Even with 500 TV channels at our fingertips my 12 year old son, Blair, and I could not come up with a movie to watch. He manned the remote flipping from title to title while I played God saying “next” and “pass” until we had gone from A to Z. He grew impatient and started lobbying for “Family Guy” instead. I was undeterred. We would come up with a movie to share. We went backwards from Z towards A and finally stopped on John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath.” Not his first choice for sure but he surrendered to a 70 year old film based on mom’s favorite book of all time. We settled on his bed in a cuddle and since we started late it took us two evenings to get through it.
I’m sure I watched this epic when I was in middle school or high school yet decades later I’m still in awe of this movie. It is so honest, so realistic. It was startling in its simplicity by today’s standards yet that made it even more powerful. I was struck by the starkness of the landscapes, the grimness of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, the contrasts in black and white and the melodrama of the acting. The performances by Henry Fonda as a young Tom Joad and especially Oscar award winning Jane Darwell as the beleagured mother trying to keep her family together stay with you long after the final credits. Compared to 3D films, Pixar and Disney animation and the special effects we have today it was so unsophisticated.
The themes of this great and gritty masterpiece resonate 70 years later. Oppression of migrants, the cry for economic and social justice, the difficulty of achieving the American dream and the endurance of the spirit over inhumanity and adversity feel every bit as relevant in 2010 as they did in 1940. But these are just my impressions. When I asked my son Blair what he thought of the movie he said the big surprise for him was that the protagonist did not win. He said in movies these days the protagonist always triumphs and that sometimes it spoils things because he knows how the film will end. But at the end of the movie Tom Joad and his family were still suffering. I told him that good guys don’t always win and sometimes in the real world people are bloodied and nobody wins. There are not always happy endings. For him, “The Grapes of Wrath” was unexpected and for me, well, they just don’t make movies like that anymore.
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