Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

"I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."

- Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.

It's fair to say that John Ford's Oscar winning adaptation of The Grapes Of Wrath is not as politically strong as its great source novel by John Steinbeck. It's fair to say that, as committed Republicans, John Ford and Daryl F Zanuck, were perhaps unlikely choices for the director and producer and indeed did dilute the allegedly pro communist views within the novel. It's fair to say that,  despite the above quote, it focuses more on the family unit, as represented by the Joads, rather than the family of man and their arduous and unjust struggle under capitalism. And it's certainly fair to say that the film fudges its second half and finale to offer more optimism than the novel ends upon. It's fair to say all of those things, but it's still a damn good adaptation with a powerful message to behold. 

Though quite why we continue to allow such injustice is beyond me.

When I saw The Grapes of Wrath as a teenager it felt both like a social and historical document accurately representing the blight of the Great Depression and the dust bowl migration, as well as an almost post apocalyptic fantasy - like the series Survivors (which I think was running on UK Gold at the time) it featured a rag tag set of characters, ostensibly identifiable as a family unit, travelling through desolate miles in search of work, sanctuary and a better life, only to be cheated and beaten at every turn. Either way, what I'm trying to say is it felt almost intangible, a thing of the past or a thing of a fantastical future.

Yet watching it in recent years you realise it really was something of the future, but not at all fantastical. This can now be perceived as a warning from history as we endure yet another crippling recession.

Whatever his politics John Ford nails the tone and atmosphere with a bleak beauty. It's a very mature and uncompromising film for 1940 and some scenes with their sense of longing, suffering and the weirdly social embarrassment of being poor are almost too much to bear. 

I love the way he, and celebrated cinematographer Gregg Toland, shoots John Carradine as Casy for example in that character's penultimate scene. The former preacher has found a new truth to spread to his people and he leans forward in great swathes of darkness from inside the tent with only the storm lamp catching and illuminating his eyes - the truth of his words shine from him like a beacon and its instantly passed to Fonda's Joad, a man previously imprisoned for killing a man in a barroom brawl. When he kills again, just minutes later, its to avenge Casy; his victim, a brute with a tin badge, a vision of oppression for Joad and his kind. It may be the same action, but Joad is a changed man; fighting legitimate targets. "Maybe it's like Casy says," he tells his Ma later, reflecting on the man who showed him the light "A fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody" And it's passed on further too, as Ma - played by an Oscar winning Jane Darwell - becomes more and more resilient, avowed to keep her family together despite what The Man throws at them.

That's not to say the film isn't without some humour however, I am always particularly charmed by how the Joads naturally presume Tom has 'busted out' of the pen rather than him having been paroled.

The Grapes of Wrath is a true American classic and, in Henry Fonda's sublime and honest performance as Joad, America has one of its finest characters. The message is still there and still true for all to see. People just need to listen and, with news that Spielberg intends to direct a remake, maybe they will. But Spielberg has some big shoes to fill.

"I ain't never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn't have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared.... 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"

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