Ranking: #14/111

Director: John Ford (USA)

Genre: Epic Social Drama

French film and cultural critic André Bazin once pointed out that seven out of ten American films at that time were adaptations of novels. Many of these adaptations, he said, failed. The success of John Ford’s film The Grapes of Wrath as an adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional masterpiece, however, was “unequivocal”: “The film’s realism is not noticeably inferior to that of the book, the characters are no less unique or powerful, its social and political message is exactly that of Steinbeck.” (Bazin, A, André Bazin on Adaptation: Cinema’s Literary Imagination, p. 185) Bazin rightly held up the film as a model for how to turn great literary material into cinematic art.

Like the novel, the movie provides a definitive, deeply imaginative, picture of life during America’s Great Depression of the 1930s. Both works of art are epics of realism.

During the period of the Dust Bowl, when dust storms and drought deeply damaged the ecology of vast tracts of agricultural land in Oklahoma and Texas, many farmers, settlers and low-income sharecroppers were driven to migrate to California in search of work. About 2.5 million people left the Dust Bowl states, one of the largest migrations in US history.

Steinbeck’s story follows the misfortunes of the Joad family, poverty-stricken sharecroppers, who flee from the failed crops and eroded, dead soil of Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl. They head west in search of whatever will be left of the American Dream by the time they reach California. In their desperation, they have idealised California, clinging to the messages of pamphlets they’ve read advertising vacancies for pickers in the state.

I can never forget the scenes as the Joad family pack up their meagre belongings and begin their odyssey across America in their beat-up, hopelessly overloaded, Hudson pick-up. The truck is itself a work of art and made a huge contribution to the epic quality of Ford’s film: “The truck is a real wreck of a truck, the characters’ clothes are real rags that don’t seem to have been designed for the occasion, the landscapes aren’t ‘rear projections’.” (Bazin, A, André Bazin on Adaptation: Cinema’s Literary Imagination, p. 186)

The extended family take with them in their jalopy buckets, lanterns, pots, mattresses, chairs, battered suitcases, boxes, a quilt and some tools. The picture of the truck overloaded with a family’s earthly possessions and setting off for a faraway place on the slenderest of hopes is one of the greatest images of the Great Depression in cinema. It’s a vivid portrait of an America under extreme duress.

The gallery of characters on their journey is rich in humanity and in individuality. The acting is immensely authentic.

When the Joads get to their destination, it is far from being a mythical paradise. On the fruit plantations, labour is exploited, conditions are hard, bullies are in control of the work opportunities, and there are simply too many workers for too few jobs. Only in one well-run government camp do they find some dignity, respect and order. Otherwise, it’s a “dog eat dog”, survival-of-the-fittest, economic free-for-all.

Steinbeck had adopted a revolutionary socialist approach to overcoming the economic injustices of the time and Ford stayed true to the spirit of his radical novel. There are elements of Film Noir and Neo-Realism which have been grafted into the style of the film, but its overall tenor is what one could call epic realism.

The cinematography is wonderful – the greys in the dusty days give away at night to dark blacks and some chiaroscuro effects to emphasise the struggles and evil forces faced by the family in their trek across Route 66.

Ultimately, The Grapes of Wrath is a moving, humanist social drama: “We’ll go on forever, Pa,” proclaims Ma Joad at the end, “because we’re the people.”

In 1989, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the US National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

For André Bazin, though, it was simply John Ford’s greatest film.