the grapes of wrath

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is a movie based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, widely-read 1939 novel. I watched it in my youth and was moved by the graphic descriptions of grinding poverty in The Great Depression and the fight by the Joad family underdogs (and their preacher friend, Casy, who stopped preaching because he didn’t know what to preach anymore) against the powerful forces of the State.

I watched it again a few days ago (here is the torrent) and it is still an amazing movie. The overall wealth of industrialised countries has improved dramatically since The Great Depression. Rather than abject, grinding poverty and starvation the poor are better off absolutely although not relatively. Nevertheless, the fundamentals haven’t changed, the rich get richer and the poor adapt and / or resist according to their organisation and circumstances. How much things have changed and yet how much they remain the same.

Filmsite Movie Review: The Grapes of Wrath

21 Responses to “the grapes of wrath”

  1. 1 barry

    There’s a couple of quotes that I really like in the book:

    1. “Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours, it would be good – not mine, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things – it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people were driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this.”

    In current times, in the early C21st in advanced industrial societies, there is an ethos and a politics that does indeed regard ‘the tractor’ as bad. What is needed to advance humanity (and abolish hunger, for instance) is a ‘tractor’ that turns the land for the people. For this to happen, as the book indicates, the ‘tractor’ (means of production) needs to be owned by us all rather than kept in concentrated private hands.

    Related to this is a second quote from the book, which reaffirms confidence in humankind and an implicit confidence in the future:

    2. “Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.”

    This is what can happen when labour is liberated from concentrated private ownership and production can be geared to social need and fun and fantasy rather than for the profit of a few. At this site, at this point in history, we might use the phrase “Reach for the stars”.

    ‘Grapes of Wrath’ has much in it to remind us of the left-wing commitment to economic growth and progress – with social ownership as the alternative to capitlaism – and the importance of continuing to conquer Nature in the service of humanity.

    From memory, Bill, the book ends up taking a social democratic line in its conclusions. Is that right?

  2. 2 Bill Kerr

    Thanks for the comment and quotes Barry. I haven’t read the book unfortunately but in all probability judging from your quotes it is even more powerful than the film.

    As far as the story ending on a “social democratic” note I’m not sure that that is the right phrase. The notes about the movie that I linked to in the post point out that the film ends on a more hopeful and upbeat note than the novel.

    The film ends with Ma, a strong woman, giving a rousing speech to her family in the truck as they go in search for 20 days work.

    The notes talk about two things at the end of the novel:
    1) The final scene in the novel was a disastrous strike-breaking episode in which Tom was clubbed and beaten, and Casy was killed.
    2) In the melodramatic novel, there is a bleak and shocking ending unlike the film. After the loss of her stillborn baby, Joad daughter Rosasharn offers her maternal breast, filled with milk, to be suckled by a starving man in a railroad car

    In the film Casy is killed but that is moved from its place in the novel making room for the more optimistic ending. There is also a rousing speech from Tom (play by a young Henry Fonda) to his Mum, which was also moved to the end. Here it is:

    Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.
    source (some other quotes there too, if interested)

    Steinbeck does not call for revolution so you are right that it is social democratic in that sense. Casy is an ex preacher not a Marxist and / or revolutionary. It’s more of an expose of the horrors of capitalism in crisis than a guide about what to do about it.

  3. 3 Steve Owens

    I read the book when I was young and took it as many others did to be a daminng enditement of Capitalism. I have reconsidered this analysis because Capitalism wasn’t the root cause of the problems suffered by the Okies. The most fundamental problem was environmental disaster, which led to forclosure and millions of displaced small farmers entering wage slavery during the Great Depression.

  4. 4 barry

    Steve, as I understand it, socialism is about transforming dust bowls into fertile plains. (And a few equally important other things).

  5. 5 Steve Owens

    Yes true socialism would never be so ignorant as to cause an environmental disaster

  6. 6 Steve Owens

    Steinbeck wrote about the Grapes of Wrath “I want to put the tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for the [Great Depression]”
    Well the greedy bastards turned out to be the poor sharecroppers themselves who armed with totally unsuitable farming methods drove themselves from the land. But you dont get that understanding if you read the book or watch the movie. Pitty really I loved the book and thought the movie was ok. Movies rarely live up to the book.
    PS just on great movies my favourites are “Invictus” and “Land and Freedom”

  7. 7 Youngmarxist

    Yes, true socialists would never indulge in cheap drive-by commenting

  8. 8 Steve Owens

    Young marxist are you making a point relevant to the discussion?
    Grapes of Wrath is a book generally held to be a critique of Capitalism. Steinbeck says as much in his quote about the book.
    I have produced a link to point out that the recieved wisdom about the book is wrong. Barry chimed in and said that socialism is about transforming dust bowls into fertile plains to which I responded that in “socialist” societies like China environmental disasters still occur but thanks for the definition of troll.
    Honestly if someone puts up an argument you can’t deal with is the best you can do to start name calling? Have you read Grapes of Wrath? What did you think? I thought one thing when I was 16 and read it but now that Im 54 I think something else. Im sure that if I re read the book I might think other thoughts but probably not those that first crossed my mind.

  9. 9 Steve Owens

    Just can’t resist. When I was a teenager I read everything Steinbeck wrote that I could get my hands on. He was a great writer and I think that his best writing was in the first section of “A log in the sea of Cortez” where he does a description of his then recently dead best friend. Unfortunately the rest of the book does not live up to the magnificent opening section but I would encourage everyone to read the best work that Steinbeck produced.

  10. 10 barry

    Bill, that quote about “I’ll be there” is well known, and for good reason. It is very stirring. My late much-lamented dear friend, John Herouvim, used to know it by heart and would often get up and recite it – perform it – loudly at parties. Everyone would applaud and cheer. That kind of spirit is rare these days. And that kind of outlook, based on support for the oppressed, commitment to material progress and faith in the future is equally rare.

    No doubt about Steinbeck as a writer. I still get goose-bumps when I read the opening paragraph of ‘Cannery Row’.

  11. 11 Youngmarxist

    Drive-by commenting isn’t the same as an argument.

  12. 12 Steve Owens

    Well put an argument forward then.
    Have you read Grapes of Wrath?
    Did you think it was a critique of Capitalism?
    Have you read about the Dust Bowl and why it happened?
    Having considered the ecological disaster do you agree with Steinbeck that the banks were to blame?
    Do you think that Steinbeck was influenced by being in California at the time and seeing the waves of human misery that migrated West rather than being in Oklahoma and seeing what drove the people from the land?
    You tell me that I drive by when both your comments were one liners.

  13. 13 barry

    The opening sentence of ‘Cannery Row’, mentioned above, is: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream”.

    Notice how he is describing it through qualities rather than things (though he moves on in the next sentence to a more physical description).

    Often when I am back home in Brunswick, Melbourne, I think of those opening words, especially when walking or tramming along Sydney Road.

    Steve, you offered no argument as to why socialism isn’t about turning dustbowls into fertile plains. Just some typically negative remark about environmental disaster in China.

    Freed from the constraint of the profit motive and concentrated private ownership,and with a reorganisation of production in a manner that allows for the creativity and ingenuity of the workers to be unleashed, there’s no end to what human beings can achieve. Not only an end to dust bowls but to deserts (like that in the middle of Australia) too.

  14. 14 Steve Owens

    Barry you are correct. I have put no argument about “why socialism isn’t about turning dustbowls into fertile plains.” And that is because this thread is not about socialism turning dustbowls into furtile plains but about the Grapes of Wrath a novel that blamed capitalism for forcing hundereds of thousands of sharecroppers off their land. The argument I did put was to say that environmental catastrophy turned these people off the land and that Steinbeck was wrong in where he placed the blame. You are free to ignore my argument and talk about other books and talk about abstract socialism and talk about making the deserts of Australia bloom and talk about the party entertainments of your friend. What you decide to talk about and the arguments that you choose to address is completely up to you.

  15. 15 steve owens

    First thanks for the tip on how good the Kindle is. Mine arrived yesterday and the first book I downloaded was Grapes of Wrath. That first chapter is brilliant writting. Pity the movie doesnt start until chapter two but as I said the movie is never as good as the book. I read that Steinbeck liked the movie. Its great art even if it is flawed history.

  16. 16 steve owens

    Yesterday I caught the new Ken Burns documentary about the Oklahoma dust bowl. Its typical Burns in that it was great.
    He talks about how people in the 18th C ran cattle on the great plains but failed because of the freezing winters and how people grew crops but failed due to drought.
    He looks at the governments attempts to encourage small farmers, the WW1 boom in wheat when wheat sold at $2 per bushel about how after WW1 the price fell to $1 but at a production cost of 40c there was an explosion of acreage put under the plow. 1931 saw the best harvest ever with grainries unable to hold the harvest.
    Thats when the disaster hit wheat hit 17c per bushel and the 30’s were years of drought. The great plains were always known for the relentless strong winds.
    The plowing loosened the dirt, the drought dried it out and the winds raised it into the air 10 miles long and 1 mile high turning mid day into midnight not just once but dozens of times per year.
    Part of Burn’s greatness is the human focus of his stories. He talks about these farmers being optimists, in his words “Next year people” as in things will be better next year. Peoples response to rising prices was to put more land under the plow, their response to lowered prices was to put more land under the plow and their response to disaster upon disaster was that things will improve next year.
    The doco is on SBS for mine its a must see

  17. 17 steve owens
  18. 18 patrickm

    Hi Steve,
    I watched most of this show and it was what people can expect from greens. There is very little understanding of what capitalism and agriculture generate as both solutions and further problems and no current film showing the very healthy and productive agricultural properties in the lands that were once the dust bowls of hell that killed people as a 1% plus rate per yr!

    In SA we have the same type of history and I just loved the Rabbit drive stuff that I had thought was just an Australian issue!

    Forgetting that long gone U.S. dust-bowl that has been the subject of much obvious agricultural development under an exclusively capitalist system, we have our own Goyder who is one of the great hero’s of Australia’s green ABC programmers. They just love that ‘clear’ green ‘wisdom-of-the-elders’ mixed with the appropriate level of ‘stupidity of the elders’ junk; and usually with a splendidly clear racial division of ignorant, rapacious Europeans… Oh, and the sad music to play when filming the ruins of a 100 yr old rural property. As if anyone would want to live in such a hovel these days! Totally predictable, and stamped – naturally – with the label science. Perfect stuff for a whole generation of eco-socialists searching for ‘sustainablity’.

    To this very day massive quantities of wheat are regularly grown north of the Goyder-line; and just as huge and productive cropping enterprises are beyond Goyder’s imaginings now so is everything else about agriculture.

    The clearest example of this process is what I have seen in my own life-time with potato cropping. (they are now all grown where none were grown when I was a child) That is the real trend despite the propaganda, and ABC bias and the politics from the eco-socialists.

    Goyder never had to tell anyone not to grow potatoes north of his surveyed line BUT that is where they are grown 100years later!

  19. 19 steve owens

    Hi Patrickm,
    Your point about the real and under reported story of agriculture is absolutely correct.
    Capitalism has undertaken revolution followed by revolution in agriculture leading to success followed by success. Just look at the broad facts, the world’s population since the 1960’s has more than doubled while the proportion of people suffering from hunger has been reduced from 1 in 3 to 1 in 6
    I can’t wait till the wasteful agricultural subsidies of Japan the EU and the USA are swept away thus allowing for the more efficient farmers of Africa amongst others gaining a bigger market share lowering the prices and feeding more people.
    Having said that I also think that there is a place for remembering what can go wrong so that new dust bowls don’t get repeated.

  20. 20 steve owens

    If you scroll to the “Impact of subsidies” you come to the estimate that 1st world subsidies are costing the 3rd world $50 Billion. The main stumbling block is the USA

  21. 21 steve owens

    This article is a good example of how resilient US farm subsidies are like zombies they just keep coming at you.

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