Great Moments in Cinema: The Grapes of Wrath

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Hey everyone…just a quick one today, since I’m writing this one on the Fourth of July and have better things to do, like walk around the neighborhood and watch people celebrate American independence by firing off fireworks made in China.  Plus, you’re probably all hung over from celebrating America’s enduring awesomeness, and probably so bleary-eyed you can’t really focus on what I’ve written anyway.  So since neither of us really wants to belabor this one, let’s just get on with it, shall we.

I decided I really wanted to eschew the obvious with this one, so I won’t be writing about Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day (1996).  Instead, I went all the way back to 1940 and watched the classic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda (among others).  While a film focusing on the journey of a transient family from the Dustbowl to California during the height of the Great Depression may not seem like the best way to celebrate America’s birthday, this early masterpiece from one of America’s premiere filmmakers provides a perfect summation of the patriotic spirit of the United States better than nearly any other overtly jingoistic film ever made.

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For those who have never seen the film or read the book, The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they embark on an arduous journey to California to try and find work during the Great Depression, after being forced off their land due to foreclosure.  Led by the erstwhile and steely-eyed Tom (Fonda, in a powerful performance that netted him his first Oscar nomination), the family packs up the truck and heads out West, but the trip is a rough one.  The family is beset by death and misfortune the entire way.  However, despite these setbacks, the family’s indomitable will never once wavers, and Tom and his kin are convinced that once they find work, everything will be okay.  Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way, but in the end, it doesn’t matter.  Each tragedy is simply another obstacle the family must overcome, and even though they seem to experience one setback after another, they nevertheless continue to strive for something better.  They are unwilling to accept that for people like them, that dream will remain forever out of reach.  This is the very essence of the American Dream, and the best possible illustration of the American psyche.

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Toward the end of the film, Tom and his family arrives at Weedpatch Camp, which is operated by the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency established to help migrant families such as the Joads.  After speaking with the camp administrator, who bears a striking resemblance to Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, Tom and the rest of the men go to work picking fruit at a nearby farm.  Soon enough, though, the police arrive at the camp.  They are there to arrest Tom for a murder he was involved in when confronting strike breakers at another migrant camp.  Tom goes on the run, but before he does, he is confronted by Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), who scolds him for attempting to leave without saying good-bye.  Tom explains to her why he has to go, and in doing so, he provides an explanation of everything that’s both wrong and right with America all at once.  More importantly, though, it is a speech that still resonates today, which is a testament to the  lasting and universal power of Steinbeck’s story (as well as the screenplay by Nunnally Johnson).

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At the same time, though, it is also a sad indictment of the United States, a stark accusation that we as a nation lost our way at some point and still haven’t managed to find our way back.  We like to claim that we are the greatest nation on Earth, but it’s a bit of a hollow claim when we allow so many of citizens to live in poverty while an increasingly small minority continue to hoard the bulk of the world’s wealth.  Yet, the speech Tom delivers also speaks to the unbending will of the people of the United States.  It is a speech that declares that the American people are willing to fight in the face of adversity, and to stand up to tyranny whenever they encounter it.  Tom is saying that it is the people who make this nation great, and that as long as they keep that in mind, there is nothing we cannot do.  Sadly, many people seem to have forgotten those words in this day and age, when it’s easier to sign an online petition and then sit back and watch another episode of Honey Boo Boo than it is to actually stand up and fight for what is right, but that is why films like The Grapes of Wrath and such as this one are important.  They remind us of what is at stake should we ever waver in our dedication to maintaining our populist spirit, and in this day and age, we need all the reminders we can get.

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Since I couldn’t find any video of the speech to link to, I’m just going to include the dialogue below.  However, if you haven’t seen the movie, I urge you to go to Netflix Instant and watch it at your earliest convenience.  Not only is it a powerful meditation on the state of the U.S., it’s also a surprisingly warm and funny film that features some of the best direction, cinematography, and acting of all time, not just the 1940s.  Give it a look.  You will not be disappointed.

Dialogue from The Grapes of Wrath (1940), screenplay by Nunnally Johnson:

Tom Joad: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…

Ma Joad: Oh, Tommy, they’d drag you out and cut you down just like they done to Casy.

Tom Joad: They’d drag me anyways. Sooner or later they’d get me for one thing if not for another. Until then…

Ma Joad: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.

Tom Joad: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.

Ma Joad: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?

Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. 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.

Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.

Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

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About Christopher John Olson

I have been obsessed with film for as long as I can remember. The medium rules my life, to the point that I even got a useless degree in Film Studies. I am that committed to it. I have written reviews and articles for a number of sites including TheShiznit.co.uk, Creature-Corner.com, and CHUD.com, though I’ve never been paid for any of them. In addition to watching movies, I love to read, write, play the occasional video game, and spend a ridiculous amount of time on the internet.