This film is part of my small John Ford Marathon. Feel free to continue along with.
When one discusses the topic of the great depression as it’s depicted in film this is one of the films most mentioned with unequivocal praise. I’m not quite sure if it actually deserves it.
The film follows the Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and his family as they leave their land that they’ve farmed for how many generations after the land has been taken up by the big corporation. Heading west to California for work promised and a land of milk and honey they discover that things aren’t always as easy as connecting the dots of A to B.
What this film does right is simple. The depiction of the time is clear. There is never a question of the dread that exists for everyone as they pick up to go to California. While we hear the optimism in their voices as they talk of how California will be this great place we can see as they get closer and running lower on travel funds the desperation to make it to their destination wears heavy. Along the way we even see the Joads lose a few members of family in transit.
When it comes to creating a faceless villain John Ford does well in this film. One of the early moments in this film that had me was when Tom was back home only to find a dilapidated home and farm and a Muley (John Qualen) hiding from the men who manage the land. There Muley tells Tom, who’s been in jail for the last four years, what’s happened and we’re presented with the fearful truth of how the big business took over the land and these good people had no way of fighting back. They can point their guns and hatred to employees that they come in direct contact who are doing the running off and demolishing of farms and homes, but as the employee said, “there’ll just be another one who’ll do it for cheaper tomorrow,” and that faceless enemy leaves us with nothing but a hopeless battle.
Where I didn’t quite fall in love with this movie was the overall narrative. As we see the Joads’ experience going across America to eventually struggling to find a place to stay, be safe and find work to help them prosper the film doesn’t quite keep a direction but rather move in circles without anything to look forward to. Yes, I know that this is the place that the Joads find themselves in currently but as a narrative it leaves a lot to be desired. We’ve just seen the family have to deal with members passing along the trail (making me think of Oregon’s Trail right now) but yet we can’t seem to find anyone’s story to truly latch onto. For the most part the film tries to maintain Tom as our focus, but I don’t feel that the film actually keeps that focus throughout.
As it pertains to any elements that come off as dated I shall leave them where they lie. I’m able to buy into some of the sillier moments that feel like they should be alongside some of the more old crusty moments from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (a verifiably great film) just because I can. But when we reach the climax of the film it feels flimsy. Due to the lack of focus that we get with how we shift from looking at Tom to the family as a whole and then Tom again the end feels like it’s reaching for something that wasn’t quite earned.