Or, The AFI List Project #23: The Grapes of Wrath
It is a mystery to me how The Grapes of Wrath could have ended up in the top 25 of any list purporting to be a comprehensive survey of great films (unless, perhaps, the title of that list was ‘Blatantly Political Movies About Hicks Driving Around in Jalopies’). From technical and aesthetic points of view, I can find almost nothing to recommend it. The cinematography is unremarkable, the direction interminably slow, and the writing appalling; the first half of the film consists almost entirely of shots of the Joad car crawling across the landscape and of highway route signs, and its communist sympathies are not just unmistakable but also aggressive. Impassioned performances from Henry Fonda and eventual Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Jane Darwell were the lone highlights. Frankly, the movie is boring. I spent the first hour-and-a-half (in other words, three quarters of the total running time) alternating between trying to figure out why I was supposed to like it and wanting it to come a merciful, long-overdue end.
And yet… And yet… there was something…
Well, anyway, before we get to that, let me offer a brief summary of the film so that people at least have some idea of what I’m talking about. As readers of the Steinbeck novel upon which it is based will know, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the hard-pressed Joad family after they are forced to leave their tenant farm in the Dust Bowl and travel west in search of work. Henry Fonda plays the youthful Tom Joad, who gets out of prison just in time to join his family on their trip to California. The trip is a veritable Oregon Trail, including the deaths of family members, transportation troubles, and moral conundrums about whether or not to feed starving children. Once they get to California, however, they find that their troubles have only just begun, as they are confronted with low wages, strike-breaking businessmen, and hostile locals who want nothing so much as the disappearance of all the ‘Oakies’ who have suddenly emerged from the east.
In its entirety, the movie is more or less a dissertation on why capitalism is bad, starting from the opening displacement of the Joads (accompanied by a heartfelt monologue by one character about how the land they lived on was theirs by dint of having lived on it, worked on it, and died on it) and culminating in their arrival at what it is for all intents and purposes a communist fairyland in California (which in the end they are also forced to leave). Along the way, a former companion is made into a sort of proletarian martyr, and Tom eventually decides to follow his lead and become the prophet of his message.
I was, surprisingly, not disturbed too much by the all-too-obvious politics of the film, despite the fact that political art of any variety is one of the few things that gets me foaming at the mouth. Perhaps my relative indifference arose from how blatant those politics were; perhaps it came about because for most of the movie I was so disinterested in it anyway. What did it matter to me if the Joads thought they should become communists?
And then, around when the Joad jalopy pulled into that communist fairyland that would represent their all-too-brief respite from the difficulties that had haunted them from the time of Tom’s initial return to his ancestral home, something bizarre and altogether unexpected happened. All of a sudden, I became aware that I inexplicably wanted the Joads to pull through all right. I wanted Tom to escape justice and realize himself; I wanted Ma and Pa Joad to endure; I wanted Rose of Sharon to have her baby and learn to be happy again. I discovered, in other words, that over the course of the first three-quarters of the movie I had come to care about the characters, despite how different they were from me, despite the shameless politicking that the film represented.
Might this be representative of one of the most important characteristics of film as an art form? There are, after all, reasons beyond competence that artists choose different mediums, and what a film is capable of is different from what a novel or a poem or a painting is capable of. Like photography, film is fundamentally observational: it suggests that we look directly at something that is really happening in the moment. At the same time, it is, like a novel, a narrative form; it is meant, most of the time, to tell a story. Film teaches us to like characters, to feel compassion for them, in much the same way that we often make friends in real life: by getting to know them. It did not have to be the Joads that were at the center of The Grapes of Wrath. It might have been any such dispossessed Dust Bowl family. Like in real life, we find them to some degree randomly; that they are the ones we come to care for is neither preordained nor necessary, simply a fact. They are the ones that we come to know, and in their trials and tribulations we are able to see also (we hope) some representation of the truth of our own lives.
This shows up, incidentally, one of the main problems of The Grapes of Wrath, which is its facile and mildly offensive resort to politics as the grand revelation that Tom experiences at the end of the film. There is something beneath the politics, however – a somewhat more human resolution that has to do with suffering and endurance. I don’t think that that makes The Grapes of Wrath a great movie, but it does allow it to transcend its more obvious shortcomings.
As I look at that, one other point comes to mind, which is that this is one of the few films that really showcases the importance of acting in creating successful films. I don’t say that to take away from other great performances: there are plenty of movies that rely on virtuoso performances to carry the weight of the movie. Can you imagine what There Will Be Blood would have been without Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance? The difference is that even such movies often have much more going on than those individual performances. There Will Be Blood, for instance, is also a virtuosic piece of directing; similarly, Lawrence of Arabia would have been significantly diminished without Peter O’Toole in the title role, but the story is still epic, and the cinematography makes the desert itself a separate and vital personality. There are none of those things in The Grapes of Wrath, just Fonda and Darwell seemingly becoming the people that they are to represent. They are what make the movie watchable. In believing that they are who they play, the suffering that the characters endure, which would otherwise have been so trite and so exaggerated, becomes real. Only when it is real can we, the audience, be induced to care.
All that being said, The Grapes of Wrath did not make me into a communist, so maybe it failed on that level. And I will maintain that, in the end, it’s not much of a film, interesting only for academic reasons. But it did remind me of something very important, very valuable, about why I love the movies, and for that at least it was worth the watch.