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The Grapes of Wrath

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Ford
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Associate Producer:
Nunnally Johnson
Written by Screenplay:
Nunnally Johnson
John Steinbeck
Starring Henry Fonda
Jane Darwell
John Carradine
Shirley Mills
John Qualen
Eddie Quillan
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Editing by Robert L. Simpson
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) January 24, 1940
(New York City)
Running time 129 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $750,000

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is an American drama film directed by John Ford. It was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), written by John Steinbeck. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson and the executive producer was Darryl F. Zanuck.[1]

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 for work and opportunities for the family members.

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 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. Casy goes with Tom to the Joad property only to find it deserted. They meet up there with Muley (John Qualen) who is hiding out there. In a flashback, he describes how farmers all over the area were forced from their farms by the deed holders of the land, including a striking scene where a local boy Irving Bacon, hired for the purpose, knocks down Muley's house with a Caterpillar tractor. Following this, Tom and Casy move on to find the Joad family at Tom's uncle John's place. His family is happy to see Tom and explain they have made plans to head for California in search of employment as their farm has been foreclosed by the bank. The large Joad family of twelve leaves at daybreak, along with Casy who decides to come along, packing everything into an old and 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.

To reach California the Joads travel U.S. Highway 66.

The trip along Highway 66 is arduous and it soon takes a toll on the Joad family. Weak and elderly Grandpa is the first to die on their journey. After he dies, they pull over to the shoulder of the road, unload him, and bury him. Tom writes the circumstances surrounding the death on a page from the Family Bible and places it on the body so that if his remains were ever found his death would not be investigated as a possible homicide. They park in a camp and they meet a man, a returning migrant from California, who laughs at Pa's optimism about conditions in California and who speaks bitterly about his awful experiences in the West. He hints at what the Joads will soon find out for themselves. The family arrives at the first transient migrant campground for workers and find 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 way to another migrant camp named 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 problem is that the store is the only one in the area, by a long shot. Later they find there is a striking group of migrants in the camp and Tom wants to find out all about it. Tom goes to a secret meeting in the dark woods. The meeting is discovered and Casy is killed by one of the guards. Tom tries to defend Casy from the vicious attack and inadvertently kills the attacking guard when he retaliates.

During the altercation, Tom suffers a serious facial wound on his cheek and the camp guards realize it won't be difficult to identify him. That evening the family hides Tom under the mattresses of the truck just as guards arrive to question them and search for the killer of the guard. Tom avoids being spotted and the family successfully leaves the Keene Ranch without further incident. At the top of a hill, the car runs out of gas, and they're able to coast into a third type of camp: Farmworkers' Wheat Patch Camp (Weedpatch in the book), a clean camp run by the Department of Agriculture. After Tom becomes personally idealized by what he has witnessed in the various camps, he describes how he plans to carry on Casy's mission in the world by fighting for social reform. Tom goes off to seek a new world, and he must leave his family 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, but recognize that they have come out the other side. 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 on 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.


Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.


Ma and Tom Joad. Note Tom's scar on his left cheek.

The first part of the film version follows the book fairly accurately. However, the second half and the ending in particular are significantly different from the book. While the book's ending tells of the downfall and ultimate break-up of the Joad family, the film switches the entire order of sequences so that the family ends up in a "good" camp provided by the government and events turn out relatively well. Also, the novel's original ending was far too controversial to be included in the film. In the novel Rose-of-Sharon ("Rosasharn") Rivers (Dorris Bowdon) gives birth to a stillborn baby and later offers her milk-filled breasts to a starving man, dying in a barn. These scenes were not included in the film.

Moreover, 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 tone down Steinbeck's political references in the novel like the elimination of 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. And there is also a greater emphasis on Ma Joad's pragmatic, forward-looking way of dealing with their situation despite Tom's departure and concluding in her spiritual closing "We're the people" speech.[2]

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.[3]


Ma, Tom, and Pa Joad look at the hungry kids at one of the camps.

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.[4] Zanuck was nervous about the left-wing political views of the novel, especially the ending. Due to the red-baiting common to the era, Daryl 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.[5] Ebert believes that World War II also helped sell the film's message, as Communism enjoyed a brief respite from American demonizing during that period.[6]

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.[7]

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.

The movie was banned in the Soviet Union (USSR) by Joseph Stalin after being shown in Poland because of the depiction that even the poorest Americans could afford a car.[8]

Critical reception

Ma Joad and Tom Joad discuss Tom's future.

When released, the film was well received by the film critics, but it did have its detractors, especially because of its leftist political overtones. Film critic Frank S. Nugent, writing for The New York Times, liked the film's screenplay, the direction of the film and the acting. He 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."[9]

When critic Bosley Crowther retired in 1967, he named The Grapes of Wrath one of the best fifty films ever made. (N.B.: 40% of the works Crowther named were not American-made, so he was placing this work in a large context.)[10]

In a film review written for Time magazine by its editor Whittaker Chambers, an outspoken opponent of communism, he separated his views of Steinbeck's novel from Ford's film, which he liked. Chambers wrote, "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."[11]

Some analysts believe the "myth of the Okies", helped created by John Steinbeck's novel, is a mistake. As such, they argue the film's story rings false. Keith Windschuttle, writing for The New Criterion, wrote, "In the film of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's statement that people owned their land not because they had a piece of paper but because they had been born on it, worked on it, and died on it is given to the half-crazy character Muley Graves. His sentiments, and the injustice of the dispossession behind them, resonate throughout the drama. Again, however, these remarks bear very little relationship to the real farmers of Oklahoma."[12]

Video and DVD

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.


Academy Awards wins (1941)

Academy Awards nominations (1941)

Other wins

American Film Institute recognition


  1. ^ The Grapes of Wrath at the Internet Movie Database.
  2. ^ Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath, 1939. Penguin Classics; Reissue edition October 1, 1992.
  3. ^ Sobchack, Vivian C. (1979). "The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Thematic Emphasis Through Visual Style". American Quarterly 31 (5): 596–615. doi:10.2307/2712428. 
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun-Times, ibid.
  5. ^ Levy, Emanuel. Film review. Last accessed: February 26, 2008.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun-Times, film review, March 21, 2002. Last accessed: January 14, 2007.
  7. ^ Filming locations. The Grapes of Wrath at the Internet Movie Database.
  8. ^ "Engines of Liberty: Cars and the Collapse of Communism" by Waldemar Hanasz. 1999 Essay
  9. ^ Nugent, Frank S. The New York Times, film review, "Twentieth Century-Fox Shows a Flawless Film Edition of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath,' With Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, at the Rivoli", January 25, 1940. Last accessed: February 26, 2008.
  10. ^ Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times Crowther article, archived at Northern Essex Community College.
  11. ^ Chambers, Whittaker. Time, film review, February 1940.
  12. ^ Windschuttle, Keith. The New Criterion, Vol. 20, No. 10, June 2002.

External links



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