December 26th, 2009
From John Steinbeck’s great novel about families on the move in the Great Depression. Directed by John Ford; stars Henry Fonda and John Carradine. This is a classic of American cinema that I had not seen before.
Oklahoma is devastated by drought and economic collapse. The banks, which own all the land, are bulldozing houses to force out the tenant farmers, who then load up their rickety jalopies with all their belongings and set out for California. The movie follows the Joad family, with convicted killer Tom Joad (Fonda) as our eyes and ears and lapsed preacher Casey (Carradine) along for the ride.
It’s a harrowing journey. The eldest member of the family dies soon after setting out and is buried by the roadside, with a note penned by Tom: “This man just died and was buried here. Nobody kilt him.” By the end the family is pushing their truck through the desert with another corpse on board.
In California there is little work and plenty of labour strife. Armed men keep the strikers at bay and Tom, the reluctant moral enforcer, kills again and has to go on the run. In the America of this movie the “Reds” are always the unseen enemy and the government, with its clean, well-run labour camps (nothing socialist about that, hee-hee) is the hero.
I found this moving to watch; Fonda and Carradine are both terrific. But I couldn’t help thinking that the story of populations on the move is a commonplace in the world today. The special interest of this story is that it happened in the United States, but it is happening every day in Africa and the Middle East, mostly on foot. Furthermore, I am of the opinion that there is going to be plenty more of it in North America in coming decades as a result of global warming.
But never mind that! This is a great movie, well written and finely acted. You should watch it if you haven’t. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 100%, and Woody Guthrie is on record as calling it “the best cussed pitcher I ever seen.”
That’s good enough for me! Next I’m going to watch Bound for Glory, Guthrie’s biography, which stars John Carradine’s son David Carradine (The Kung Fu TV series, Kill Bill).