John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was rather quickly adapted into a film by director John Ford. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) tells the story of the Joad family’s travels from Oklahoma where their farms were taken by the banks, forcing them west in search of work. But when they get to California, they find that things aren’t quiet as easy (or manageable) as they’d hoped. They find that nearly everyone in California is antagonistic to them, even and especially the law. While the novel contains a great deal more context and subtext, John Ford capably tells the story (adapted by Nunnally Johnson) from the perspective of Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and focuses on the physical conflicts he faces.
I had stayed away from Ford after seeing How the West Was Won (1962), mistakenly believing he was solely to blame for that film’s endless and aimless tedium. Then I saw The Searchers (1956) and had an experience rather dissimilar to those who hold it as a masterpiece. You may disagree, but I like my stories to have smooth transitions of mood and plot as opposed to merely placing the required scenes in chronological order. But The Grapes of Wrath is very different. First of all, the story was created by an American master in Steinbeck and shot by the highly regarded Gregg Toland. Second of all, he had Henry Fonda for his central performer. The deck was pretty well stacked and the outcome was definitely worth while.
Maybe it’s because I just watched The Great Dictator (1940), but there are a lot of similarities between the depiction of Germany and California in this era. Both are dystopias that just happened to be real. People that in more prosperous times might just be run of the mill assholes, but when things got tough, were complicit in the collective abandonment of common humanity. In Germany, it was the demonization of all Jewish people, the scapegoats of Europe history introduced to racism on an industrial scale. They were hated and dehumanized, put into camps to work as slaves.
In California, migrants had left the last remnants of their lives to come to the land of milk and honey and found little enough of that. A farmer needs 800 men to pick the crop and send out handbills promising “good wages”. When thousands see that same handbill and cross the country for that one, menial job they are introduced to economics with teeth. Today it’s 5¢ per box of unbruised peaches, but when the strike lifts, it’s 2.5¢ a box. If you can’t feed your family on that wage, well then nobody’s forcing you to take it. No one but your empty stomach.
Hey, that’s economics, it isn’t my fault. That’s when the comparisons come. These people are just Okies. The deputies enforce the will of these farmers, push around the pickers because they aren’t people, they’re Okies. They’re vagrants, trouble makers that pitch camps outside the city limits an slowly starve. How did they go from there to burning down the camps, organizing a riot so they can crack down on these “trouble makers” (who happen to be organized by the Department of Agriculture), and even killing them ‘accidentally’ without remorse? It couldn’t happen here, but it did. Our own little dystopia. If I hadn’t made the connection with The Great Dictator, I would probably have accepted the story as a mere story, just like I did in high school with The Grapes of Wrath and The Jungle.
It’s a good thing The Grapes of Wrath got made in 1940. If he’d waited ten years, the studios might not have backed him. [IMDb and Wikipedia note that Stalin banned the movie because it showed “that even the poorest Americans could afford a car.”] Studio heads are the most terrible cowards. In The Tramp and the Dictator (2002), the documentary about the making of The Great Dictator, it mentioned how Louis Mayer would screen movies with the German consular (or some such official) and would take out things that offended him, going so far as to dump an anti-Nazi film. After all, Germans liked going to the movies. I wonder if he ever regretted it. We can rest assured that the market is too vast and too democratic now to allow that kind of obvious kow-towing. That said, I’ve yet to see a depiction of modern China with any of its sizable warts. Perhaps the choice of Ford was something of a preemptive strike against the film becoming too obviously socialistic.
It’s for these historical reasons that I would recommend The Grapes of Wrath to you. It’s available on Blu-ray.