The Grapes Of Wrath (1940): The Enduring Power Of Family

by Paul Batters

‘Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there’. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda)

One of the greatest challenges for any film-maker is to successfully transfer the textual integrity of a great novel onto the screen. Many a book has been butchered and found itself at the mercy of the profit margin and not the integrity of the author’s original intent. Thankfully there are also many films which have not suffered this fate. Whilst some changes have occurred in the name of the cinematic process, those said films still hold true to the key themes of the original text.

Perhaps one of the greatest American writers, John Steinbeck has the incredible ability to channel the experiences of his characters and his American classic The Grapes Of Wrath certainly captures the harrowing and heart-breaking experiences of the ‘Oakies’ and their journey to California, as they are forced to leave their homes and farms in the Dust Bowl. Not only is the book an American classic but so too in cinema is the film, directed by the great John Ford. 

“The Grapes of Wrath” a 1940 drama film starring Henry Fonda. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

The Grapes Of Wrath was released in 1940 , starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a newly released convict returning to his family home but finding that all is not the same. The degraded land has left the local people in abject poverty but also rendered them homeless, as banks in far-away cities are seizing back the land. Forced to leave, the Joad family make the difficult decision to go to California, where they believe they will find work and be able to start again. They will instead find misery and second-class citizenship, as they have to deal with being mistreated, exploited and face their dispossession.

Whilst a number of powerful message are clear in the film, this essay will discuss the focal themes of family and the importance of home. 

Tom Joad is a strong-willed individual, returning home from prison after serving time for manslaughter. His strength of character and the depth of his convictions is an important part of the foundation of the family’s unity but Tom will also find those traits stretched to their limits as he holds things together. As he walks back home, meeting up with former preacher Casy (John Carradine), the howling wind picks up along with the dark, gathering clouds as an ominous sign of the harsh reality. Tom finds his home dark and abandoned but for his near-mad neighbour Muley Graves (John Qualen) in the shadows. As Muley describes what has been happening in a flashback sequence, it becomes clear that the concept of home is no mere abstract idea but a firm and central necessity to life itself. Muley’s whole life and family are torn apart by the cold, impersonal and hard financial decisions made miles away in a bank boardroom. What is also clear is that banks and big business place no value on the homes and families of the people on the land, with only what can be bought and sold being considered of any worth. The scene where the ‘cat’ (Caterpillar tractor) ploughs through Muley’s house and continues on its’ way, speaks volumes about this cold indifference and brutal business approach to the homes and families of the farmers. In the space of a few moments, Muley loses everything and he is powerless to do anything. Indeed, the young man driving the ‘cat’ is a local who declares that he has to worry about his hungry family and not the problems of others. The desperation of people torn by their plight is a sad, tragic and reality which sees the fabric of the community not only torn but destroyed.

Tom’s family have moved to his Uncle John’s nearby and in a sense he does return home when he sees his Ma (Jane Darwell) and his face lights up with a smile. Her care-worn face also shines with happiness, as she goes out to see him, interestingly shaking his hand which reflects that whilst she is restrained and reserved, it does not mean that there is a deep love for her son. She is concerned that prison has ‘made him mean’ but Tom denies this, after which he is greeted by the rest of the family. Yet the happy welcome home is blunted by the harsh reality that they need to go. California is the destination but senile and stubborn Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) refuses and rants that he is going to stay. Grandpa’s declaration echoes the hopeless, forlorn and fruitless pronouncements made by countless men before him. Like Muley, Grandpa is powerless, even when he grabs at the soil that he has farmed and declares he is a part of it. It will take getting him drunk so that he falls asleep to get him onto their packed truck so that the Joads can leave.

The poignancy and bittersweet tragedy of the meaning of home and family is beautifully conveyed through the sensitive and powerful performance of Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, holding the family together. Watch as she sits quietly by a small fire, going through her memories and remembering the joys and pains that the family had gone through together over the years in the home they had made. Small trinkets and newspaper clippings pass through her fingers until she comes to a pair of earrings which she holds up to her ears, as she looks in a faded mirror. The young woman who once wore them is long gone, and she looks at a face old before its time from the hard toil of working the land and raising a family. No words are uttered but the mis en scene of the small lit fire, throwing light onto the news papered walls of the poor cabin suggest the difficulty and poverty of the family’s life. It is a powerful scene and one which cannot help but illicit powerful emotion from the audience. Despite their poverty, the family has remained strong as a unit because they have each other, as well as the land they were born, lived and died on.

As they leave, again Ma Joad further channels the pain of losing home yet refusing to look back. Defiant in her gaze to the future, she pushes down the angst of what has happened to her family. Yet it is also her own personal pain which she expresses in one of the film’s most powerful scenes:

Al Joad : Ain’t you gonna look back, Ma? Give the ol’ place a last look?
Ma Joad : We’re going’ to California, ain’t we? All right then let’s go to California.
Al Joad : That don’t sound like you, Ma. You never was like that before.
Ma Joad : I never had my house pushed over before. Never had my family stuck out on the road. Never had to lose everything I had in life.

Their journey to California is fraught with challenges. The Joad family face not only the severest financial struggles in getting there but the death of beloved family members, Grandpa and Grandma. True, their age means that the journey is too much for them and too great a burden for them to bear. Yet there is the sense that their being dispossessed from their home and land has taken away the essence of their being. The further away from home they travel, the more life ebbs away from the old-timers who have known nothing else except the land they have toiled and raised families on.

Yet for the younger members of the Joad family, there is still an element of hope. They believe in the possibilities that lay ahead and this drives them on to their goal. Ma counts on her son Tom for guidance and whilst he does what he can to stay positive, he is perhaps understands best what is unfolding before them. This certainly rings true when they come across a fellow Oakie, who tearfully and manically recounts the tragedy of his own journey and what has happened to his family. 

The harsh reality hits home for the Joads when they arrive in California and get ‘work’ fruit-picking at the Keene Ranch. The poor wages is met with abhorrent treatment by the bosses and the surrounding desperation and inhumanity of thousands like the Joads, whose dreams are dashed on the poverty of reality. Their sense of powerlessness is underpinned by having lost everything and the family is pushed to its’ limits. Rose O’Sharon is left pregnant and alone by her no-good husband and Tom wonders how the family will be kept together. The Joads become the allegory for the many families who have made the desperate trip to find poverty, exploitation and terrible ill-treatment. The Joads are the humanised face of the desperate and grim reality of the countless and faceless many whose journey finished in such misery, with hope dashed on the rocks of that grim reality. California is no land of milk and honey for them. 

It is within these sensibilities that The Grapes Of Wrath is  particularly powerful; via its political analysis of that very situation. But it is through Casy the Preacher that the audience discovers this. His political awakening and sense of social responsibility to his fellow human rings strong when he says ‘something’s going on out here. Casy speaks of the ‘human family’ and he knows that there is a price to pay for fighting for what is right and just. For Casy, he finds not only his place in the world but his purpose, and it is through that purpose that he comes alive again.

The Joads will find some solace at the Department Of Agriculture-run Farmworker’s camp where they are treated decently and where everything is done above board. But it is only a small haven inside a far greater problem. Tom knows this and like Casy before him understands the concept of all people being brothers and sisters; all part of one human family. Sadly, whilst the Joads survive their ordeal, others do not. Others are broken, left bereft of hope and unable to manage the severe trauma of land dispossession, family break-up and the loss of their homes. There is no happy end for the Muleys, the near-mad Oakie returning home with despair and a dead child nor many of the others unable to escape the stark and grim reality of their broken dreams.

To suggest that Tom is ‘radicalised’ or ‘politicised’ is missing the point. The issues of social justice, equal rights for all and the right to work and fair pay should not be seen as a political football to score points with. Tom understands what Casy had been talking about; that each human is ‘just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody’. Indeed, Tom, like Casy, recognises that all are members of the same great human family; a concept not steeped in sentimentality. Tom is not even completely sure at the end of the film on what he needs to do. However, he knows that there is work to do. His final moments on the screen speak strong to the fire kindled within:

Ma Joad also finds strength after the family’s ordeal and declares that she will never ‘be scared no more’. Her simple yet powerful way of speaking articulates the strength of not only her family but ‘the people’. They have endured incredible hardships but ‘they can’t wipe us out’. There is a deep authenticity in her words and the experiences of the Joads, which gives the film its agency. Ultimately, the survival of the Joads in the face of losing everything is triumph enough.

The film has that feel of being a ‘left-wing parable’ as Roger Ebert described it and yet it endures for its’ universal story of a family enduring very real historical events and experiences. The context of the Depression and 1940 being one of the 20th Century’s most tumultuous and desperate may be missing in action for today’s audience. Yet many of the harsh motifs of cold, cruel and uncaring banks of 1930s Depression America are not exactly foreign to the audiences of today. Nor are the terrible injustices and chasms of division or political, social and economic realities of crisis merely distant memories of history. They are all too real and current in this very day and age, without this reviewer needing to point them out. Families have suffered and continue to. They struggle with the realities of today and this is the tragedy of The Grapes Of Wrath for a current audience. 

But perhaps, like the Joads, our endurance is our victory and the belief that we are all ‘the people’ part of ‘one big soul that belongs to everybody’. The Grapes Of Wrath remains a powerful cinematic masterpiece. It’s profundity lies in the simplicity of the language and the character’s discovery of deeper consciousness through their experience. It’s crafted with the stark and brilliant photography of Gregg Toland, the outstanding performances of Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and John Carradine, and of course the sharpened vision of John Ford. Ultimately, The Grapes Of Wrath is a film that also endures and its’ victory is in its’ authentic message to us all.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

12 thoughts on “The Grapes Of Wrath (1940): The Enduring Power Of Family

  1. As I am a huge fan of John Steinbeck’s writing, I read your excellent review with great interest. I am in total agreement with your observation – “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of those rare screen adaptations that does total justice to the original literary source. Of course the film is not presented exactly as Steinbeck wrote the novel – an impossibility due to time and temporal censorship constraints – but it captures in a faithful manner the important and telling scenes of Steinbeck’s work. I have also read that the film makes a political statement, as your review mentions, and I suppose that such a perspective is legitimate, but to me “The Grapes of Wrath” will always remain a testament to the strength of the human spirit. (Some years ago, I saw a stage adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath”. While the production was quite well done, I would hear in my head Henry Fonda’s and Jane Darwell’s voice every time the actors playing Tom and Ma spoke.)

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    1. Likewise I’m a great fan of Steinbeck and he’s probably my favourite American writer. Grapes Of Wrath, for me, has grown in its power and with the way of the world at the moment, it proves that in spades. I can imagine the difficulties in bringing moments from the book onto the screen; particularly Rose A’Sharon breast-feeding the sick hobo. But yes, overall it holds textual integrity and does not fail in delivering the depth of what Steinbeck intended.

      I meant to add in the article that I think Tom’s politicising is one enforced on him by the injustice of the world around him. He didn’t seek it out and perhaps that’s what makes it truly a story of justice and the need to fight injustice. But likewise more than anything it is the endurance of the human spirit, in this case through a family. Would LOVE to see a stage version of it and I think I too would be hearing the voices of Fonda and Darwell!)

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  2. A beautiful article on the many truths in Steinbeck’s classic story. I don’t think any other director but Ford could have brought the Joads so sensitively and so real to the screen. I had the opportunity to see The Grapes of Wrath (so far) only once on the big screen. It was a very emotional experience and we might have walked out of the theatre crying if my sister hadn’t turned to me and said “Gregg Toland, what a show off.” Indeed.

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    1. Thank you so much Patricia. Ford’s genius is so evident in The Grapes Of Wrath and his often gruff exterior belies that sensitivity you speak of. I am very envious of your big screen experience. Your sister’s comment does reveal that Toland was a magician with the camera.

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  3. Hi Paul! You provide a very eloquent analysis of a beautiful, moving film. I was struck by how many comments on your post mention Gregg Toland’s wonderful cinematography. Your screenshots and clips are a reminder of how a true genius like Toland can capture, in an unsparing and authentic way, the spirit of the characters and the bleakness of their situation, and compel you to watch.

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    1. Thank you so much Brian. I agree with your comments on Toland – such a amazing body of work, with an uncanny ability to find the emotive content of the characters and transfer it to the audience through the camera. Such a master of the art!

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  4. Agreed – this is a thoughtful, moving adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel. I like how your review focused on the Joad family and the concept of Home, two of the many themes in the book. Thanks for sharing your analysis of this beautiful, haunting film.

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    1. Thank you so much! I was writing it for another Blogathon actually which focused on family and home but was overwhelmed with work and finished it very late. But yes they are central themes in the book, of course two of many themes. It is such a powerful book and so many depths to analyse. Steinbeck is perhaps my favourite American author. Thanks so much for your kind comments!

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  5. Such a thoughtful, beautifully written review. I liked the film when I first saw it, but felt it didn’t do full justice to the book. As time has passed since I’ve watched or read the story, I’ve come to see it quite differently–this film really captures the spirit of the book, and your examples demonstrate why.

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