Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Movie Review - The Grapes of Wrath


One of my favorite Springsteen legends revolves around John Ford's film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath.  The story goes that Bruce was flipping around the television dial one night, and stumbled across The Grapes of Wrath, and was immediately drawn in by the tale of the Joad family.  He had never read the original novel by John Steinbeck, but used the film as the basis for his future songwriting (most notably in the album not surprisingly titled The Ghost of Tom Joad).  Before sitting down to write this post, I scoured the internet to try to find confirmation of this tale, but failed.  Maybe I had heard it at a concert, or read it in one of the many Springsteen books I've reviewed throughout the years, or perhaps it was just another one of my beautiful and disturbing Springsteen dreams.  Regardless, having never read the book either, I decided to plop on my couch, flip on Netflix, and emulate my hero.

Before going into my thoughts and feelings, let me just give a quick summary of the movie for those unfamiliar with the story.  If you are worried about spoilers for a movie that came out in 1940, I'd suggest you skip over the rest of the review.  The movie opens with Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, returning to his Oklahoma home after a four year stint in prison for killing a man in a bar fight.  Upon returning home, however, he finds that the Dust Bowl has wrecked the economy of his home town, and the banks are forclosing on his home.  There is no use battling back, as there is no specific man to blame, and the construction equipment coming to tear down his home cannot be haulted - you stop one, and they'll send more.  So the Joad family packs up and heads to California, hoping to find more work.  Unfortunately, when they arrive, they see that there are too many people looking for work, and the employers have slashed their wages due to the overabundance of labor.  They working picking peaches, and are forced to live in destitute bungalows where they are heavily monitored, as attempts to organize a resistance are immediately squashed by hired goons.  The family finds some peace in a government-run camp where the community is run by the workers.  In the end, Tom Joad moves away from his family, inspired to take up the fight for the working man across the nation.  His final words are stirring and memorable: "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."

Reading that description alone sounds like you've just listened to about fifty different Springsteen songs.  As a Springsteen fan for years, it was eye-opening to see how heavily this influenced him.  I'd compare it to the first time I saw Citizen Kane after growing up on The Simpsons: it's amazing how many references you can pick up on now.  I'm not exaggerating: take a look at the very first shot of the movie, does it remind you of anything?


John Ford, with famed cinematographer Gregg Toland, fills the movie with beautiful, stark imagery like that above.  In traveling from Oklahoma to California, we see gorgeous scenic shots that remind me of a film noir version of Breaking Bad (there are a lot more parallels you can draw between Breaking Bad and The Grapes of Wrath, but that's a subject for a completely different blog).  Springsteen's music reflects the barren, depressing mood in the film most notably in Nebraska and the obvious The Ghost of Tom Joad.  As Steve wrote about this summer, The Ghost of Tom Joad could be considered the most cinematic Springsteen album, but I see a lot of influence from this film in his most recent work, Wrecking Ball.  Two songs particularly stand out: "Death To My Hometown", as the men who kick the Joads off their farm are exactly what you'd imagine the "greedy thieves that came around and ate the flesh of everything they’ve found" would look like; and "We Are Alive", which draws from Tom's aforementioned "I'll be there" speech.

I would highly recommend this movie to all Springsteen fans.  While it may be a bit liberal for some of the more conservative Springsteen fans, it tries its best to stay apolitical, with Tom not even knowing what a "red" is.  The main message, as Springsteen echoes (on Wrecking Ball again), is that we take care of our own.  It is a tribute to the working class and a plea for compassion for your fellow man.