Americana Movie Month: "The Grapes of Wrath" Review

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An American classic based on John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, this famous 1940 drama film follows Tom Joad (Henry Fonda in an Oscar-nominated role) and his family as they escape the Depression-era Oklahoma dust bowls for the promised land of California. The arduous trip and harsh living conditions offer little hope, and family unity proves as daunting a challenge as any other they face.
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Americana Movie Month: "The Grapes of Wrath" Review

-- Rating: Approved
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: March 15, 1940
Directed by: John Ford
Genre: Drama

"The Grapes of Wrath" is a captivating drama that strips away the rich and glamorous fanfare in most modern films to reveal a poverty-stricken family in the quest for hope. The film draws its stark details from John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, and its plot is centered on the challenges faced by many farmers whose land, possessions, and families are redefined due to economic hardships caused by the Great Depression. It explores the bullying world of financial instructions and the dismal reality of sharecropping where control is no longer part of the poor's identity, but the simple need to survive. Most scenes in the film accurately represents the source of its script, but many have argued that it took a more hopeful angle-evidenced in the ending where the family finds a ray of hope.

"The Grapes of Wrath" unremittingly rips a viewer's sense of analysis apart forcing a profound introspection of human principles, justice, and perseverance. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is one of the main characters quickly placed in focus in the introductory part of the film and who undoubtedly becomes the protagonist in the drama. Leaving prison on parole, Joad makes a conversation with a diver that reveals some of the challenges many ex-prisoners face when they are reintroduced into society, which is caused primarily by the judgmental nature of human beings. But this is soon dismissed with more positive virtues-those of acceptance and understanding. Joad soon discovers a familiar face-Jim Casey (John Carradine)-who is also one of the characters of particular interest in the film and whose presence had a defining role in shaping the path that Joad would later take to close his search for a purpose in life.

Ma Joad's (Jane Darwell) strength and resilience to move forward in hardships and determination to keep the family together were pivotal in shaping the climax of the film on many occasions. She stands out as a strong woman who held on to every last ray of hope in the quest to have a better standard of living. When she reunites with her son Tom Joad after he leaves prison on parole, the scene depicts the proverbial prodigal son and a great sense of empathy is shared from then on.

Joad, who had been locked from the real world, is naïve to the reality his family and many other families around are facing as a result of being forced off their lands. This truth soon unfolds when his family decides to leave everything they know after selling their possessions to chase behind the unknown. This unknown turns out to be nothing more than old wives' tales that proliferated like wildfire by the lips of those who were also in search of more hopeful days and chasing the unknown as well. On their journey to California, the family soon realizes that their hope and expectations may be smothered with the cruel reality that everything was nothing more than a grand illusion, but despite the saddening revelation, they are determined to press on.

While the film's stark script often transmitted a profound sense of hopelessness, it also introduced rare but precious moments of happiness coupled with brotherly love. These lighter emotions can be seen between the Joad's family and between other families that came to realize and empathize with the struggles of their fellowmen. This connection is felt from their own experience after losing their lands and while working in squalid conditions to try to earn money to survive. The oversupply of labor at migrant campgrounds and disregard for human dignity and rights are also expressed in the film.

The death of Casey threatened to break the fraying thread that kept the surviving family members together. Killed in his mission to defend the rights of the poor and oppressed, Casey influenced the next moves that Joad would make. Joad finds himself torn between two worlds and wandering into familiar territory when he accidently kills one of the camp guards that attacked and killed Casey.

Their arrival at a clean camp controlled by the Department of Agriculture is an epic moment that signals their triumph and ultimate reward for their perseverance. The film ends with Joad leaving the family to play out his newfound destiny to continue Casey's work and defend the cause of social justice. Ma Joad ends the film with a heart-moving speech that depicts a great degree of honesty about her previous fears despite her seemingly thick-skinned nature. The first line of the speech "I ain't never gonna be scared no more" shows an unwavering desire to conquer all future challenges.

Rating 4 out of 5