Even if you don’t agree with the specific left-wing approach that The Grapes of Wrath takes to working-class politics, there’s a much bigger idea here: there is nothing inherently un-American about socialism and working class revolution.
Say that dirty word with me, teabaggers: SOCIALISM.
I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #21, The Grapes of Wrath. Note: Almost all YouTube clips have been either deleted or have disabled embedding. If this is because of a copyright dispute, boy would that miss the point.
For as political as some of these columns have gotten, I have a real problem with didactic, reductionist films, even — nay, especially — when I agree with the platform being advanced. It’s the whole “I’d rather have a smart enemy than a stupid friend” syndrome, where I feel like being sympathetic to the message of some crap like Lions for Lambs is more of a liability than an asset.
That said, regular readers may have noticed that I’ve given most of the political films positive reviews so far. Guilty as charged, but let’s take a look at what was going on with them and why.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was as much about the generational divide as it was about racism itself, and the main story centered around a person who is not racist in his soul shedding the “muck of ages” by holding himself to his own beliefs. It humanized the struggle against racism by showing how a man who was academically and politically against it had not yet applied it to his personal life.
Platoon, in my estimation at least, didn’t have an explicitly pro- or anti-war message (though it’s hard to see someone coming out of it being pro-war); it was about the tragedy of it all, about how these big ideas don’t make any human sense on the ground, how we brought our own bullshit with us when we invaded, and what the war did to the generation who fought that losing fight. All Quiet on the Western Front had the most explicit message, but even that is less a message and more of a visceral reaction. It never says, “These are our heroes, and they are right.” The heroes are those who call out hypocrisy, not those who have a specific platform themselves.
The negative review of Forrest Gump wasn’t based on its politics so much as its manipulation. It claimed to not have a message, but in reality it was just concealing a deeply reactionary one: that the entire struggle the US went through in the 1960s was just out of control adolescence, completely ignoring the substance of what people were saying. I like plenty of movies with horrible politics, but the sum total of Forrest Gump‘s argument was that “1960s radicals didn’t like Jenny, they’re bad people, and so they’re wrong.” Bogus.
Bad political fiction says, “This is what’s right and the other side is wrong.” Good political fiction says “Here’s how these ideas fit in society.” This is where The Grapes of Wrath nails it.
At its most basic level, The Grapes of Wrath (both the novel and the film) deals with the struggle of an Oklahoma family during the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. It succeeds at illustrating this very real struggle in visually compelling and dramatically stirring ways, so if that’s all that was happening here, it would already be a great movie.
On another, more personal level, it’s about the fear of being a stranger in a place where you once felt was safe. The Joad family and their neighbors tilled their land and built their house, but they’re kicked out when the property’s owners demand it, making them unwelcome guests wherever they go. Again, this is particularly well-executed, especially for 1940, before the art of film had evolved to a place where “meditative” was something a film could aspire to be. If this were all The Grapes of Wrath did, dayenu.
But on a third, more interesting level, it’s about the birth of an idea. That’s what elevates The Grapes of Wrath above the specificity of its message, which is where so many other political films fail.
There are three main strands of thought in The Grapes of Wrath that ring loudest: that capitalism’s conception of ownership is totally backward; that none of us are just lone souls as much as part of one big soul; and that the violent, frightened reaction to these ideas is the real threat, not the ideas themselves.
Released in 1940, John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s award-winning novel, with socialistic political overtones fully intact, could only have come out when it did: semi-post-Depression, mid-New Deal, pre-WWII, pre-postwar boom, pre-Red Scare. People were still wary of “Reds,” but they weren’t exiled from all walks of life. Rhetoric with a hint of anti-capitalism was not run out of town on a rail, and the experiences of the Joad family were still a reality for many.
Throughout the story, whenever the Joads are put in a position where they want to challenge the status quo — not out of ideology but out of necessity — they get lumped in with the “agitators.” Every time they make a reasonable demand or try to do something about an injustice they encounter, they get accused of being something they’re not: outsiders. But it’s their increasing disgust with the system that produces these ideas, not “outside agitators.” And most tellingly, the only people who accuse them of that are police or bankers, not fellow farmers. Who are the real outside agitators here?
The film’s treatment of Tom Joad could have easily missed the mark by miles. He might have been reduced to a working class superhero, a straw man figure that came about his ideas through superhuman insight rather than hard-fought lessons. But Henry Fonda’s portrayal is one for the books. Fonda makes Tom’s transition from apolitical to radical believable and organic. Joad hasn’t read any political theory, but through his own personal struggle and that of those around him, he ends up with a better understanding of how society works than any political theorist or academic ever could, and this comes about organically.
Yet it is John Carradine’s portrayal of the ex-preacher Jim Casy, who finds his place in the labor movement, that is the soul of the film. His journey from subservient Man of God to budding revolutionary is what inspires Tom. Carradine had a long and illustrious career playing villains and sleazeballs, but the fact that he understands the importance of Jim’s role in Tom’s transformation is remarkable. It’s one of the greatest performances in film history.
At the risk of overusing the word “organic,” I can’t think of another way to describe absolutely every aspect of this film. The direction, the politics, the setting, the cinematography, the dialogue, the performances, even the obviously matted backdrops. All are in service to the story, the characters, and the message.
The film never panders or betrays its audience in pursuit of its message. Even if you don’t agree with the specific left-wing approach that The Grapes of Wrath takes to working-class politics, there’s a much bigger idea here: there is nothing inherently un-American about socialism and working class revolution. Say that dirty word with me, teabaggers: SOCIALISM.
Comments: Great books with coherent stories and strong morals have been absolutely butchered in film adaptations. This is not one of them.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes. And not just because I agree with it, I swear.
Next Week: #20 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Last Week: #22 2001: A Space Odyssey
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