Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath

By M. Enois Duarte - High-Def Digest

John Ford's 'The Grapes of Wrath' is more than just your standard rites-of-passage viewing for burgeoning movie-buffs. It exists beyond any semblance or notion of a timeless classic because its name and the images from this most excellent motion picture have ingrained themselves into our cultural collective consciousness. The film is best watched as something to be experienced, one which successfully captures a particular moment in time with genuine honesty and concern. The Darryl F. Zanuck production of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is an enduring masterpiece of American cinema, permanently etched into history because it forever carries the immense weight and emotion of the period it so brazenly and accurately depicts.

Even before Zanuck optioned its adaptation rights, Steinbeck's novel about a disenfranchised family making the arduous journey from Oklahoma to California had already garnered a great deal of controversy. Rumors and talks of it being made into a movie only added fuel to the fire, even catching the attention of government officials like J. Edgar Hoover for a short while. Many, including the book's publisher, feared the plot could be perceived as "red-baiting" or generating sympathies for socialist left-wing causes.

Told from the point of view of families competing for strenuous, low-paying labor in order to survive, it's easy to imagine their apprehension over how audiences would react. As Roger Ebert has pointed out in his "Great Movies" review, the fact the movie was ever made is also ironic because both Zanuck and Ford came from staunch conservative backgrounds.

No matter the changes or difference between the novel and its adaptation, Ford's 'Grapes of Wrath' stays true to Steinbeck's telling of a family's epic struggle to remain intact and endure at a time of terrible socio-economic crisis. Because of its frighteningly uncanny parallels to our current financial situation, the tale becomes a universal one which any working-class family can relate to. The chase for the ever-elusive American dream is tragically hindered by those with the wealth and ownership of the things people need in order to live. One of the film's most powerful and touching scenes comes from Muley's flashback of farmers forced off their land by the banks. The story's message of social justice is unmistakable, a major focal point of the narrative that rings just as true as ever.

Tom Joad, played to absolute perfection and a persuasive earnestness by Henry Fonda, is our perennial hero. Or better yet, he's an accidental anti-hero, a man desiring simply to do good for his family but slowly discovering the real fight to be against an uncompassionate system effecting more than his immediate circle. Recently paroled, Tom's criminality and position as social outcast, along with ex-preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), provides him with the freedom to expose the faults, inequities and weaknesses of modern civilization — a common element in some of the best works of fiction. It is mostly through his eyes — the eyes of a convicted murderer and lawbreaker — that the audience comes to also realize the unfairness of society and of those with power. And Fonda does a phenomenal job in having us see beyond the character's past and identify with the good man he is.

The movie also contains other amazing performances within the Joad family, a name which alludes to the Biblical Job — their will and drive to persist in light of their situation continuously tested by uncontrolled, outside forces. Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar that year for her role as Ma Joad, is one such example that is as memorable as it is inspiring.

Aside from the performances and story are the technical details of the production and Ford's expert eye, directing this wonderful motion picture with the strokes of artistic genius. With gorgeous cinematography by Gregg Toland, the film captures the era and ordeals of working-class families with somber, striking realism, employing elements of the noir genre to express the anxieties and fears of the people who miserably lived it.

'The Grapes of Wrath' is a marvelous masterpiece of American cinema that should be more than merely watched for its historical value and importance. It is a piece of art that is experienced for beautifully capturing and expressing a particular period in history, drawing viewers' sympathies to its epic tale of survival, conveying the human spirit's will to endure in spite of the outside forces wishing to crush it. It is a film that struck a chord with audiences when it first premiered and it lives on as a poignant story.


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