The Grapes of Wrath is unique film because it is so closely created to the time it represents that its functions as a primary and secondary source overlaps. Through John Ford’s interpretation of the novel the film comes off as less as a social commentary and more of “the peoples” indomitable spirit to overcome hardships.
The characters in The Grapes of Wrath are often archetypes and sometimes stereotypes. There is also the strong dichotomy of “good people” and “bad people” with little gray area. The Joad family overall are presented as good people. Jane Darwell’s portrayal of Ma Joad as a tough women who shoulders the burden of keeping the family going falls under the strong rural matriarch archetype but, fortitude like hers was often one that was necessary to keep families together. Tom Joad is the good guy (despite his stint in prison) who has a revelation about justice and the way things ought to be and ultimately fights for the good guys. Even Casy, a preacher who has lost his calling, is a tragically good guy who inspires Tom Joad to see things in a new way. It is clear that the Joad family represent “the people”, a hard-working and honest group of people.
When the Joad family arrives at the Hooverville camp and later to the Keene Fruit Ranch they are faced with overseers and cops who are corrupt or seen as fighting against the “good guys”. There is a stark contrast between the workers (the “good guys”) and the people who run these camps (“the bad guys”). Compare this to what they find at the government run camp where on their arrival they are greeted by a man in white who looks mysteriously like Franklin D. Roosevelt. There is no ambiguity about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys are in this film.
The Grapes of Wrath does an excellent job of portraying life of a dust bowl family struggling to survive. During the Great Depression many of these sharecropper families faced both economic and climatic hardships. The opening scenes depict dilapidated homes and dust swirling around. This stark environment accurately conveys to the audience what the landscape looked like.
The Joad’s trip out west in their old truck and the different struggles they go through to get to California is also an accurate representation of the difficulties many people faced as they attempted to move out west. The Joad family faces discrimination because of their Okie status but, also encounter compassionate people who are more understanding of the plight of the people who have no other choice.
Whether it is the truck, or clothing, or the housing Ford accurately depicts the conditions of the migrant workers by giving us a documentary like presentation of these these things. This is why Ford’s vision is so compelling in its presentation because it doesn’t have to work hard to create a world for the audience to believe.
While the film is idealistic in its presentation in the good guys versus bad guys the ability of John Ford to accurately capture the conditions that existed during this time make this film an overall success in terms of historical accuracy. Ford had the advantage of being to utilize a setting that was already in existence and by allowing the film to act as a documentary in a way, he could capture the tribulations that many of the Okies encountered.
Ford may ignore the labor organization and strife that is clearly a part of John Steinbeck’s novel but he captures a different point of view, one that is not political but more spiritual. The film focuses on Casy’s sentiment of “one big soul” that is socialist in its sentiment but captures something larger and perhaps more palatable to the American audience. It is in Ford’s adaptation we see the struggle of America to take something controversial like Steinbeck’s novel and change it into something more hopeful, the triumph of the American spirit.
In order to understand the spirit that Ford is attempting to convey, it is best to see and hear it for yourself: