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The Grapes Of Wrath  

The director John Ford is best known for his Westerns – films such as The Searchers, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and My Darling Clementine – but he has also directed other films, which have garnered him four directing Oscars. The Grapes of Wrath, from 1940, is one of these films, starring Henry Fonda.

The film, based on John Steinbeck`s novel, takes place in the middle of the Great Depression, and the direction successfully captures the bleakness and the despair that many people and families went through, without a livelihood, or, sometimes, enough food. Ford dispels of melodramatic score music, love stories, or generically "exciting" scenes, and just gives us the misery. The film begins when Fonda returns home after four years in jail for manslaughter. He expects to return to work at the family farm, but instead finds a run-down house with nobody in it, and he almost wonders if everybody is dead. But, in truth, the family has been, like many others, kicked off their land, because they can no longer afford to pay the rent, due to years of bad returns from crops. After Fonda returns to his family, they begin on a long, painful trip to California, with hopes of finding work. Along the way, however, hardships, deceit, death, and violence affect them.

As a history lesson, this film is quite informative. The passions of people who despreatly need money and food for themselves is graphically portrayed, most effectively in an early flashback scene when a neighbour tells of the destruction of his farm, by company bulldozers. He naturally and vainly attempts to protect, one last time, his belongings, and is shocked to discover that one of the bulldozer riders is a son of another farmer. Like the man who attempts to defend his farm, the bulldozer rider also defends his own livelihood and family by taking this job, even if it happens to negatively affect a neighbour. We also learn of the people who easily take advantage of naive, poor families, by promising them hopes of high-paying work, only to give out very limited work, with horrible pay.

Fonda is the star of this film, but he is far from its sole focus. There is a large cast of fairly unknown (to me) actors, and each one has one`s own quirks and eccentricities. Perhaps they are a bit too quirky, actually. Much of the quirkiness exists not so much by the character`s actions, but by the way they speak. Every person in this film speaks in a deliberately colloquial manner, with fractured syntax and the like. The language is almost too perfect in its imperfection. But the movie should not be faulted too much for this, since we did not live when this film was made, when such dialogue was Hollywood`s newfound attempt to depict the common man. The story does not, ultimately, mock or deride the everyday folk, but praises their resourcefulness, and their strength of survival. In a sense, this is a socialist film, with its harsh critique of greedy, capitalist buisnessmen, and the positive outlook on government social relief. And its view of religion is also facinating in the character of Casey, a preacher who no longer has the heart to preach, now that he understands that the world is not as black-and-white as the Bible would have him believe. He discovers that there is more than even he thinks there is. Overall, this is a great film, which proves that even Hollywood films from bygone days can also transcend the fashionable and hip, and become art.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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