The Grapes of Wrath: Political Parallels and the Artistic Echoes of Today

The social taboo of political discourse is deserving of a most vicious and ostentatious death if it has not already been completely quashed out by our current political hellscape. Particularly, those who insist that politics and entertainment be unduly segregated from one another should be vehemently reprimanded for their gross ignorance of artistic integrity and the importance of socially commentative works. While escapist media remains a valid form of political abstinence, its role in uniting audiences through bipartisan entertainment can still serve reflective purposes without infringing on its primary objective. Consider this past decade, dominated largely by the abundance of homogenous blockbuster spectacles that broadly appealed to a worldwide audience with many artistic concessions for more conservative markets. In the first half of the decade the singularity of these types of films reflects a political stasis, where things weren’t necessarily calm, but considerably less chaotic than the latter half. Just last year, we saw a considerable uptick in the popularity of politically-motivated films, focused primarily around class disparity. Big films like Us, Joker, and the smash-success of Parasite’s meteoric resonance here in the United States betray the tired cliche of American ambivalence towards artistic statements in film. In fact, such sentiments have never been true. The celebration of such political works mirror similar resonance in the time just before World War II, where the divide in class was the greatest it’s ever been in this country, and acknowledgment of that created uproarious controversy. 

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Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

In 1939, during the height of The Great Depression, John Steinbeck’s semi-documentarian novel The Grapes of Wrath set the country ablaze in controversy. The book was banned in many conservative places, and in some cases burned or otherwise destroyed for its inflammatory depictions of migratory camps and working conditions impoverished Americans were subjected to. It also garnered considerable praise from literary circles, winning such accolades as the National Book Award in ‘39 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year after. It wasn’t long at all before Hollywood came to capitalize on the fervent zeitgeist of the novel, garnering equal controversy in the process. John Ford, perhaps the most celebrated American director of the time, fought for the chance to make the film. Ford was an ostensibly political filmmaker, though he’d never admit as much himself. His films are unparalleled embodiments of American ideals, from the idealistic nostalgia of his Westerns to the patriotic bravado of his war films. In that regard, The Grapes of Wrath would be something of a departure for Ford, in that it would be a more openly critical look at contemporary American issues, but it is still very much in the vein of his other great works, ruminating in American values while still celebrating integrity and optimism in the shadow of overwhelming adversity.  It, too, was met with welcome praise upon release in 1940, netting 20th Century Fox its biggest grosses of the year and winning Ford a Best Director Oscar the following year.

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Henry Fonda, John Ford, and Dorris Bowden on set of The Grapes of Wrath.

The combination of Steinbeck’s unflinching look at the horrendous treatment of impoverished and desperate Americans, with Ford’s innate sense for visual poeticism, produced an uncompromising masterpiece of political confrontation. This, sprinkled with a bit of Hollywood hope missing from the novel, indicated a promising turnaround under the socialist cues of President Roosevelt’s New Deal economics. In a time where socialist ideas are continually being conflated with extremist communist ideologies, it’s important to remember that policies of a greater minimum wage, expansion of public health services, and redistribution of wealth by taxing the 1% were all major victories of Roosevelt’s presidency and important pillars for setting the country on a path of progressive upswing. The film goes out of its way to implicitly connect the ideals of FDR with an optimistic thread of political assurance by modeling the caretaker of the Eden-like government camp at the end of the film (played by Grant Mitchell) after the celebrated Commander in Chief. After a tumultuous journey that saw their property stripped away, their family torn apart, and nary an opportunity to better their situation under the crushing prejudice of a system that sought to exclude them, the Joads find solace in affordable utilities and services provided by the sanctuary of government reform, where their deep emotional wounds can begin to seek treatment without further provocation.

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Henry Fonda and Grant Mitchell in The Grapes of Wrath.

The themes of this Depression-era film about the American working class reverberate today in ways beyond the scope of late 1930’s economics and government programs, speaking truth to a deluge of political issues around the world. The plainest issue is the beggared exodus the Okies are forced to make amidst increasingly vitriolic prejudice by both the law enforcement and the citizens who should be welcoming them with open arms. Though the families of the film are red-blooded Americans, their plight and mistreatment can be seen in the destitute immigrants fighting against the misplaced bigotry aimed at them by the xenophobic policies of this current administration. Superfluous border walls, blanket immigration bans, and hostile living conditions for detainees mirror the systematic abuse and neglect endured by the Joads at the hands of the law and opportunistic proprietors. The elder Joads are lost along the way, extinguished by debilitating malnutrition and the inhospitable journey on the road. The children seen begging for scraps at the transient camp remind us of the children forcibly separated from their parents at the border, and the negligent disregard for sanitation and humane treatment within their caged detention. Even Ford could see the parallels between the westward migration of the Joads and the desperation of international refugees seeking asylum. His interest in the material stemmed from his own relation to his familial roots in Ireland, and their suffering during the Great Famine of the 1840s. The universality of Steinbeck’s writing clearly swings in both directions, echoing the struggles of the disenfranchised throughout history and beyond American borders.  

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The Grapes of Wrath. Dir. John Ford.

But the relevance of The Grapes of Wrath has never been more important to Americans than it is today, considering the shocking similarity to which an overlooked group of American citizens are experiencing turmoil and neglect amidst an equally destructive natural disaster to that of the Okies and the Dust Bowl. In September of 2017, Puerto Rico was devastated by the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Maria, destroying more than 85% of the territory’s infrastructure and leaving the island without power for months on end. The U.S. Government received considerable criticism in their immediate addressing of the disaster, treating the American territory more like a third-world country than a sect of its own people. The aftermath of the hurricane was severely downplayed, with President Trump complaining that Puerto Rico was throwing the budget “out of whack,” and insinuating that this was not a “real catastrophe” compared to Hurricane Katrina, which ultimately ended with almost half as many lost lives as Maria. Even today, Puerto Rico is still reeling from the effects of the disaster, and not receiving all the support they’ve been promised. Many hospitals on the island remain closed, houses remain demolished and without repair, and the population has seen a steep decline as many take refuge in the mainland United States instead of their broken homeland. Just like the Okies, citizens of Puerto Rico are left with no choice but to abandon their livelihoods when an Act of God crisis strikes, and their government pushes them to the side.

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John Qualen as Muley Graves in The Grapes of Wrath.

For those who stand their ground and persevere to restore the island, they may find solidarity in Muley Graves, neighbor to the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath and eloquently played by Ford regular John Qualen. When Tom Joad, recently released from prison, returns to find his home an abandoned husk, Muley passionately relays how all the families have been forced out by the agricultural and economic devastation of the Dust Bowl — except for him. In a fit of exasperation, Muley laments that propriety doesn’t come from a piece of paper with writing on it, but rather the habitation of the land, and the generations of families who work, live, and die on it, and that nobody is going to strongarm him off what’s rightfully his. While the consequence of the law prevents Muley, and anyone else, from fulfilling this obligation of man, his speech advocates for a greater responsibility to ensure the rights of the people. The Pursuit of Happiness is an inescapable treadmill if one’s economic disposition has been irreparably stunted, as so many caught in the throes of the Great Depression were. We see the same plea of economic retribution for the working class today as we did in 1940, with growing support for a living minimum wage, reform for exorbitant student debts, and a major push for universal healthcare, as all other major countries function with today. 

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Russell Simpson and Jane Darwell in the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath.

The need to take care of our struggling people is as pertinent today as it was 80 years ago, when Ford and Steinbeck rendered on screen the depressing reality of our broken system. Their continued esteem shows how something inflammatory, and perhaps even a touch radical, can resonate with an audience both in its time and in the echoes we face today. The film ends with an enshrining speech from Ma Joad about the will of the people, and how they’ll overcome and outlast the crushing heel of the rich man’s boot, an ending imposed by neither Ford nor Steinbeck. The passage is lifted from about two-thirds a way through the novel, but placed as the final coda of the film, the optimistic thread sewn throughout the film is tied off with a punctual sturdy stitch. It doesn’t take anything as severe as a depression, recession, or any kind of economic downfall to see how The Grapes of Wrath can mirror the political plights we face today, and its commentary is not limited to its American roots. It’s a timeless story about the struggle of the people, and seeing the success of other politically motivated films today gives assurance that the people are listening, and that our optimism is not unfounded. 

Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.


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