Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox Studio Classics DVD
If there were such a thing as American Expressionist film John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath would have to be a classic of the genre. With the stark lighting effects of cinematographer Gregg Toland, the ruined landscapes and the decrepit interiors, the haunted melodies of American folk tunes, the spectres of death and loss that loom at every turn of the story, and the heavy air of pure sadness and anger that permeates the film, there is no other film that captures the abject desperation of the 1930s quite like this one. Much like the Dust Bowl experience itself, the film is almost unrelentingly grim from beginning to end. The drought ended after long years of hardship when rains fell in the fall of 1939, most likely just as Ford’s film was beginning production. The film, however, promises no happy ending.
While The Grapes of Wrath has at its heart some very radical, almost revolutionary notions, and at times seems to teeter on the edge of becoming New Deal propaganda, it is not a stridently political film. There seems to be no true, single villain other than the drought itself, even though every person is thrust into direct competition with his neighbor for survival. Even our hero, Tom Joad, is a man who, by the end of the film, has killed two men and might kill more.
Darryl Zanuck, the legendary Fox studio mogul, produced several films that draped politically forward ideas in narratives which even the thickest moviegoer could swallow. Many of those films seem hopelessly naïve now, but The Grapes of Wrath, whether in novel or movie form, remains a shockingly potent work of social criticism to this day.