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Based on John Steinbeck's Pulitzer prize winning novel of the same
name, about the mid-west proletariat struggle during the great
depression of the 1930's, John Ford's adaptation to film is a sweeping
and emotional drama, displaying the problems entailed when a family are
forced to move west in the search for work. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), is
travelling back to his homestead after five years in prison for
manslaughter. On arriving back he discovers that his family have been
evicted from the family farm due to a corporate take overs, and banks
foreclosing on the land. So the only option is to travel to California,
as they had been presented with a flier advertising picking work.
We follow the family through series hardship across the breadth of the USA. Deaths occur, and the working part of the family are mistreated and abused by ruthless business's, who have seized the opportunity to take advantage of the mass exodus of farm workers, making the "pilgrimage" from east to west. The film is an indictment of the times. Many families would have had to make this journey, mainly due to the greed of financial institutions (sound familiar?).
The film is majestically shot in beautiful black and white. The fact that it was filmed in studios does not seem to make the journey any less real. The film ends with Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) making a statement for the entire proletariat population: "We'll go on forever, cause we are the people". A bold statement, that could be used today. The working classes will always be here, and will always be needed. The people are the most important functioning body in the world. What the film shows historically, socially and politically, is that all moments of history (that is each moment there is failure or change) are in a perpetually cyclical motion - therefore, history perpetually repeats itself.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
A John Ford, Gregg Toland masterpiece. Even if you don't like the social politics, which people in 1940 often did not (the government was helping the poor too generously and so forth), you have to love the movie. Henry Fonda is only the beginning of a series of tough, beautiful performances. And the series of heartbreaks is balanced by glimmers of hope.
Most of all, oddly, is that this is a cinematic masterpiece, tightly constructed, and seen (and photographed) with aesthetic intelligence. Maybe the most amazing performance is Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), who commands the role of an earthy, wise, smart woman fighting the disintegration of her family. She's quite astonishing.
Toland's photography is worth noting not only for the usual framing of the shots or the occasional moving camera (when it moves through the squatter camp, slowly, showing the parade of poor people, it's quite striking), but for his use of minimal light. This isn't some film noir effect, but a way of capturing the candlelight, firelight, and just dim night skies that were very real, and very effective here. Great stuff.
Dorothea Lange, the FSA photographer who set the framework for the visuals in this movie, is of a special order of photographer, visual but highly human and emotional. And empathetic. Ford and Toland manage to make this into a non stop moving experience, over two hours, and it's no small feat. The fact these are all actors, and yet they are so convincing, adds just another level of appreciation.
Yes, great stuff.
This is my favorite John Ford movie. I've seen it many times and still love it. I feel so happy when the Joad family finally pulls into the government camp and are treated to kindness and decency. After traveling all that way with them, seeing them suffer, humiliated, spat on, you feel so much compassion for them. And the scene where Tom and his mother are dancing, and Tom is singing to her, that is pure joy. I don't know what Ford's politics were, but I remember reading somewhere where he is very conservative, and many of his film's deal with the frontier, rugged individualism and all, it's interesting that this movie deals so much with local corruption, exploitation and sides with the federal government and its programs protecting worker's rights. I think he also dealt with this issue abit in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY with the miner's.
Often cited as a prime example of 'The Great American Novel', John
Stienbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" was hailed more for tackling
unpalatable political truths at a time when the nation as a whole would
rather have buried its head in the sand, than for its literary merits,
though they are many. In filming the book in 1940 producer Darryl F
Zanuck and director John Ford pulled no punches; even seventy years on
this extraordinary film still has the power to shock as American moves
ever closer to the possibility of recession: it is just as relevant
today as it ever was.
It's about the Great Depression, essentially about the Oakies forced off their land, initially by nature itself, thereafter by the banks which took over their share-holdings, and about their migration to California. It's a bleak, harrowing film with no real happy ending. Speeches by Tom Joad and his mother about 'how he'll be there when ever there is a fight so hungry people can eat' or about how 'they can't lick us 'cause we're the people' may have the whiff of optimism but 'not licking us' isn't quite the same as putting bread on the table. Consequently, the film's success has largely been critical and while Ford and Jane Darwell won Oscars the film itself was overlooked in favour of "Rebecca", (an oversight rectified the following year when Ford's far inferior "How Green Was My Valley" won Best Picture).
In the hands of a lesser director it is unlikely the film would have been quite so grim. It's certainly not flawless; there is a penchant for Fordian sentimentality and the characters of Grandpa and Grandma never rise above caricature, but it's still remarkably faithful to Stienbeck's original and thanks, in the main, to Gregg Toland's superb black and white cinematography a good deal of it has the look of a documentary.
It is also very well acted. John Qualen's Muley is a beautifully etched study in despair and John Carradine has one of his best roles as 'The Preacher' who finds himself in the unlikely role of a union leader. At the centre, of course, are two great performances. Henry Fonda brings his gangly, liberal integrity to the part of Tom Joad which fits him like a glove while Darwell's stoic, Mother Courge of a Ma Joad rises above the sentimentality and the penchant for caricature into the realms of the truly tragic.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
By the time John Ford begun filming his adaption of John Steinbecks'
depression-era novel late in 1939, a whole decade had passed since the
Wall Street Crash sent the USA spiralling into economic crisis, yet its
effects were still very much apparent with many Americans out of work
and short of the money they lost on the stock market. Film studios did
their best to help ordinary Americans forget their troubles with lavish
musicals and comedies of the screwball variety, but with this picture
Ford used his remarkable movie making skills to document the true
harshness of the situation depicted in Steinbecks' book.
The picture is given its much needed authenticity by the opening scene. On a bleak, dusty, open road in Oklahoma, we see Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) walking alone against a howling wind as he heads towards his family home ("We lived here fifty years same place") for the first time since he was released on parole from the state penitentiaries ("You can't keep a Joad in jail"- Grandpa Joad). Here he meets Casy (John Carradine), a preacher who no longer preaches because "I got nothing' to preach about no more". We learn that decent, hardworking families such as the Joads are being forced off their land by the greed of the bank. Many such people have farmed their land for decades and yet their homes are being destroyed and they are forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
The story is a heartbreaking one, especially since the life that the Joads are forced to leave behind is all that they have known. Grandpa Joad (Charlie Grapewin) has to be forced off the territory by his own family- "This is my land and I belong here...my dirt." The family face an arduous journey to the promised land of California, a journey which has tragic consequences for them. Upon arriving at a campsite they find starving children and other families who are very much in the same boat. One telling moment comes when the Joads see their faces for the first time. All of these people look glum, hopeless and devastated. Their expressions reveal the hardships of life at the campsite- "It sure don't look none too prosperous"-Tom Joad. The little work that is on offer is hardly enjoyable- picking peaches for five cents a box for example- "a man can't make his dinner on that". Furthermore, just as it seems the family have found a better place to stay for at least the time being there is more heartache around the corner-"I guess it had to come, sooner or later"-Ma Joad.
The film not only presents an unfavourable picture of the bank who force people to live like "pigs" but also the police who are brutal, and the first camp which is far more inhabitable than the next camp the Joads move on to. Here they are stunned to find the luxury of toilets, showers, washtubs and entertainment every Saturday night. The tone is overall very bleak but there is always a glimmer of hope-"We'll go on forever pa because we are the people"- Ma Joad.
The performance of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad is exceptional and he excels as the main character of the film whose flaw perhaps is his inability to restrain himself when he sees injustice before him- "Whenever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there". Jane Darwell is very effective as Ma Joad in an Oscar-winning portrayal of a highly sympathetic character who tries to hold the family together through the series of crises they face. Also worth looking out for amongst the cast is Ford favourite Ward Bond as a policeman.
The much acclaimed Greg Toland provides the films' impressive cinematography- he would famously work on Orson Welles' 1941 masterwork Citizen Kane. The film was cited by Bruce Springsteen as a big influence on his moving 1995 song 'The Ghost of Tom Joad'. Overall this is an excellent picture and it certainly made me think next time I face up to a problem- does it really seem bad when compared with what the Joads faced up to?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At first glance John Ford, a life-long conservative Republican, might seem an odd choice to direct the film of one of the most famous social protest novels in American history. The assignment was a success because Ford approached the novel more from the viewpoint of its human drama than its ideology. There simply isn't a more beautiful black and white film in the American canon. Gregg Toland's cinematography is exquisite; it's no wonder he went on to shoot "Citizen Kane" and "The Best Years of Our Lives." Except for the fact that it uses well-known stars instead of non-professional actors, "The Grapes of Wrath" has in embryonic form all the stylistic hallmarks of Italian neorealism. Henry Fonda gives the performance of his life as Tom Joad, and Jane Darwell won a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Ma Joad, the eternally stoic earth mother who keeps the family together in the face of insurmountable odds. My favorite character, though, is the renegade preacher, Jim Casy, played by John Carradine at the height of his acting career before his eventual slide into grade-Z horror and exploitation movies. The film's depiction of the persecution and oppression the Oakies faced in their epic trek to California is especially relevant in connection with the plight of undocumented workers in present-day America.
...Well, as starkly realistic as Hollywood could get in the 1940's.
Ford's adaptation of Steinbeck's amazing social novel is terrific. The atmosphere of the source material is brilliantly maintained. The thing that impressed me most was that the film wasn't glossed over in the Hollywood studio-style. Yes, there are some omissions in the plot to comply with the Hayes Code, but it's still very dark and realistic. The hungry children rummaging through the waste piles for a sliver of food is shockingly compelling, as are the machines sent out to destroy the farmer's houses, crushing them easily as the onlookers watch in disbelief. It feels authentic.
Henry Fonda is perfectly cast as Tom Joad, the hero of the tale. Fonda's underplaying and sense of the 'everyman' suit his character perfectly. The supporting cast are terrific, and they are not glossed-over, either. Jane Darwell appears to have just jumped off the pages of Steinbeck's epic as Ma Joad. So many families made the journey from the Mid-West to California, the land of supposed 'milk and honey' (which the Joad's find out is not true), but the Joad's struggle feels very personal to us.
Very depressing in content- I had to watch this film in portions simply because it overwhelmed my emotions so completely. But the Great Depression was an awful event in America's history, and it's portrayed so accurately here. Students should watch this at school to realize how lucky they've got it now, and how dangerous it would be to fall into a recession once again (it would be different now, but still have the same effect on morale). This is draining to watch, but ultimately uplifting. Ford's direction is always convincing; Steinbeck's great work is in fine hands. The black-and-white photography emphasises the bleakness and realism.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The very first commentary on this movie says it all. Although I also
was living during this disaster, for some reason I was not aware of its
affects on my family, who came to this country with great wealth in
1924. By 1930, it was bankrupt; I kept wondering why we were moving
from the big house to a succession of smaller houses on the same
property, then entirely off of it. Mine was such a happy childhood, I
can only surmise the loss of wealth did not register with me. I don't
even remember being aware of it; by the time my family became being
near penniless, I was the only child left at home - I was the youngest.
My parents' battle to win it is a testimony to their resiliency and
bravery. My dad became a master-carpenter, and helped build-renovate
many homes his wealth had helped other people to obtain. My mother
became the town-sempstress, sewing garments she would not have worn in
I suspect I may had read "The Grapes of Wrath" shortly after its publication; I was a precocious child. I know of my family's travails only from other family-members, during the Great Depression which could so easily happen again, for different reasons. I doubt seriously if today's citizens of this country - and the millions of immigrants - could survive one. Reading other commentaries on this movie, I wonder how-and-who decided it is of a communistic theme - I must have been too naive to grasp it from the novel. Although they were worlds apart in their cultures, my mother certainly was very much like Ma Joad, both angels on Earth. I proudly associate the two; my mom put-away her aristocratic demeanor to help pay my dad's bills. Ma Joad BECAME aristocratic through her gentility and compassion. I am so happy I inherited many of my mother's characteristics, because lineage means nothing to me. It's the person-as-is I love.
"The Okies", although they received much less sympathy than those hordes who cross California's southern border with Mexico, brought the same magic power to California, because they did the dirty work. We politically correctly say, "that's work we won't do" -hmmmmmm. One doesn't know what one would do, until a situation confronts them. Being retired from night-club entertaining, I view everyone as being equal: I often confronted individuals of foreign birth with unkind things to say about America. I could only smile and ask, "If that is true, why is everyone in the world trying to get here?" Many of the commentators on this movie have written cogently about it. There is not much more I can add, except to say it causes me to weep for the goodness of the people during those times, when they had every reason to be evil. I see no comparison in the quality of the film to "Citizen Kane", because that film is mostly fiction. "The Grapes of Wrath" is a true-to-life historical telling of real situations. They are rampant all over the world, and in some parts of this nation. Let's pray they can be alleviated for everyone's good.
I think Henry Fonda portrayed Tom Joad brilliantly, but don't see too much difference in his other roles. Perhaps he became a "big star" because of his cunning, to choose roles that would fit him. I agree with those who write the awarding of his Oscar for "On Golden Pond" was the culmination of a popularity contest. There is a dark rumor (in Hollywood) "Pond's" theme wasn't all that fictional; in true life, Jane and Dad didn't get along that well.....
Watch "Grapes" as often as you can - there are many great lessons to be learned from it. It deserves every accolade given to it, and none of the tacky criticisms - it is pure art that just happens to depict a dreadful period of our history. I can't give anything but high praise for all who had a part in its production. "Happy are those who are persecuted because they are good, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs." Mathew 5:10.
Evicted from there land in Oklahoma, victimized by the double whammy of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the Joad family loads up their dilapidated truck and makes the journey to California, joining thousands of others in the westward migration, seeking work as pickers in the California groves. John Ford doesn't let us forget what it's like to be destitute as the film details the belittling attitudes they endure at every stop along the way, eating away at whatever pride they have left. And when the torturous journey claims the life of Noah Joad (Frank Sully), the eldest of the family, his haunting and memorable burial along the side of the road provides one of the film's most riveting scenes. Clear social and economic distinctions, police brutality, Red baiting, blatant injustice, and the glimmer of hope offered by the New Deal are all mixed up to make this epic saga of an American family.
It's almost too easy to label a movie a masterpiece today, but The Grapes
Wrath deserves that praise in spades. Not only is this film a masterpiece
scoop and visuals but a masterpiece in it's acting as well. I will say
this film is Henry Fonda best, and he holds your heart like no one does,
never lets go for an instant. Jane Darwell is simply perfect as her role
his mother, and her will and determination is the heart and soul of this
movie. John Ford has made perhaps one of the greatest movies ever made,
made a timely massage about the faith of the human Sprit. The people and
landscape will move you as the family travels to the promise land in seach
of work but find heart break instead.
One of the best movies ever made.
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