Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Grapes of Wrath ****

The film begins quietly. The time: The Depression. The setting: The Dust Bowl. The screen is filled with empty space, lonely and windy, as the camera keeps its distance from all of the characters. A man convinces a truck driver to give him a ride, even though his boss doesn't permit it. Finally we see their faces up close. The hitchhiker is Tom Joad (Henry Fonda). Some way to their destination Joad tells him he just got out of jail. The truck driver gets nervous. Joad says "Bet your just dying to know what I was in for, well I'll tell you." It's his stop. As he gets off, he yells behind him "Homicide!" He got into a fight with a man when they were both drunk, and the other pulled a knife, and Joad killed him.

This is how we are introduced to "The Grapes of Wrath," a dark, lyrical and beautiful film that seems light years ahead of its time. An outspokenly socialist film, one may be surprised to find out the director, John Ford, was a republican capitalist. He did leave more of the incendiary parts from the book out, and toned down much of the original books anger, but there is still much of the same work here. The film is sad and gripping in the way it handles scenes like the one where they bury the grandfather on the way to California. His wife wants to buried with him, but they have to continue. Hundreds of miles away in California, the grandmother dies and they bury her. The sadness in this scene is underplayed, without too much weeping or excessive Hollywood-like tragedy, and it works. Death has become something these people are used to. But the depression destroys them in the way it separates them. Separation is something they are not used to, because they have lived in the same place for generations and generations.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joads, who are kicked off their land and whose homes are destroyed like everyone else's, to make way for a huge field that will profit a wealthy landowner. Some refuse to leave. One man hides out it the fields, his family gone to California, not accepting he has to leave the land that was fought for and built by his great great grandfathers. When Joad encounters him, he is a little insane.

The Joads, like many other families, get fliers advertising work for farmers in California. So the 9 of them and Casy the ex preacher (played brilliantly by John Carradine) pile into one truck which they worry could break down any minute. On the way there, they are warned at a camp from a man who received the same flier, and says they gave out twice as many fliers as they needed men, the work was taken, and if you did get it they would put you under inhuman conditions. They head on anyway and arriving they find he is more or less right. Once in, they are not allowed out, and are guarded by armed guards who tell them they will shoot them if they leave the house when its not work time. Joad escapes and finds Casy trying to organize a union. For doing so, he is shot by cops as he stands surrounded, with his hands raised. Joad helps the whole family escape.

The next time they are incredibly lucky and are taken in by an FDR lookalike who treats them benevolently and kindly, and offers good pay. Just when it seems everything is going to turn out, Tom Joad's past catches up with him and he has to run away, alone. He bids farewell to Ma Joad (Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress).

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 beating' 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 eating' the stuff they raise and living' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.

So will we, Tom. So will we.

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