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USA 1940
Directed by
John Ford
129 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Grapes Of Wrath

John Ford’s rendition of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the migration of Oklahoma sharecroppers' to California during the dark days of the Great Depression is one of his finest works. Marvellously lensed by Gregg Toland with a fine screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and excellent performance by all the cast (Jane Darwell won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her Ma Joad  and Henry Fonda was nominated for Best Actor for his Tom Joad but lost to Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story) it deservedly won Ford a Best Director Oscar although less justly, it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Hitchcock's Rebecca.

Fonda plays the hot-tempered Tom Joad, just released from prison for manslaughter who returns to his family’s Oklahoma farm only to find that they are being driven from their land. They set off to California but when they get there find they are little more than slave labour. Tom once again gets himself into trouble, fighting the bosses and has to light out but not before the family fortunes begin to turn.

Aside from the superb technical realization what makes the film so remarkable, particularly for Hollywood, is the trenchant plea for the dignity of labour and the rights of the working-man. The early scene of the tractors crushing the sharecropper’s shack suggests that Ford was familiar with the films of Eisenstein whilst towards the end Tom, about to flee the law and farewelling his poor mother, delivers an electrifying speech: "I'll be all around...Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat...Whenever there's a cop beating a guy, I'll be there...And when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build. I'll be there too."

If the film goes wrong at all it is in proceeding past this point, jettisoning Steinbeck’s bleak ending, which has Tom's sister Roseaharn giving birth to a stillborn child and offering her mother's milk to a famished man, and putting tub-thumping “we are the people” rhetoric into the mouth of Ma Joad. Nothwithstanding, The Grapes of Wrath is an unjustly-neglected American classic.




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