Not Rated. For when a man decides to grab something with his own hands and make it his own, it needs no rating. It only takes the pride that comes with a hard day's work. That is what brings a rating to a film. Some people might say America did it. But when a bit of physical media or an award denied can determine the worth of a film, does any film have meaning? Or when a reviewer can leisurely try to emulate the form of John Steinbeck for the sake of a joke, can that joke bestow life into dead soil? Regardless, The Grapes of Wrath is super depressing and that's all you really need to take away from this overly verbose bit.
DIRECTOR: John Ford
This might be treating The Great Depression with a bit too casual of an attitude, but I right now have the dumbest connection to the subjects of this story. You see, I made a promise. I cemented my pride to this promise, that I would write a review for every movie I watched. Welp, between the fact that I watch way too many movies (you know, just like the Oakies did!) and the fact that we had finished too many units that ended in movies (you saw that Hitchcock list! Add those movies to the fact that I just finished teaching the novel of The Grapes of Wrath to my AP Language kids and HAD to show them the movie by John Ford) and you have me struggling to keep up with my film reviews. Well, I'm almost caught up. I watched a movie with the wife last night, so I have to write about that one, but I've almost cleared my list. And here is the moment that makes me a bad person: I think that I'm like the struggling Joad family because I think I see the end in sight, but my hard work and perseverance are blinding me to the fact that the goal I want is always out of reach and its just about persistence. Yup, I'm a complete tool.
John Ford is the man. I let my film students know when I really like a director. They get that I really like Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder, mainly because I won't shut up about them. I follow through by showing them examples of how great these directors are and then they get it. Even if they don't agree with me, they get it. I don't really have a ton of stuff from John Ford. Ford is known for his war and western movies and, believe it or not, those are usually hard sells for high school aged teenagers. Heck, I didn't even like those genres, with rare exception, until I was an adult and I discovered John Ford. I would probably like John Ford even more if I had the Ford at Fox box set for Christmas. (A not subtle hint, Lauren.) But Ford is almost the other side of the coin for Capra. This is something I'm still working out, so be patient. Ford has this love for America, but he also acknowledges its flaws. Like Capra's focus on the unstoppable work ethic of the American, he sees where it falters. He loves the individual and thinks that the collective is dangerous. I think back to some of the Capra classics, even It's a Wonderful Life, where the masses are the ones who cause all the problems. While Capra's films are unyielding in their optimism, Ford's tend to present hope as something ever-present, but just out of reach. Teaming Steinbeck and Ford together makes a lot of sense. This pairing actually creates something which should be impossible. Steinbeck's novel is bleak as get out. I'm not saying something crazy. If you haven't read The Grapes of Wrath, there is a big gap in your literary education that needs to be rectified. It is extremely dour, but Steinbeck only allows a crack of hope into the story. Ford, too, allows just a small amount of hope into his film, but it dwarfs the novel's perspective, especially when looking in the differences in the endings.
What is most paradoxical about the film is that it is both the most accurate adaptation of a novel I've ever seen and the least simultaneously. I don't know how this works. The movie covers the book almost scene for scene. (Sorry, no turtle.) But these scenes are extremely truncated and much of the context is lost in that translation. My class and I started speaking about Connie's fate in the film and we realized that a lot of his story had to happen off camera. I know, a book and a movie are two very different things. I actually encourage films to branch out from the source materials with the knowledge that it is a fool's errand to make a direct adaptation. (Sorry, Watchmen.) But this movie is often slavish to the source material. It had won Pulitzer and Nobel awards for literature and was the talk of the era. Steinbeck was one of those few literary greats who enjoyed celebrities during his lifetime. Ford probably had to adapt knowing that viewers would consider the film's source material as sacred. But the book is a tank. Like, it's really big. To adapt that much story also involves trying to convey very deep and heavy discussions. I read the book in high school before prepping the movie. I watched the movie a few years ago before screening it this time. When I watched the movie, I didn't remember much of the novel, but I seemed to be able to enjoy the movie just fine. It was only after reading the novel did I understand that many important parts have tremendous shortcuts pasted on. Like "The Hound of the Baskervilles", it's not the things that are seen, but the details that are left out. I would never have noticed the changes had I not read the book. Those changes are massive, but I suppose Ford had to play triage and save the heart of the piece sooner than have to stay married to important, but ultimately sacrificial parts of the story.
I really like Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. Knowing that he was Tom Joad in the movie, I had Henry Fonda in my head as I read the novel. What's odd is that, while he does a fantastic job, Henry Fonda is not necessarily Tom Joad as he's written in the text. There are elements of him, to be sure. But Tom Joad seems dictated by his emotions. Henry Fonda, I think in everything that I've seen him, holds things close to the vest. This isn't to say that Fonda isn't intense. He's remarkably intense. It's just that Joad is a man who thinks with his fists when he should be thinking logically. Fonda always tends to make Joad a guy who can see reason after making a mistake. Joad is always talked down, but Fonda's levels are very close. When Fonda is talked down, he's rational because he never got all that big. Another odd decision in terms of casting was John Carradine as Jim Casy. Casy is a much bigger character in the novel and is a sticking point for Tom Joad. It is odd the Joad gets all worked up over Casy in the movie considering that the relationship really hadn't been developed as it had been in the movie. Casy's ultimate fate is so much more crushing in the novel because of the setup and that's not there. In this moment, I realize that the film is more about a series of vignettes commenting on the weak points of American culture, so much so that the character development can't actually happen. I also realize that I'm just espousing every "book versus movie" hissy fit that has ever taken place, so I choose to abstain from griping more. I will say that Ma is great in both, but the book Ma is the best.
In terms of the look of the film, John Ford gets what makes a movie look great. I don't envy him the task of portraying the world accurately. Remember, people viewing this movie had just come out of The Great Depression, relatively speaking. Film, during this period, focused on distracting the common man from his problems. Spectacle ruled and depth was something that could kiss off. Think The Big Bang Theory. (I should get some angry comments out of that reference alone.) But Ford knows how to make his movie look great, portraying America as both hero and villain at the same time. Perhaps it is a mentality of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but both artists see America as fundamentally great, but tarnished by misery and corruption. Capra saw corruption at the highest level and people reacted in fear. Ford sees corruption starting with the corporations, but quickly spreading to the individual. It's pretty brilliant and the movie works. Again, I could wax poetic about the value of books over movies, but I don't really believe that. Do I think that the book is better in this case? Probably. Is the film extremely valuable? Without a doubt. For a while, this was my Grapes of Wrath. That has to stand for something.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.