Mostly known for his westerns set in the vivid and majestic Monument Valley, John Ford has always been considered one of the most important filmmakers of all time, detailing the lives of those that rarely had their stories put on the silver screen. His were the stories of human perseverance against all odds, man’s quest for justice and the tempting nature of evil with films like The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Stagecoach cementing the legacy of John Wayne as a movie star and launching the career of none other than Henry Fonda.
But Ford’s range was much more vast than simply westerns. Ford – the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Maine in the late 19th century – was responsible for telling the story of up-and-coming lawyer Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln, as well as chronicling the abuse and mistreatment of Native Americans in Cheyenne Autumn and the racial prejudice in the military in Sergeant Routledge. Moreover, often times he was drawn to simple stories of family life in How Green Was My Valley and the return to origins in The Quiet Man. Near the end of his career, Ford even engaged in simple slapstick comedy with Donovan’s Reef.
Yet, during his most prolific and well recognized career period, namely the 1940s, Ford was interested in building and destroying the American myth. He did it in 1946 with the story of Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral in My Darling Clementine and, perhaps more remarkably, he took it upon himself to adapt to the screen John Steinbeck’s literary masterpiece – The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck – who contributed to the film’s script – saw Ford’s film as an improvement to his novel, recognizing a powerful, unmitigated quality to the movie starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a character that would go on to become larger than life, almost a figure of speech, a symbol of man’s struggle in the face of oppression. There is a workmanlike sensibility to Ford and his films and it fits particularly well the retelling of a family’s journey in search of work in the golden land of opportunity – California. The Joads are, in a way, the universal representation of Ford’s characters: simple, down to earth and relentless in their quest. They are never meant to succeed, and we can see the outcome to their struggle well in advance, but what sets them apart from everyone else is their dedication to the idea of family, of staying together when confronted with abuse and misery and believing in their own means despite society pushing them to the brink of extinction.
I remember feeling a constant sense of dread when reading The Grapes of Wrath, and yet I also felt extremely uplifted by the instances of human compassion displayed in the story. Those same feelings arose in me while I revisited Ford’s film from 1940: I saw the humanity shine through Gregg Toland’s masterful black-and-white cinematography – those unforgettably bare and desolate landscapes of the depressed South, Tom’s face emerging from the darkness of nightfall and his mother’s tired eyes, filled with sorrow and gratitude in equal measure looking at the vast orange groves before her.
Ford was smart enough to not omit the moral dilemmas from the novel and running the risk of further simplifying the story as most directors in that era would have done as a result of the pressure from studio executives wanting to suppress Steinbeck’s message. The Joads are imperfect protagonists. Hell, Tom is a murderer who’s out on parole and is not afraid to hit someone over the head when they’re deserving of it. Similarly, the former preacher Jim Casy eventually becomes what the establishment considers to be an agitator, or perhaps even “a Red.” The road to survival is paved with instances of the Joads having to question their own priorities.
Ford was not afraid to show the poverty and utterly miserable conditions of the camps for migrant laborers and “Okies” flooding California in search of work. One of the more compelling scenes in the movie involves starved children swarming the newly arrived family, begging Tom’s mother to share some soup with them. Ma turns to Tom and says, “What am I gonna do? I gotta feed the family,” as the family remains the only way out for them. Family is everything.
Throughout his career, Ford laid out the artistic foundations for our understanding of the American dream. Yet, in The Grapes of Wrath he completely embraces the deconstruction (and utter destruction) of this very same dream. His Tom Joad appears out of nowhere – the first shot of Henry Fonda has him enter the fame like a ghost walking down a deserted road. No origin and no destination in mind. Fonda plays Joad to perfection and fills him with Steinbeck’s message without making him sound righteous and wooden. Fonda’s Tom Joad looks and talks like a convict and a man whose dream is to escape from despair. The kind of despair he was born in and is bound to carry on his back for the rest of his life. Tom is tired. Tired of being mistreated. Tired of hunger. Tired of false promises. Tired of everything, of those dreams that are no longer there, of hope that forces him to keep going. Tired of living. It is the wonderful mix of Steinbeck’s sentimentalism and Ford’s matter-of-fact approach that turns Fonda’s Tom Joad into such a convincing on-screen presence. Fonda’s character mediates between the Joad family and the hostile world they’re trying to enter. Like the rest of them he witnesses episodes of loss and hurt, and remains helpless when confronted with the suffering of others. But unlike the rest of his family, there is something fleeting about Tom’s presence. Fonda plays the character with such volatility that you’re constantly faced with the prospect of him exploding off the screen, running off into the sunset, away from all the injustice and oppression.
Ford’s film feels like a dream, or rather a nightmare we’re eagerly waiting to wake up from. But despite the endless obstacles in their path, the film’s characters never feel like objects, something which can rarely be said of most movies that are didactic in their message as Ford’s. The Joad family is a three-dimensional unit of individuals who continue to trudge along the Oregon trail because they have no other solution. They must do it. Like Tom says, “Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.” For sanity’s sake, Ford and Steinbeck’s protagonists must undertake action and face the consequences. When Tom ends up killing another man in self-defense, his mother simply shakes her head and repeats, “I wish you didn’t do it. But you done what you had to do and I can’t read no fault in you.” The world forces you to make decisions, and you have to survive above all, and try live in dignity. That is what Tom and his family aim to do, because living any other way is simply not acceptable.
What makes Ford’s film feel so powerful up to this day is its sense of novelty. After all, the events depicted in The Grapes of Wrath were still present at the time of its release in 1940. The misery of migrants was still affecting the majority of America’s workforce, so much so that producer Darryl Zanuck – wanting to make sure that the film was accurate and not some ‘communist propaganda’ – sent undercover investigators to migrant camps and was horrified to discover that, if anything, the novel and the film had downplayed the horrific living conditions in those camps.
Over 80 years later, Ford’s film is still alive, with a sense of urgency that renders the experience of watching it just as unnerving as it was in 1940. We return to it because that world is still our world, and the lives of the Joads are and always will be the lives of millions. We seek comfort in its display of family and community. Like the cook at the diner and the truckers who play along and offer the Joads a loaf of bread and some candy; it’s those instances of unwavering humanity that make The Grapes of Wrath the universal story of human perseverance.
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