John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath —a collected article
Throughout its relatively young life, the motion picture industry has produced an enor- mous number and variety of films that have ranged from glaring examples of artistic ineptitude to hallmarks of cinematic excellence. Although many of these films have proven memorable for both good and bad reasons, only a few have come to be regarded as true “classics.” The films in this category for the most part are centered on a universal and timeless concern that in turn helps those films achieve the enduring excellence that qualifies them as classics. One such film is The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford and based on the novel by John Steinbeck.
The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of a family uprooted by the combined forces of na- ture and mechanization and forced into a struggle for survival. Although it is set during the Depression of the 1930s, the film does more than describe the plight of Oklahoma farmers. Director John Ford uses the existing social problem as a background for the development of the film’s major themes: familial survival and the related struggle for human dignity, especially for the common man or the “have nots” of society. To a lesser degree, Ford also stresses man’s affinity for the land and the need for a communal consciousness among society’s underdogs, but those are mainly subthemes used to help support the film’s central focus on the family and its survival.
Throughout the film, that focus is constantly reiterated. When Tom tells Ma of his growing anger against the system, Ma replies, “You gotta keep clear, the family’s breaking up. You gotta keep clear.” And again, when Tom kills the man who murdered Casey, Ma begs him to stay and help keep the family together. She tells Tom, “They was a time when we was on the lan’. They was a boundary to us then . . . we was the family, kinda whole and clear. An’ now we ain’t clear no more.”
Ford’s success in conveying his themes in The Grapes of Wrath is greatly aided by his mastery of fictional and dramatic elements, and one of the most important of these is a unified and believable story. Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson manage to transport the Joads from Oklahoma to California using a continuous line of action, with each scene leading logically and inescapably to Tom’s growing sense of discontent and resolve and the family’s eventual strengthening through adversity. Even though the film ends on an optimistic and perhaps overly sentimental note, The Grapes of Wrath presents a realistic and believable portrayal of a migrant family. According to the film, there are no easy solutions to the prob- lems faced by the Joads, and indeed, the viewer receives the impression that there may be no solution except acceptance and the determination to survive.
Another facet of the story that adds to its believability is the understated handling of the emotional material. The relationships of the individual family members, the death scenes, Connie’s desertion of the family, Rose of Sharon’s increasing melancholia, and other potentially emotional scenes are played down to a point where they become more indicative of the family’s growing acceptance of sorrow as just a part of their everyday lives. There is very little demonstrative affection shown even between Ma and Tom, and Ma makes the statement at the end that “we ain’t the kissin’ kind.” That statement, made as she and Tom say goodbye to one another and briefly kiss, has much more emotional impact than it would have if they wildly clung to one another.
The success of the film’s story also owes much to a strong dramatic structure. Using a chronological beginning with Tom’s return home and the resulting introduction of the main characters and the problems they face, The Grapes of Wrath moves with a growing intensity toward the climax. The film’s major conflict between the “haves” and the “have nots” is introduced in the opening minutes of the film as Tom asks the truck driver for a lift. When the truck driver points out the “No Riders” sticker on the window, Tom’s answer reveals his view of society’s class conflicts when he replies: “Yeah, but a good guy don’t pay no attention to what some heel makes him stick on his truck.” Conflict builds as the characters, particu- larly Tom and Casey, see more and more of the injustices around them. When their passion and the forces surrounding them finally collide in the fight scene, that climax leads naturally to the dénouement and Tom’s decision to leave. A flashback near the beginning of the film also furthers the dramatic structure as Muley recalls with painful intensity how the big “cats” invaded his farm. This scene effectively foreshadows the pain and struggle in store for the Joads as the film progresses.
Symbolism is another tool used by Ford to add to the dramatic structure. Much of that symbolism is religious in nature and revolves around the failed preacher, Jim Casey. Beginning with his initials, continuing with his described wandering in search of truth, and ending with the final sacrifice of his life, the film more than hints at Casey as a Christ-like figure. He even tells his persecutors just moments before they kill him that they don’t know what they are doing. More religious symbolism can be seen at the opening of the film when the small, lone figure of Tom Joad is shown walking toward a crossroads and later when he becomes a disciple and convert to Casey’s philosophy of life.
Another strong symbolic image centers upon Ford’s use of hands grasping for soil. The symbol recurs throughout the movie. In one scene, Muley squats down to pick up a handful of dirt and utters his plaintive cry that the land belongs to the ones who were born, lived,and died on it. In another scene at John’s farm, Grandpa grasps a handful of soil as he also reaffirms his dedication to the land he is losing. “This is my dirt,” he says. “It’s no good, but it’s mine, all mine.” Perhaps the most effective use of this symbol occurs as Grandpa is dying. His last action is to grasp a handful of dirt in a final attempt to hold onto his “land.” All of this symbolism serves to re-emphasize the thematic qualities of courage and determination in the face of loss and despair by illustrating the characters’ unwillingness to give up the only possession they feel they have left.
As with its use of symbolism, The Grapes of Wrath utilizes characterization to communicate some of the major truths of the film. And, in fact, the characterization truly makes the film come alive in many respects. Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad was a brilliant portrayal of a woman who, while already a strong figure, develops into the sole anchor and strength of her family. Darwell’s size and plain but expressive features helped her portrayal significantly, but Ma Joad really came alive on screen through a combination of Darwell’s acting skills and the marvelous dialogue she had to work with in the majority of her scenes.
Examples of the artistry of the Ma Joad characterization abound in the film. At the start of the film, we see a tired and almost beaten woman burn her mementos and refuse to look back at the home she is forced to leave. But as the story progresses, Ma gradually makes more and more of the decisions as Pa gradually relinquishes his role as head of the family. Ma herself recognizes this fact when she tells Tom, “Your Pa’s lost his place. He ain’t the head no more.” The often poor grammar and vocabulary used by the character make her seem more believable as an uneducated farm wife, but what she says and the power with which she says it reveal the true nature of her strong and noble character.Even small traits, such as the care with which she puts her hat on before she goes outside into the dirt and squalor, reveal her resolve not to let circumstances break down the last vestiges of the traditions she clings to so desperately.
Tom Joad, the other main character in The Grapes of Wrath, also shows development throughout the film. Starting as a somewhat hardened ex-convict who just wants to be left alone to tend to himself and his family, Henry Fonda’s Tom comes to the conclusion that “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul.” Ford develops Tom from a rather calm and controlled man with a chip on his shoulder to a man whose inner rage finally results in his taking action to try and change the injustices he can no longer tolerate.
That penchant for violence is carefully developed through what becomes a leitmotif for Tom—his punctuating of strong statements with exclamation marks of “violent action.” That violent undercurrent and the tension within Tom are constantly present as Fonda tenses his jaw muscles as though trying to control his inner rebellion. It finally erupts in scenes such as the one where he slams the door of the truck and tells the driver he was im- prisoned for homicide. Another instance where he can no longer control his anger occurs when he smashes a whiskey bottle against a rock after telling Casey he “killed a guy in a dance hall.” Finally, his anger in response to Casey’s death explodes with his killing of Casey’s murderer. By the end of the film, the preceding events have made him see that the only chance for the common folk is to work together to try and right things for everyone. As in the case of Darwell, Fonda was an excellent choice for the role he played. His tall, lanky build and his slow-moving, slow-talking manner, which seemed to mask an inner fire, makes Tom Joad come alive on the screen.
All of the characters were excellently cast and portrayed flawlessly down to the smallest bit part. Perhaps the most effective supporting player emerged with John Qualen’s excellent portrayal of Muley Graves. In a classic example of name typing, Ford managed to use the name Muley to help convey the character’s stubborn refusal to give up his land. Using Graves as the last name reinforced the “graveyard ghost” image of the character. Qualen’s large, staring eyes and almost manic expressions added to the characterization of Muley as a dramatic foil to the Joads. Unlike the Joads, with their stoic acceptance of change and re- solve to deal with it, Muley comes across as a man unable to deal with the realities of his situation. He is virtually destroyed by change.
The individual characters are interesting in themselves, but the conflicts involving them and revolving around them are what make the characters of importance to the viewer. The constant striving to maintain human dignity and family values against a system and against circumstances that seem bent on destroying those qualities is what gives The Grapes of Wrath its drama and power. That conflict and its implied resolution for each of the main characters is the very essence of the film itself. Each character’s individual battle against the hardship and injustices foisted upon the family and the joint effort to survive as a family unit brings the viewer a sense of kinship with the people on the screen. The very fact that not all of the characters survive the conflict just adds to the film’s realism. Without the Joads’ constant battle to survive amid the forces of nature and society, The Grapes of Wrath would not have emerged as the classic it is but would have joined countless unimportant films that have not survived the test of time.
In considering time, it is also necessary to view the setting for The Grapes of Wrath. The time period in which the story takes place is obviously crucial to the theme and mes- sage of the film. Set in a time when countless numbers of people were out of work and faced with poverty and a loss of hope, The Grapes of Wrath explores a universal problem even though its focus is mainly on the plight of one family. The social structures and economic factors at work during the Depression of the 1930s led to a lot of questioning on the part of society itself, and individuals with ideas of social reform similar to the views held by Casey and Tom were making themselves heard by a larger number of citizens than ever before in society. The contrasting attitudes evinced by the camp guards and establishment figures in the film are also indicative of the times and add even more realism to the film.
With land and the loss of land an integral part of the story, the physical location of The Grapes of Wrath also proves important to the film’s overall message. The rural roots of the Joads in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl region were obviously important in shaping their values and character. Although Ford relies mostly on dialogue and Muley Graves’s narration of events to illustrate the ravaging of the Oklahoma farmland, the Joads’ small, bleak farmhouse and the old, dilapidated truck adequately convey the poverty of their environment. In later scenes, as the Joads travel west, the setting of the camps also contributes to the realization of what they are up against in their struggle. The dirt and shabbiness of the first camps parallel one of the lowest points in the family’s journey, and the clean and well-run government camp proves a better setting for the new sense of optimism emerging at the end of the film.
Ford has been criticized for setting so much of the film indoors and on studio sets rather than in a more visually appealing and realistic outdoor background; but his use of tents, small rooms, and the cab of the Joads’ truck helps define the trapped and confined at- mosphere of the Joads’ world at that time. The sometimes artificial settings also help define the Joads as being more important than their surroundings.
One other dramatic element worth noting in The Grapes of Wrath is the use of irony. Throughout much of the film, the Joads continually refer to California as the land of milk and honey, a place where they will be able to regain much of what has been taken from them. As the story progresses, however, the viewer sees that the Joads are in for a rude awakening. Part of the family is lost on the way; their first view of the land shows a dusty, barren desert as bleak as the land they left; and the jobs they thought would be in plentiful supply are few and far between. Indeed, the “grapes” that Grandpa wanted so badly have turned into a harvest of injustice, poverty and unrest-truly “grapes of wrath.”
Irony and all of the other dramatic and fictional elements utilized by Ford in the pro- duction of his film classic are made even more effective by their combination with the visual elements that are essential to the film medium. In The Grapes of Wrath, Ford manages to keep a continuous flow of starkly dramatic and powerful images before the viewer, using a very tight and controlled cinematic composition. As mentioned previously in the discussion of setting, Ford placed most of the film’s scenes in limited spaces. There are very few long shots in the film. A long shot of Tom at the film’s beginning as he walks toward the cross- roads is followed for the most part by scenes that are either tightly framed, set in small, cramped areas, or shot so that darkness cuts off the outer edges of the visual image. Even the long shot of Casey and Tom walking toward the Joad farm and the one of Tom walking up the hill at the end have a closed feeling to them. The contrast between the dark, solid ground against the “wall” of sky once again adds a studiolike look to the scenery and pre- vents the viewer from perceiving any sense of spaciousness or freedom.
Unlike the typical modern film, The Grapes of Wrath purposely avoids movement and physical action. Most of the dialogue is delivered by relatively still figures in an atmosphere of oppressive silence. This static composition focuses our attention on the most dramatic points in the film: tableau images of the characters, who are seemingly frozen by their inability to understand or cope with the events that are turning their lives upside-down. Ford seems to be trying to focus the viewer’s attention on the family members and their personal reactions to the problems surrounding them rather than on the problems themselves. The only real sense of movement in the film is imparted through its montage sequences where the Joads do momentarily become more a part of the overall surroundings. The montage shots are used to portray the passage of time as the Joads travel across the country. Road signs and glimpses of long lines of vehicles trailing down the road do give the viewer a sense of the Joads as part of a larger world. Another montage showing the big “cats” ripping up farmland compresses the torturous destruction of the farmers’ lives into a brief but effective shot. The constant background droning of the heavy engines and the superimposed low- angle image of the treads almost make viewers feel that they are being run over by the mas- sive, devouring machines, which keep coming rapidly one after the other. This scene also symbolizes the Okies’ helplessness to halt the “progress” that threatens to annihilate them.
For the most part, however, the editing of the film is geared toward emphasizing the family unit and not the social and physical environment. Slow fade-ins and fade-outs provide smooth visual transitions, adding to the overall mood and highlighting the dramatic ten- sions within the separate scenes. There is an uncharacteristically jarring note resulting from the editing of the film. Noah, the brother who begins the journey with the rest of the fam- ily, just disappears somewhere along the way with no mention made of what happened to him. Readers of Steinbeck’s novel know that Noah is retarded, and although this condition is clearly shown in the film, it is sometimes missed by viewers. In the novel, Noah believes himself to be a burden to his family and simply walks off after the bathing scene, never to return. This scene did not appear in the finished film.
On the whole, however, Ford utilized excellent cinematic compression to avoid filming unnecessary scenes from the book. In Grandpa’s burial scene, the camera moves in for a close-up shot of Tom adding an “s” to the word “funeral” in the letter he has written. With the simple addition of this letter, Ford manages to foreshadow Grandma’s death and imply that she also will receive the standard burial. Thus, he does not have to use additional film time to show the burial.
Another very important visual element that adds to the dramatic effect of The Grapes of Wrath is the lighting. The majority of scenes in the film take place at night or in very low- key lighting and fit in naturally with the dark and bleak future that seems to be awaiting the Joads. Casey and Tom meet at dusk; Muley’s story is told in a darkened house lit only by a candle; most of the Joads’ departures occur at night; the Keene ranch scenes take place mostly in the cabin, where low-key lighting provides a dim setting; and the fight scene is played out not only in the dark but amid the mist and fog hovering over the dark water. Tom and Ma’s parting also is a night scene, but from there the film moves into sunlight as an accompaniment to the Joads’ more optimistic departure from the government camp.
The contrast in lighting within individual scenes also creates some vivid effects. Most of the light that does exist in the various scenes comes from candles, lanterns, or flashlights and results in the characters’ faces taking on an unreal quality. The scene with Muley in the Joads’ deserted farmhouse is especially illustrative of Ford’s mastery of low-key lighting. As Tom and Casey enter the deserted house, they and the viewer are met with a complete dark- ness that is broken only when Muley suddenly appears like a ghost, eerily illuminated in the flickering light of a candle. The viewer, along with Tom and Casey, senses the mysterious- ness of the scene and wonders about the fate of the Joads. Muley even refers to himself as an “ol’ graveyard ghost,” and indeed, that is what he resembles in the dark and deserted farmhouse. The characters’ pale faces and darkly expressive eyes give an added emphasis to their dialogue. Casey’s final speech to Tom in the tent prior to his death is made with the light from a coal-oil lamp illuminating his face, and once again his Christlike resemblance is emphasized. The low-key lighting here and throughout the film provides an intensity to the characters and scenes that would not exist in brightly lit conditions. Even in the few instances of high-key lighting included in The Grapes of Wrath, shadows are employed to add a dark overtone to the overall mood. When Muley squats in the dust following the destruction of his home, his shadow is diminished into a flat, one-dimensional figure, and we are made to see that Muley has become only the empty shell of a man. The high-angle camera shot also serves to diminish his importance.
One other visually effective tool employed by Ford in The Grapes of Wrath is his use of reflection to increase the dramatic depth of a scene. Ma’s sad look back at her youth and happiness when she goes through her mementos is made even more dramatic when she holds up the dangling earrings and observes herself in a dusty mirror. For a moment, in the dust and gloom, the lines and wrinkles imposed by age and suffering are softened, and we can almost picture a younger and happier woman. The other highly effective use of reflec- tion occurs in the scene of Pa, Tom, and Al in the cab of the truck. The cramped, tightly framed night scene acquires an added layer of depth when we see the panoramic desert scene unfolding before their ghostlike faces reflected on the dusty windshield.
Ford’s composition throughout the film creates a very objective point of view. The viewer more or less observes the film through a “window” with an almost stage-like quality imparted to the scenes viewed through the camera’s eye. This in turn makes the viewer extremely conscious of the dramatic aspects of the film. There is really only one point in the film where Ford employs a sustained subjective point of view. As the Joads drive into the first camp, we see the camp through their eyes as though we were in the truck with them. Ford seems to be trying to make the viewer share the Joads’ first jarring realization that their fu- ture may not be as promising as they had been led to believe. For a brief, uncomfortable moment, we “become” the Joads and feel like unwanted newcomers entering a hostile twilight zone of poverty and despair. The eyes of the camp residents are not only on the Joads; they are also viewing us with suspicion and hostility. On the whole, however, the scenes of The Grapes of Wrath are viewed as one might view a stage play, and once again we are made to focus on the Joads as opposed to the ongoing action around them.
Although point of view and visual elements are essential parts of any cinematic film, the use of sound can greatly enhance the dramatic message. In The Grapes of Wrath, it is often the silence or absence of sound that provides the emotional intensity emanating from the film. As mentioned earlier, most of the dialogue is delivered in an otherwise silent set- ting. This makes the viewer concentrate on each word and every nuance of meaning. In the scene where the Joads enter the first camp and see the dirt and despair around them, the silence broken only by the barking of stray dogs further increases the oppressiveness of the camp.
The lonely sound of howling wind is also used effectively to punctuate the dramatic movement within the film. Ford uses the sound at appropriate moments such as the scene where Muley tells why the Joads have to move. The sound of the duster and the visual signs of a blowing wind serve as narrative transitions between the present and the past as Muley relates his story. The wind also comes up to howl and blow debris around the farmyard as the Joads leave Uncle John’s house. This gives an even more deserted look and feel to the abandoned farm.
Another aspect of the film related to sound is the use of music as a background for the unfolding events. In The Grapes of Wrath, the background music is limited like the rest of the sound. In fact, the dominant theme music heard throughout the film is the folk song “Red River Valley.” The haunting refrains of this song are used sparingly to highlight the major emotional scenes such as the one of Ma reviewing her life’s souvenirs and the final goodbye between Ma and Tom. It is also used to convey deep sadness as the Joads pull away from the abandoned farm. A flapping door is the only other accompaniment as papers and dust swirl around the abandoned farmhouse, increasing the sense of desertion and the ending of one phase of the Joads’ lives. As the truck turns onto the main highway heading west, the music changes instantly into an optimistic and heroic hymn of hope. “Red River Valley” is also employed effectively at the dance, this time with words: When Tom starts singing the lines of the song while dancing with Ma, we see the frightened and sad look on her face as she listens to the part of the song signifying farewell. As Tom sings, “Come and sit by my side if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me adieu,” we see the expression on Ma’s face change from one of happiness to one of worry and fear. Ford uses this to foreshadow the final parting of Ma and Tom. The lyrics “Just remember the Red River Valley and the boy that has loved you so true” add to that foreshadowing and also re-emphasize the Okies’
departure from Oklahoma (the Red River Valley). The song that Connie plays and sings on the store porch at one of the camps, “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” summarizes his feelings about the journey west and foreshadows his subsequent desertion of the family.
Throughout the previous discussion of sound, visual elements, and dramatic and fictional elements, it has been clear that this film was strongly influenced by the director’s style. A director who believed in the simplicity of visual statement, Ford was sparing in his use of camera movement, dialogue, and background sound, and this style is clearly evident in The Grapes of Wrath. Ford was also known as a director who shared an empathy with the common people but also imposed a rather strict and traditional moral code on their actionsHe believed in an adherence to traditional values, and the Joads’ fight to maintain their values fits in concisely with that style.
Ford’s intention with The Grapes of Wrath was to film a strong, compelling story of a 370 family’s struggle to survive and to maintain a level of human dignity, and in this he succeeded.
All of the elements described in the earlier part of this analysis were used to further Ford’s sense of what his film was meant to communicate. At times Ford and the film itself have been
criticized for not following the aims of the original novel. Critics have said that the socialistic
themes of the book and the implied suggestion of the common people banding together to
combat the forces of established power and authority were lost in Ford’s cinematic version of
the Joad saga, and, in a very real sense, those critics are correct. Ford subordinated concern
for the family of man to concern for one man’s family. At the same time, however, he pro-
jected a sense of universality. The Joads may not have meshed as much as they might have
with the surrounding families, but they served as a sharply delineated representation of an individual family’s response to the forces around it. And in many ways, this imparted a sense
of realism to the film. Most families, when their very existence is threatened, are much more concerned with their individual survival than they are with the survival of society as a whole.
This viewpoint is clearly conveyed several times during the film. When Joe Davis’s boy comes
to bulldoze Muley’s farm and is asked why he is doing this, he replies, “. . . for three dollars a
day. That’s what I’m doing it for. My wife and my three kids and my wife’s mother got to
eat.” This same idea is repeated in the dialogue between Casey and Tom. When Casey wants
Tom and the others to join the strike, Tom says, “I know what Pa’d say. We ate tonight. Not
good, but we ate, and that’s all Pa cares about.” Even when Tom comes to share some of
Casey’s conclusions that “A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul,” he
still implies that his concern is with making life better for his family by finding out what’s
wrong and trying to do something about it. He also voices the concern that if he stays, he
will endanger the family he and Ma have been trying to save.
After an analysis of all of these various elements, I can truly say that I found The Grapes of Wrath a strong and compelling film that more than deserves its reputation as a “classic.”
Ford’s artistry in conveying his film’s message through the use of clear and precise visual im-
ages and understated yet deep emotional content made the film reach out to me as a viewer.
The perfect casting of such superb actors as Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine added to the film’s believability, as did Nunnally Johnson’s well-structured screenplay and Gregg Toland’s expressive photography. The parts of the film that perhaps can be termed as overly sentimental and optimistic somehow seemed to fit in with the overall theme. Even Ma’s final speech (“They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”) has an honest ring to it despite the sentimental overtones.
Although The Grapes of Wrath may not have been a completely realistic look at the plight of migrant workers from the nation’s Dust Bowl, it wasn’t meant to be a documentary. It succeeded as it was meant to succeed, as a haunting and evocative image of a specific era of American history and of the type of people that lived through it and endured.