When rust belt voters chose to vote for Donald Trump in light of his promise to bring more jobs, and, famously to Make America Great Again, it was impossible for upper middle class liberals such as myself to accept that their impetus to vote was anything other than thinly veiled (or totally unsheathed) racism. The racism is certainly a factor amongst many voters, but supposedly there existed a brand of voter who voted for Trump out of sheer desperation: the system had failed them, they had nothing happening for them, and they needed something fast before their lives financially spiralled out of control.
John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (adapted for screen by Nunnally Johnson) tells the story of this voter during the time that came to be a historical marker for American social decline- the great depression. It is the story of released convict Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda) and his family as, displaced from their family farm in Oklahoma, they travel west to seek a new life.
After four years in prison, Tom is the ideal lens through which to view this depression: he has been out of the world long enough that the imminent dispossession of his family farm comes as a true shock, but he is a tough and hardened sort that, rather than capitulate, fights for his family. He arrives in his old family home to find it abandoned, with various keepsakes abandoned alongside it, and a fellow townsman whose land was dispossessed temporarily squatting in the house, as we see in a flashback his house has been torn down. The land belongs to the people, and it has been taken away from them for no good reason. It is an outrageous situation, but there is no time for anger, only to gather up possessions and leave. Joad is able to do this, many others have been less than successful.
From the opening credits, we see the shadow of death lingering over the frame: a shadow of an empty branch on the screen as we are introduced to the characters. It is a symbol as unambiguous as it is powerful: these people, who you are about to be introduced to, are doomed. Hope is a rare luxury in the America Ford has created. A flyer promising work a thousand miles away proves to be misleading and out of date, a ranch promising daily work turns out to be run as a prison with outrageously low wages and unnecessary discipline exacted by cruel men in leather jackets. When the Joads finally find a hospitable camp with work, it comes out of nowhere, at a point where Tom and his family find themselves at their lowest.
The resilience of the Joads, as witnessed in the final speech of the film delivered by Ma Joad (a wonderfully warm and strong Jane Darwell), is not something to be admired, or something that they have made courageous leaps for. They simply haven’t given up. The next step always presents itself for them, but for so many others, it hasn’t, something Ford never lets us forget with hordes of impoverished families shown following work, broken down, and desperate along the way as the Joads make their way through the countryside.
The American farmer in this film is made out to be the enemy of the American people and society at large, townsfolk consistently going out of their way to make life horrible for these out of state drifters, burning down their campsites, chasing them out of their towns with barricades and mobs, and coercing them into working for rates that will not pay enough to keep them housed and fed.
The storyline centred around Tom’s old preacher, Jim Casy, who joins the family on their expedition, is interesting but somewhat less developed than the struggle against poverty. It concerns the idea of the individual as a compartment of an organism, and how Jim’s rejection of religion beget this belief and how this effects Tom throughout their conversations on the journey. Tom ultimately accepts Jim’s spirituality and hopes that he can make a shift in the world where people like those of his family can thrive. Whether he is to be successful in this or not is left unknown, but if the rest of the film is any clue, there is no reason for optimism.
John Ford’s early masterpiece is a lens into a world unknown and unheard from for so many years in America, and it is this silence of the working class in the arts and society that has so profoundly moulded the current world political climate. John Ford and John Steinbeck died long before Trump rose to the prominence he’s had since the late 80s, but I’m sure if they were around today they would, beyond support or disavow him, stress the importance for communication between the many intricate societies that exist within modern America.