The Greatest films of all time: 33. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)(USA)


Thanks to John Steinbeck, one of the greatest American novelist who won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for the story and the Nobel Prize in 1962 mainly for this novel, and thanks to the early liberalism of John Ford, and the great acting of Henry Fonda, “The Grapes of Wrath” film adaptation became a prototype cinematic masterpiece of Realism. When preparing to write the novel, Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].” He famously said, “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”

From a Great Novel to a Great Film:

Steinbeck after writing the “Dubious battle” in 1936 and “Men and Mice” in 1937 about the situation in California, wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” to describe the migrant situation and the impact of the Great Depression on the lives of people across America. Steinbeck’s work was received very well, the best selling novel of 1939 and won a large accolade among the working class due to Steinbeck’s sympathy for the migrants and workers’ movement, and his accessible prose style. “The Grapes of Wrath” book has been the most thoroughly discussed novel – in criticism, reviews, and college and high school classrooms. At the time of publication, Steinbeck’s novel “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national radio; but above all, it was read. Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist, specially by the Associated Farmers of California who accused him of exaggerating camp conditions to make a political point. But Steinbeck had visited the camps well before publication of his novel and argued their inhumane nature destroyed the settlers’ spirit. The book has been well listed on many 100 best novels of all time, by Time Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, The Modern Library, Le Monde , BBC 2003 survey and more.


John Ford who was first liberal before becoming more conservative and due to his own Irish background, and the Irish Great famine where people were drifted out of their lands, depicted the Steinbeck’s story on the silver screen in sympathy and hence makes his best masterpiece ever. The film was so much needed at the time of the Great Depression and on the dawn of the World War II, to reach out to the American People more than what the novel of Steinbeck had already reached. The film like the book was a revolution on its own to stir up the American people whose government was still at the time in peace with Nazi Germany. The film arose the people’s conscious along the novel to realize the dark reality of capitalism that was the cause of the Great Depression, their poverty, unemployment and mass misery, also globally the primary cause of wars, and at the time the second world war.  

The Birth of Realism in Cinema:

The film with its sheer realism was a prototype for many films to come in US and the rest of the world, such as “On the Waterfront” of Elia Kazan in 1954, and after the second world war in Italy by the Neo-realism movement and great films such as “The bicycle thieves” “Shoeshine”, “Miracle in Milan” and “Umberto D” of Vittorio de Sica, “Rome, Open City”, “Paisan”, “Europe ‘51” “Germany Year Zero”, “Journey to Italy” of Roberto Rossellini,”Ossessione” and “The Earth Trembles” of Luchino Visconti, “Nights of Cabiria” of Federico Fellini” and more.  


The story of migrants across US at the time of the Great Depression to the promise land of California, on the screen opens with a panoramic scene, of Tom Joad played by Henry Fonda in an empty road, surrounded by desert lands or Dust Bowl. While the color films had already been in fashion, the black and while color of the film deliberately adds to the imagery of the realism that John Ford tries to depict. The opening scene puts the man in contrast with the harsh nature in a beautiful imagery. Tom Joad, just released from jail after 4 years for pulling knife at someone, going back home, in Oklahoma. On the way home, he meets a former preacher, Casey who has realized the harsh truths of the life, have fallen on people not only by the nature, but more so by the capitalism, the main cause of the Great Depression. So he like everybody else not only has lost his job and money, but his spirit as well. “maybe there is no sin or anyone to save, maybe that what it is”!


When Tom finally along with Casey reach home, he finds it empty: “they’re all gone or dead”. He finally finds out from someone hiding in the house that they all have left their lands, farms, houses and have gone to California, the promised land for work as they were all pushed off their lands by the banks. The cats (caterpillars) and tractors with the support of law and the police had pushed everyone off their lands, knocked down their houses and left them on the roads empty handed. Tom finally finds his family in a nearby farm house who are about to move along for California, with the promise of fruit picking jobs. But Grandpa is not willing to leave his land and his home even if it is no good , but it is his and he belongs here, so the family have to knock him down with alcohol in his coffee, but he shortly dies on the road.

On the road the Joad family meet other families from other states, all have lost their lands and homes and on the way to the promised land of California. But a man who has been to California a year ago with the same hope, tells them not to put up their hopes much as there are thousands on the road to the promised land but only a few hundreds could get jobs and that he has lost his wife and kids on the way. After driving hundreds of miles in a run down small truck with the whole family of 12 and after the death of first the grandpa and the grandma, they reach the promised land of California and in a camp for settlers. They are surprised to see thousands of poor people from many other states in the camp, all jobless, hungry and living in shacks. In the camp shortly after a shooting and arrest, they have to leave before the camp reportedly being set on fire by some town people who don’t want no settlers and migrants as there aren’t enough jobs for their own people.

On the road, a rich man in a rich car tricks them, telling the Joad family that in a nearby ranch, there are peach picking jobs. But by the end of a road, they are stopped by many police cars, who have stopped many settlers trucks like them and lead them to a camp where many other settlers live. The camp surprisingly look like a prison or concentration camp, run and controlled by the police and guards, having everyone even children, women and elderly work. The camp is locked like a prison and nobody is allowed to even walk around or do anything else other than work, that was first 5 cents a box for peach picking, then soon it was lowered to 2.5 cents!


After one day stay and work, Tom is attacked by the police and guards when he goes out for a walk at night. When the mother taking care of injured Tom, remembers the old good days, when family were altogether and lived in their own land and farm, and when grandma and grandpa were all alive and happy. The family soon when they find out they are slaved in the camp and their wages have already gone down to 2.5 cents so they cannot even eat with that, they leave the camp. When they arrive at a new different normal camp with no police or guards and they are offered nice rooms with sinks and showers, they are surprised.


Soon the police in coalition with some punks plot for a riot in the camp on its Saturday night dance that is soon identified and stopped by the camp people. But the police is still after Tom Joad for hitting a cop in the previous camp, so he has to leave his family. In talking with his mother, Tom reminds of Casey, the preacher who was killed in the previous camp by the police and Tom in anger hit the cop and ran away. He says to his mother that Casey figured things out right, that he left preaching to walk on the right side of life. So he tells his mom that he is going to do the same, to be wherever there are hungry people and children are to help, to be where a man is being beat by the cops to help, to be where people eat what they raise and live in the houses they build.


Then like the opening scene, Tom walks in a panoramic view on the road, depicting a man again alone against the nature. In the final scene when the family leaving the camp for a 20 days of picking fruits job, mom in the truck while they are driving tells her husband “Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.!”

Despite the film was one of the first 25 films in 1989 to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry and the Library of Congress, it did not win the best picture by the Academy Awards, but only the best directing for John Ford. It was also lowered two ranks in the top 100 films of American Film Institute, from 21 in 1998 down to 23 in 2007. Although the film is somewhat different than the novel in the second and ending parts, looking more optimistic with the clean government camp and also at the end the family finding 20 days job, it still stands out great with its great imagery, acting and focusing on the family as a unit under oppression and struggle for survival.



In closing remarks “The Grapes of Wrath” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:The Grapes of Wrath” although was originally a novel and was adapted for the screen, it was original and innovative in cinema. It was one of the first realism movement in films that opened the path later on for many, specially the neo-realism of Italian cinema after the world war II.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “The Grapes of Wrath” is in its imagery, in its black and while color and cinematography that was able to depict John Steinbeck’s dark realistic novel on the silver screen. The great acting of Henry Fonda and the rest of the cast, are prototype of a style of acting that is not theatrical, but settle, soft, but at the same time very realistic and as cold as the life that it depicts. This style of technical acting without addition of theatrical spice could be seen later on in Henry Fonda himself, Daniel Day Lewis, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hanks.
  3. Impact Factor:The Grapes of Wrath” in novel and film have had great and enduring impacts on many future novels, films, and other forms arts from music to plays, directly and indirectly. The impact of the novel and the film have not been just in the literary and art circle, but on the mass of people in US and all over the world at the time and years after.
  4. Survival:The Grapes of Wrath” in novel and film have survived well to this day, as it is read in schools and colleges and viewed and reviewed again and again. Most importantly “The Grapes of Wrath” film has survived as an original masterpiece of realism on silver screen and a proud of American cinema to be the vanguard of such movement, despite the glamour of its Hollywood. In fact “The Grapes of Wrath” is the only film survivor of the Great Depression cause of migration of farmers across America to the promise land of California.

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