgrace who lost his faith after (consensual) liaisons with some of the young women of his congregation as well as the psychological strain of the Great Depression. In that sense, he recognizes this wasteland as hell and acts accordingly, but this is merely the start of Casy's rebirth, a religious conception, as a secular social reformer. In the camps, he deflects a worker's assault on an officer onto himself, and later he organizes a worker revolt, only to be killed by camp guards. Tom says of his friend's sudden drive to action, "He could have been a preacher, but he seen (sic) things clear," and indeed Casy's human concern for the oppressed workers is the most forceful, as well as ideologically Christian, action in the film.
The third, of course, is Tom Joad, though perhaps that's less apt than simply saying Henry Fonda. If John Ford is the most American of directors, then Fonda must surely be the most American of actors: in his roles he personified some aspect of the American ideal, from a sense of social and racial justice (12 Angry Men) to the admittedly false image of basic morality in the form of Wyatt Earp (My Darling Clementine). He even played Abraham Lincoln, the enduring symbol of American freedom. Here, in the role that made him a star, he is, quite simply, an American. Uneducated but smart, dangerous yet gentle, Tom stands in the middle of various contrasts, and furthermore in the middle of an intense struggle for the future of America's power structure, between the system that failed and now grabs blindly at the shards of its shattered constructs and a government that wishes to help those sucked dry and cast aside by the previous administrators. When I said that this film seems as real as if it came out yesterday, that is not only for its visual acumen but for its glaring parallels to our current situation.
If The Grapes of Wrath falters, it does so at the end, when, for all of Toland's sharp photography and Fonda's naturalistic acting -- seriously, compare Fonda's convincing readings to Carradine's, who literally proclaims his first lines to the heavens his character no longer believes in despite being in a conversation with Tom -- the script suddenly and shamelessly chucks in dialogue that makes everyone instantly aware that it came from a script. Tom's no dummy, but the idea that this farm-raised Okie could speak so poetically severely tests the tensile strength of one's suspension of disbelief. But no matter: The Grapes of Wrath, like its source material, is one of the towering works of the 20th century, and no single chunk of dialogue, however, contrived, could derail it. To better understand the heart of this picture, I would point to an earlier scene, of Ma Joad quietly turning out a box of sentimental possessions, only to discover a pair of earrings that she holds up to a mirror with a look of nostalgia before quietly saving them in her pocket. The scene is pure poetry, an depiction of an implacable sense of dignity that exists no matter how rough it all gets. As an expression of the basic qualities which make us human and give us our humanity, I have seen none better.