“The Grapes of Wrath”

The best Motion picture that has ever been or ever will be made

“The Grapes of Wrath” (1940)

w-Nunally Johnson -from the novel by John Steinbeck

d- John Ford

the opening shotopening.jpg

In 1939, John Steinbeck published his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, and immediately, it stirred up enormous controversy because of its volatile subject matter. The book was banned throughout most of the Midwest and the central valley of California, and he was branded as a commie pinko by the right wing. Darryl Zanuck read the book and was electrified and immediately bought the film rights. The rest is cinematic history.


The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joad Family, a poor family of sharecroppers in 1930’s Oklahoma who, like thousands of others are forced off of their farms and into the road because of the great “dustbowl” drought of the 1930’s. But as Steinbeck illustrates, that was not the only reason for these people’s displacement. The banks and big agriculture used the drought as an opportunity to buy up huge parcels of land and bulldoze the small farmers off so that they could move in and build our modern corporate conglomerate super farms. ConAgra. That sort of thing.

Henry Fonda as Tom JoadHenry Fonda as Tom Joad

Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, who’s returning from a four year stint at Mcallester Prison where he was serving time for homicide. Four years earlier, he’d picked up a shovel and whacked a guys head “plum to squash” for sticking him with a knife in a fight at a dance. He was parolled after serving four years of his sentence.

On the road home, he runs into Jim Casey, the town preacher. Casey is homeless and wandering, having lost his faith and his flock.He no longer has anything to preach about, because he’s lost his faith in people and god, and he’s trying to find his way back, to find some meaning for his life. He throws in with Joad and they both make for the Joad farm. 

John Carradine as Jim Casey

John Carradine as Jim Casey

They come upon the Joad farm at dusk. It’s dust blown, dark and abandoned. They’re all dead or gone, Joad says, crestfallen.


Tom and Casey in the abandoned Joad cabin

In the empty house, they find Muley, one of their neighbors who’s gone feral and mad, living in the brush and abandoned houses of the countryside. Muley tells Tom that they’ve all gone and left. He explains (in flashback) how the Corporations and banks who held title to the farms have forced all of their friends and neighbors, including his own family, into the road. Muley remained behind, unable to leave the land his family had held since his ancestors, the pioneers who tamed the west, came there and built their farms.

Muley and his family watch in horror as their home is flattened by the “cat”-caterpillar tractor

After leaving Muley, they catch up to the Joads, who have been staying at their uncle John’s place. Since he also has been evicted, they are all preparing to leave and head west to California, where a handbill that’s been circulating around is advertising 800 jobs picking peaches in the San Joaquin Valley. They’ve scraped together $200.00 and bought an old truck and loaded it up with everything they own. Tom and Casey join them and Ma Joad, overjoyed at the unexpected reunion with her eldest son, is saddened still at the prospect of leaving her home for an uncertain future for her family. “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. “

Jane Darwell as Ma Joad

The family sets out From Sallisaw, Ok, and makes their way onto route 66 and heads west, past hostile roadhouses, gas stations and government agricultural checkpoints. Finally, after passing through the oppressive Arizona desert at night, they reach Needles, California. At Barstow, Grandma dies, disconsolate and depressed at the earlier loss of grandpa, who had a stroke just after the outset of the trip. The move from his home was too much for him.

Route 66 sequence

They reach Bakersfield, and are advised that the handbill that they’ve pinned their hopes on is in actuality a scam that has been sent out to lure as many itinerant migrants to the Central valley as possible. The more people that come, the lower the wage they have to pay, due to the glut of available slaves workers.

They are told to move immediately to one of the many “hoovervilles”- shanty towns that clustered around the cities at that time. There, they see first hand squalor and poverty unimagined to them. They (and we) see Dorothea Lange’s Depression conditions up close.

two views of the “hooverville” shantytown

An agent from one of the big Tulare County farms tries to con the men into coming out with him to pick peaches. When a suspicious migrant balks when no wage amount is promised, he’s branded an agitator and flees the goon cop who’s acting as an enforcer for the labor contractor. The goon cop shoots at him, hitting a woman bystander. In one of the most powerful and disturbing moments in the film, an elderly, bespectacled lady, cradling the bleeding woman in her arms,  looks beseechingly up at the cop.”This lady’s bleeding to death” she says. The cop looks impassively down at her and says “Yeah ..Boy, what a mess them .45’s make”

Pa Joad (Will Simpson) and Casey watch the shooting

Casey gives himself up as the culprit of the revolt so the cops won’t possibly question Tom and find him in violation of his parole. Casey is taken away in handcuffs and the Joads leave the Hooverville shantytown to escape the police harassment that is happening as a result of the shooting.

They are told on the road that there’s a ranch nearby in Pixley that needs pickers. They go there and are met by confusion as hundreds of people, for reasons unknown to them are in a near riot outside the ranch gates. They are escorted by cops with clubs through the mob and when they ask what’s going on, are told brusqely to mind their business and not ask questions. After being assigned a ratty little piss tank of a cabin to live in, they hit the fields to pick peaches.

Later, Tom, who’s been trying to find out what the commotion at the gate was, decides to look around and get some answers. He soon is made to realize that they are virtual prisoners in the camp and is told by the capo to go back to his cabin and shut up or he’ll be whacked.

He escapes in the darkness and comes upon a campsite of refugee workers. These workers, the same folks rioting at the gate, are striking the ranch because their wages have been cut back. They now don’t make enough to survive on. Joad then discovers Casey there with them. Casey,who was released by the cops, is the man who’s been organising them to strike. He’s found his true self and calling amongst the unrepresented, disenfranchised migrants and has dedicated himself to helping them and theirs in fighting for a fairer, better life for themselves. For the first time in years, he is truly happy, and in his element. He’s found his call.

They are found by the cops and Casey, pleading with the cops not to cut their wages and starve the children, is quickly overpowered and brained to death. Tom witnesses this and in a blind rage grabs the club from the cop and cracks his head wide open. Again, “plum to squash.”

An injured Tom flees back to the cabin and the family flees once again, this time with cops after Tom, who has indeed killed the cop.

They head north on the 99 and find the Shafter/Arvin Government worker’s camp. This place is a comparable paradise where the migrants live in decent, clean campsites and make their own rules and govern themselves. Run by a man named Tom Collins (may he rest in evelasting peace), they are allowed the dignity they deserve.

Grant Mitchell as Tom Collins. The real Collins was a consultant on the picture.

Eventually, the authorities have caught up and are closing in to where Tom is hiding, and he must go on alone. A distraught Ma volunteers to hide him, but Tom will hear none of it. He must move on alone and risk their entanglement with him no longer.

But Tommy, how will I know if you’re alive or dead? How will I find you? How will I know?” 

TOM JOAD:Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…
Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?
Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.
Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.
Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

In the end, after Tom has gone, the family once again is moving on. Pa has heard of an offer of a month’s work up in Fresno, so they set off. The final scene is in the truck, as Ma and Pa are reflecting on all the hardships they’ve been through and Pa admits he cant go on much more.

Well, Pa, a woman can change better’n a man. A man lives sorta – well, in jerks. Baby’s born or somebody dies, and that’s a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that’s a jerk. With a woman, it’s all in one flow, like a stream – little eddies and waterfalls – but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way.

[last lines]
Ma Joad: Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.

(thanks, IMDB!)


Wow ,this film touched me on so many levels. I saw it for the first time just this last December 23rd (2006), the morning before heading up the I-5 home for Christmas. I’d bought it several days earlier while xmas shopping. It was a $9 dvd, so I thought ‘what the hell’.

Not since Atticus Finch have movie characters moved and inspired me so deeply as both Tom Joad and Jim Casey did. These are true heroes to me. Ma Joad, too. They were beautifully simple and true and stood for what they loved and believed in. This picture gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

I do not see this as a relic of the past to be viewed as ancient and done history. With the current controversy and hatred towards hispanic migrant workers, it’s still happening. The Arvin camp is still there, still in use. In fact, the buildings used in “The Grapes of Wrath” are still there.

 True, the “okies” were U.S. citizens, but they were treated just as harshly as today’s illegal immigrants are. The movie underplayed what happened to many who tried to pass the Arizona/California border at Needles. They were beaten and jailed, many of them. The starvation rate of migrant workers was so severe that hundreds died in boxcars and tents all along the I-99 corridor in the central valley. There must be many, many unmarked shallow graves there still.

Darryl Zanuck, the 20th Century -Fox producer, had a hard time getting this film to the screen. there were many, many protests, mostly from the right wing. They saw this as a subversive film. Well of course it was! Anything that challenges the unjust status quo is and was subversive, and damn good for it.

They saw it as a communist propaganda piece and I must admit that after it was over, I said to myself ‘holy crap! A major movie company made a blatanly pro socialism movie in 1940!’ Which it was in a way, but the Arvin camp, and (too few)  others like it were works of Roosevelt’s new deal. They were run by the U.S. Dept of agriculture. So in portraying those camps, you could hardly make a reasonable arguement that the filmmakers were pushing communism. But whoever said that right wing noisemakers were ever reasonable?


Irony on the I-99 ~ a 1940 photo of a billboard advertising the movie in the very same place the story happened. Note the migrant tents in the background.

John Ford directed this film with great care and precision.  All of the elements – acting, directing, photography, editing and score came together as few films in  history ever have.

In the early 1950’s, “Citizen Kane” came to be considered as the greatest American film ever made, due in large part to it’s revival on the student film circuit. Prior to that, “The Grapes of Wrath” held that position. Both films were produced roughly within the same 2 year time period, with Kane being produced at R.K.O.  in 1941. Both films were also photographed by the great Gregg Toland. His groundbreaking, brilliant work contributes immensely to the greatness of both films. Look at the pictures in this posting and see his compositional genius.

The score, which is very, very sparse, themes “Red River Valley” throughout. However, 98 percent of the film has absol;utely no dramatic underscoring, which lends greatly to the realism of the piece. Ford used a single mournful accordion. On all of his pictures while shooting, he always used the same accordionist on set to create the mood between takes. One guesses that it was during those times, while playing “Red River Valley’ that Ford got the idea to use it in the film. No existing record proves that, however.

In terms of realism, this film was 50 years ahead of it’s time. It pulled no punches in portraying the reality of the horror. In fact, Steinbeck himself praised the film highly and said that Hank Fonda brought more life to Tom Joad than even his book did. Years later, in 1961, Steinbeck wrote to Fonda and said that he’d just recently seen Wrath again, courtesy of a bootleg 16mm print, and told him he was still deeply moved and impressed all those years later.

I plan to follow the journey of the Joads this summer. I’m going to take my camera and visit those camp locations in the Central Valley and on the 99 and see if I can’t find some relics of the okies myself. I and my group of buds at the eagle go camping out there on the King River every summer, and I’ve passed those places many, many times without realising their cultural, historic significance.

Indeed, the famous Dorothea Lange photos were taken right there.

13 responses to ““The Grapes of Wrath”

  1. This was a great review on the movie “grapes of wrath” Very detailed. Thanks!

  2. Great review and a lot of really interesting information, particularly the actual sites where different parts of the movie were supposed to have happened in California’s Central Valley. I’d love to see a follow-up with pictures you took of the actual places as they look today. Apparently the Weed(=Wheat)patch Camp still survives.

  3. Very good review. It struck me mostly the same way. I had the good fortune to show it to a class of ninth graders. I loved the discussion that followed! my favorite scene is when they are in the first camp and a man is returning from California alone. He tells it like it is, or was. His wife dead, his children dead, he alone survived. That the best scene in the a really first class movie. More spiritual then any movie that I have ever seen.

  4. Pingback: john-carradine1 | Images Archive

  5. mrstudballsteinworthington

    ah john carradine, back when he was a fresh baby faced, strapper! now that’s my man john.. he worked til he was dust and then some.

    ah, you can’t get things like this, like we used to.. not that i’m saying we don’t have the actors.. but i guess i’m being bigoted.

  6. Stumbled across this site while I was searching John Carradine pics. My reason was that I loved him in “Grapes of Wrath”. In fact, I loved everyone in and everything about this movie. It is, for me, the most special movie of all time. I have never been moved in such a way. Thank you for the tribute 🙂

  7. thank you for the grate reviews on the grapes of wrath. It helped me better understand the movie I had just watched for the first time. what’s even funnier is that how in the movie and book it talks about (weedpatch) wheat patch I use to live on that street in bakersfield and its has alot of history i never knew about its so amazing how one could grow up in bakersfield,ca and never know the history of there once little town. well thank you for your tribute to my town I live in.

  8. Hey… there was not “spoiler alert!” 😉

    Great review. Makes me want to watch it again.

  9. Where did u pick up the recommendations to create ““The Grapes
    of Wrath | BEAR, SCHMEAR!”? I appreciate it -Emmett

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  11. Hank Fonda haha

  12. Pixley is north of Bakersfield. Might want to correct that as they went south to Arvin then later north again to Fresno. Good article, miss my central valley.

  13. Pingback: Top 100 Movie Review: #21 – The Grapes of Wrath (1940) – The Top 100 Reviews

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