The film tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family, who, after losing their farm during the Great Depression in the 1930s, become migrant workers and end up in California. The motion picture details their arduous journey across the United States as they travel to California in search of work and opportunities for the family members.
The film is widely considered as one of the greatest American films of all time. In 1989, this film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The film opens with Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), released from prison and hitchhiking his way back to his parents' family farm in Oklahoma. Tom finds an itinerant ex-preacher named Jim Casy (John Carradine) sitting under a tree by the side of the road. Casy was the preacher who baptized Tom, but now Casy has "lost the spirit" and his faith (presaging his imminent conversion to communism). Casy goes with Tom to the Joad property only to find it deserted. There, they meet Muley Graves (John Qualen) who is hiding out. In a flashback, he describes how farmers all over the area were forced from their farms by the deed holders of the land. A local boy (Irving Bacon), hired for the purpose, is shown knocking down Muley's house with a Caterpillar tractor. The large Joad family of twelve leaves at daybreak, along with Casy, who decides to accompany them. They pack everything into a dilapidated 1926 Hudson "Super Six" sedan adapted to serve as a truck in order to make the long journey to the promised land of California.
The trip along Highway 66 is arduous, and it soon takes a toll on the Joad family. The elderly Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) dies along the way. Tom writes the circumstances surrounding the death on a page from the family Bible and places it on the body before they bury it so that if his remains were found, his death would not be investigated as a possible homicide. They park in a camp and meet a man, a migrant returning from California, who laughs at Pa's optimism about conditions in California. He speaks bitterly about his experiences in the West.
The family arrives at the first transient migrant campground for workers and finds the camp is crowded with other starving, jobless and desperate travelers. Their truck slowly makes its way through the dirt road between the shanty houses and around the camp's hungry-faced inhabitants. Tom says, "Sure don't look none too prosperous."
After some trouble with a so-called "agitator", the Joads leave the camp in a hurry. The Joads make their way to another migrant camp, the Keene Ranch. After doing some work in the fields, they discover the high food prices in the company store for meat and other products. The store is the only one in the area, by a long shot. Later they find a group of migrant workers are striking, and Tom wants to find out all about it. He goes to a secret meeting in the dark woods. When the meeting is discovered, Casy is killed by one of the camp guards. As Tom tries to defend Casy from the attack, he inadvertently kills the guard.
Tom suffers a serious wound on his cheek, and the camp guards realize it will not be difficult to identify him. That evening the family hides Tom under the mattresses of the truck just as guards arrive to question them; they are searching for the man who killed the guard. Tom avoids being spotted and the family leaves the Keene Ranch without further incident. After driving for a while, they have to stop at the top of a hill when the engine overheats due to a broken fan belt; they have little gas, but decide to try coasting down the hill to some lights. The lights are from a third type of camp: Farmworkers' Wheat Patch Camp (Weedpatch in the book), a clean camp run by the Department of Agriculture, complete with indoor toilets and showers, which the Joad children had never seen before.
Tom is moved to work for change by what he has witnessed in the various camps. He tells his family that he plans to carry on Casy's mission in the world by fighting for social reform. He leaves to seek a new world and to join the movement committed to social justice.
Tom Joad says:
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.
As the family moves on again, they discuss the fear and difficulties they have had. Ma Joad concludes the film, saying:
I ain't never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn't have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared.... Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain't no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, cos we're the people.
According to The New York Times, The Grapes of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. In that month it won the National Book Award, favorite fiction book of 1939, voted by members of the American Booksellers Association. Soon it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
In 1962, the Nobel Prize committee cited The Grapes of Wrath as a "great work" and as one of the committee's main reasons for granting Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature. Time magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005". In 2009, The Daily Telegraph also included the novel in its "100 novels everyone should read". In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Grapes of Wrath tenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
The first part of the film follows the book fairly closely. However, the second half and the ending in particular are significantly different from the book. While the book ends with the downfall and break-up of the Joad family, the film switches the order of sequences so that the family ends up in a "good" camp provided by the government, and events turn out relatively well.
The novel's original ending was considered far too controversial to be included in the film. In the novel, Rose-of-Sharon ("Rosasharn") Rivers (played in the film by Dorris Bowdon) gives birth to a stillborn baby. Later she offers her milk-filled breasts to a starving man, dying in a barn. These scenes were not included in the film.
While the film is somewhat stark, it has a more optimistic and hopeful view than the novel, especially when the Joads land at the Department of Agriculture camp – the clean camp. Also, the producers decided to tone down Steinbeck's political references, such as eliminating a monologue using a land owner's description of "reds" as anybody "that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five," to show that under the prevalent conditions that definition applies to every migrant worker looking for better wages.
The film emphasizes Ma Joad's pragmatic, forward-looking way of dealing with their situation despite Tom's departure, as it concludes with her spiritual "We're the people" speech.
Ivy and Sairy Wilson, who attend to Grandpa's death and travel with the Joads until they reach California, are left out of the movie. Noah's departure from the family is passed over in the movie. Instead, he simply disappears without explanation. In the book, Floyd tells Tom about how the workers were being exploited, but in the movie he does not appear until after the deputy arrives in Hooverville. Sandry, the religious fanatic who scares Rose of Sharon, is left out of the movie.
Vivian Sobchack argued that the film uses visual imagery to focus on the Joads as a family unit, whereas the novel focuses on their journey as a part of the "family of man". She points out that their farm is never shown in detail, and that the family members are never shown working in agriculture; not a single peach is shown in the entire film. This subtly serves to focus the film on the specific family, as opposed to the novel's focus on man and land together.
In the film, most family members are either reduced, such as Al, Noah and Uncle John, to background characters or, like Rose of Sharon and Connie, to being the focus of only one or two relatively minor scenes. Instead, the film is largely concerned with Tom, Ma and, to a lesser extent, Jim Casy. Thus, despite the film's focus on the Joads as a specific family rather than a part of the "family of man", the movie explores very little of the members of the family itself.Henry Fonda – "Red River Valley"
Eddie Quillan – "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" (Traditional)
"A Tisket, A Tasket" (Words & music by Ella Fitzgerald & Van Alexander)
According to critic Roger Ebert, both executive producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director John Ford were odd choices to make this film because both were considered politically conservative. Zanuck was nervous about the left-wing political views of the novel, especially the ending. Due to the red-baiting common to the era, Darryl Zanuck sent private investigators to Oklahoma to help him legitimize the film.
When Zanuck's investigators found that the "Okies'" predicament was indeed terrible, Zanuck was confident he could defend political attacks that the film was somehow pro-Communist. Ebert believes that World War II also helped sell the film's message, as Communism received a brief respite from American demonizing during that period.
Production on the film began on October 4, 1939, and was completed on November 16, 1939. Some of the filming locations include: McAlester, Sayre both in Oklahoma; Gallup, Laguna Pueblo, and Santa Rosa, all in New Mexico; Lamont, Needles, San Fernando Valley, all in California; Topock, Petrified Forest National Park, all in Arizona.
The film score by Alfred Newman is based on the song "Red River Valley". Additionally, the song "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad" is sung in a nighttime scene at a labor camp.
The film premiered in New York City on January 24, 1940, and Los Angeles on January 27, 1940. The wide release date in the United States was March 15, 1940.
Originally allowed to be shown in the Soviet Union in 1948 because of its depiction of the plight of people under capitalism, it was subsequently withdrawn because audiences were noticing that, as shown in the film, even the poorest Americans could afford a car.
Frank Nugent of The New York Times wrote:
In the vast library where the celluloid literature of the screen is stored there is one small, uncrowded shelf devoted to the cinema's masterworks, to those films which by dignity of theme and excellence of treatment seem to be of enduring artistry, seem destined to be recalled not merely at the end of their particular year but whenever great motion pictures are mentioned. To that shelf of screen classics Twentieth Century-Fox yesterday added its version of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, adapted by Nunnally Johnson, directed by John Ford and performed at the Rivoli by a cast of such uniform excellence and suitability that we should be doing its other members an injustice by saying it was "headed" by Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine and Russell Simpson.
When critic Bosley Crowther retired in 1967, he named The Grapes of Wrath one of the best fifty films ever made. (N.B.: 40 percent of the works Crowther named were not American-made, so he was placing this work in a large context.)
In a film review written for Time magazine by its editor Whittaker Chambers, he separated his views of Steinbeck's novel from Ford's film, which he liked.
But people who go to pictures for the sake of seeing pictures will see a great one. For The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book...Camera craft purged the picture of the editorial rash that blotched the Steinbeck book. Cleared of excrescences, the residue is a great human story which made thousands of people, who damned the novel's phony conclusions, read it. It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.
A review in Variety reported, "Here is outstanding entertainment, projected against a heart-rending sector of the American scene," concluding, "It possesses an adult viewpoint and its success may lead other producers to explore the rich field of contemporary life which films long have neglected and ignored." John Mosher wrote in The New Yorker, "With a majesty never before so constantly sustained on any screen, the film never for an instant falters. Its beauty is of the sort found in the art of Burchfield, Benton and Curry, as the landscape and people involved belong to the world of these painters."
The Film Daily year-end poll of 546 critics nationwide ranked The Grapes of Wrath as the second-best film of 1940, behind only Rebecca.
Academy Awards wins (1941)Best Supporting Actress, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad.
Best Director, John Ford.
Academy Awards nominations (1941)Best Actor in a Leading Role, Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
Best Film Editing, Robert L. Simpson.
Best Picture, Darryl F. Zanuck and Nunnally Johnson.
Best Sound Recording, Edmund H. Hansen.
Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, Nunnally Johnson.
Other winsNational Board of Review of Motion Pictures: NBR Award; Best Picture- 1940.
New York Film Critics: NYFCC Award; Best Director, John Ford; Best Film- 1940.
Blue Ribbon Awards, Japan: Blue Ribbon Award Best Foreign Language Film, John Ford- 1963.
National Film Registry – 1989.
American Film Institute recognitionAFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies – #21
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains:
Tom Joad – #12 Hero
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes:
"Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there." – Nominated
100 Years...100 Cheers – #7
100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary) – #23
A video of the film was released in 1988 by Key Video (then a division of CBS/Fox).
Later it was released in video format on March 3, 1998 by 20th Century Fox on its Studio Classic series.
A DVD was released on April 6, 2004 by 20th Century Fox Entertainment. The DVD contains a special commentary track by scholars Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw. It also includes various supplements: an A&E Network biography of Daryl F. Zanuck, outtakes, a gallery, Franklin D. Roosevelt lauds motion pictures at Academy featurette, Movietone news: three drought reports from 1934, etc.