I watched John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) last night and I have to say it is a masterpiece of the highest order. The film both blew my mind and deeply touched me on so many levels I just can’t sort them all out right now. I’m confused. So, until then, here are a few highlights from a film that must have been as relevant and deeply human back in 1940 as it was last night.
The scene at the beginning of the movie when Tom Joad (played brilliantly by Henry Fonda) encounters the ex-preacher Jim Casey (John Carradine) for the first time frames the entire film. The scene is wonderfully rich and complex in its existential humor, setting up the overarching logic of the film: honest doubt and life’s dire uncertainties are not anathema to hope and possibility. Not understanding our condition is a crucial element to being within it, to embracing it. To decide to go on while not understanding is the greatest act of faith. Similar to Estragon’s claim in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” More than that, the preacher’s lost spirit haunts me like a second skin these days.
And there’s Muley (an Oklahoma sharecropper like the Joads) being told he needs to get off his land. This scene beautifully captures the ever receding logic of responsibility and individual accountability under capital. What makes the land “our’n”?
The scene between Tom Joad and Ma Joad (played flawlessly by Jane Darwell) was an almost impossible one for me to watch. The moment captures the parting between mother and son, a strange apotheosis of Tom Joad into the canon of freedom fighters for social justice which is sealed by his “I’ll be there” speech. Yet, despite these moments of poetry, there is still no clear understanding on the part of either son or mother, and the anguish at the separation remains terribly real for both of them. This scene painfully reminded me of just how much I miss my mother, and how deeply I long to look into her eyes once again and talk to her about the world I see.
Ma Joad delivers the final thoughts of the film. A brilliant ending to the preceding dark and disturbing vision of the world. The final lines about “the people” made me realize how Ford takes the film version of the novel to another level. It is his ability to marry stock characters with profound philosophical vision that drives the engine of hope that is the Joad family throughout the film.
That final scene reminds me of something Mrs. Jorgensen said in The Searchers (1956), another Ford classic:
It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothin’ but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day, this country’s gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.