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The Grapes of Wrath (1940) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

tom camp john joad

Principal social theme: homelessness/poverty

Twentieth Century Fox. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O. Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Sully, Frank Darien, Darryl Hickman, Shirley Mills, Roger Imhof, Grant Mitchell, Charles D. Brown, John Arledge, Ward Bond, Harry Tyler, Charles Tannen, Selmer Jackson, Charles Middleton, Mae Marsh, Frank Faylen, Eddy Waller, Robert Homans, Trevor Bardette, Walter Miller, Max Wagner, Tom Tyler, Irving Bacon, Paul Guilfoyle, Hollis Jewell, Kitty McHugh, William Pawley; Written by Nunnally Johnson based on the novel by John Steinbeck. Cinematography by Gregg Toland. Edited by Robert Simpson. Music by Alfred Newman. Produced by Nunnally Johnson and Darryl F. Zanuck (executive). Directed by John Ford. B&W. 129 minutes.


One of the most acclaimed pictures of all time, The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the plight of Oklahoma tenant farmers who were driven out of their homes during the Great Depression and migrated with their families to California, only to find work scarce and most farmworkers exploited. Based on John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath was the highest grossing feature of 1940. John Ford won the Academy Award as Best Director for his work on this film.


The film opens as Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), recently paroled from prison, is traveling home to his family’s farm. He tells a truck driver who gives him a lift that he killed a man in a fight. Hiking along the road he comes across Jim Casy (John Carradine), a former preacher who “lost the callin’.” He joins Tom on his journey home, but they encounter a dust storm and find the homestead abandoned. Neighbor Muley Graves passes by, explaining that the company that owned the land has displaced all the sharecroppers. The drought has rendered the traditional method of tenant farming obsolete, and the company now uses tractors and large-scale irrigation to operate the farms. Tom’s family is at his uncle’s house, and they all are planning to drive to California, inspired by brochures offering work picking fruit. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) is overjoyed to see her son, happy that his four years in prison did not embitter him. Tom joins his parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle, and his brothers and sisters in the overloaded truck. His pregnant sister, Rosasharn, and her husband also join the throng. They even invite Casy to come along as well. The trek proves to be a real nightmare, considering the age of the truck, their frequent flats, and meager funds to pay for food and gas. Grandpa Joad dies, and they bury him along the side of the road with a note explaining that he died of natural causes in case his body is ever dug up. Several days later, as they reach the California border, Grandma Joad dies as well. When they reach Barstow, they are told that all the jobs have been taken, and they are directed to stay at a squatter’s camp. Poor as they are, Ma offers to share some of her stew with the starving kids in camp who watch her while she cooks. Rosasharn’s husband, disgusted with conditions, abandons her and runs off. Deeply depressed, Rosasharn gives birth several days later.

A man passes through camp offering work, but one of the campers says that they trick you with the price they pay, cutting their rate in half when the growers settle up. Tom protests when they try to arrest the man who had spoken up. He runs away, and a deputy fires a shot, missing the man but hitting an innocent woman bystander. Tom tackles the deputy and runs off as well. When the deputy comes to, Casy takes the blame for the entire incident, and he willingly leaves in the custody of the lawmen. Tom returns after hearing a warning that the townspeople are planning to burn out the camp that evening. They drive off, and wander about for some time, eventually hearing of a ranch that is offering five cents a bucket for unbruised pickings. The place, however, is run like a military camp, with armed guards and a tent city of workers outside the gate. Eventually Tom sneaks out to visit these workers and learns they were displaced after complaining when their wagers were arbitrarily cut in half. Casy is now with these workers, and he urges Tom to join them. Their tent is raided by guards, searching for Casy whom they believe is an agitator. After escaping under a bridge, they are spotted. One guard strikes Casy with a pick handle, killing him. Tom responds by killing the attacker. He escapes after being scarred on his left cheek. The next day the camp is searched for a man with a scar, and Ma Joad hides her son. The family leaves the camp in the night, saying they have another job offer. They are searched, but Tom is well hidden in the truck. They run out of gas the next day in front of a different migrant camp, this one operated by the Department of Agriculture. They are offered a decent campsite and shelter for one dollar a week, which they can work off with chores if they are short of cash. There is also occasional work offered by nearby farms. Tom is surprised by the respectable living conditions. The camp has a weekly dance, and some agitators plan to cause a disturbance so the local lawmen can legally raid the camp without a warrant. The campers learn of the plan and remove the agitators before trouble can start. Tom learns that the local authorities are planning to get a warrant to enter the camp and arrest him as the scarred man wanted for murder. He says goodbye to his ma, saying he will be out in the world fighting for poor people who are oppressed. A few days later, the Joad family leave the camp undaunted, hearing of a decent four-week job offer in the northern part of the state.


The Grapes of Wrath had been a sensation in its day, although the script had to filter out most of the vulgar language as well as some of the earthy situations from Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of social consciousness. The film’s visual impact has remained undiminished for the past sixty-five years, although the dialogue sounds far too broad with overtones of the original Li’l Abner , filmed the same year. No film ever conveyed the tragic circumstance of homelessness or poverty better than The Grapes of Wrath . Some of the visual images, such as the tractor that topples Muley’s farmhouse or the faces of the hungry children in the migrant camp, are indelible for anyone who has seen the film. The closeups of the many faces in the film are similarly unforgettable, conveying the loss of people who have spent their entire lives on one farm only to have it snatched away from them. The Joad family, for example, struggle through one loss after another with stoic dignity, yet their characters are permanently wounded by their ordeal. Muley, for example, asks his friends if he seems “tetched” to them, and Casy (who is a bit “tetched” himself) replies that he does not. The scars on their personalities, however, are plainer than the scar on Tom’s face, which marks him as the killer of the brutal deputy.

There is abundant imagery in the film. John Carradine’s preacher is a Christ-like figure, sharing the same initials in addition to his spirit of self-sacrifice and helpfulness. Tom appears to carry on inspired by Casy’s example, as best reflected in his famous farewell speech to his mother, with its pantheistic fervor and social concerns. The twin themes of homelessness and poverty naturally lead to a consideration of the results of these problems. The Grapes of Wrath provides ample area for discussion on this topic. One charge leveled against The Grapes of Wrath is that it is socialist in spirit. Other reviewers reflected, however, that these people are too concerned with day-today survival to consider politics. At one point, Tom exclaims, “Reds, what are these Reds anyway?” Are these displaced workers to be considered the breeding ground for social radicals, or are they simply individuals who just want to get along. The government camp, for example, seems like paradise compared to the other migrant camps, either filthy or run like a prison. What is the message behind this comparison? Finally, The Grapes of Wrath has often appeared on noteworthy lists of the greatest films ever made. To what extent is this due to its handling of the social issues that permeate the film? Why have other social issue films lacked the enduring impact of John Ford’s masterpiece?

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almost 7 years ago

about the charecter Ma joad in graps of wrath