The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

California, Super Cool To The Homeless

The Grapes of Wrath was impressively released less than a year following the release of the novel and yet within this short timeframe director John Ford crafted one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. A number of John Ford’s movies have that foreign film feel – a feeling of very raw, lifelike emotion. The Grapes of Warth itself is one of the most emotionally draining films of all time with one scene after another drawing up such feelings of pity; everything is rough, dirty nor is there makeup on any of the actors. Just take the scene in which the depression-ridden Joad family on their way to California attempt to buy bread from a dinner (a scene which really puts the value of money in perspective) – The emotion is one part humility and the other part pathetic.

Yokels, rednecks, hillbillies – everyone’s favourite punching bag. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t look down America’s uneducated, rural white folk nor presents them as a caricature but that still doesn’t change the fact that none of the Joad clan are the sharpest tools in the shed nor don’t understand how the outside world works. Just as we are introduced to the family the youngest daughter Rosasharn is pregnant and married when still a teen while the family is dirt poor and huge as it is.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad may be the pinnacle of his acting career. His stone face alongside the laid-back manner in which he walked and talked is mesmerising yet Joad is not someone I would fancy being in the vicinity off. Fonda’s performance has a sinister edge to it and a sense of barely restrained violence. His proclamation to the truck driver near the beginning of the film when telling him the reason he was in prison, a simple uttering of “homicide” could come straight out of a horror movie. Jane Darwell on the other hand as Ma Joad is the other great scene stealer with her hauntingly sombre, tour-de-force performance as a character with one ultimate aim – keeping the fambly together.

The amazing landscape shots, use of German expressionism and high contrast lighting give way for such unforgettable images from a car light driving along the horizon to silhouettes walking across a hill, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Take the scene at the campsite in which the characters discuss their present situation; it’s so dreamlike with the odd, unnatural angles, it couldn’t be more mesmerising. I also recommend watching the South Park episode Over Logging which parodies this scene (and the movie as a whole), right down to the black & white cinematography.

Once the Joads arrive at the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch run by the Department of Agriculture it is a temporary relief to see something good happen to the family, after all, they have been through. When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, the US Secretary of Agriculture was Henry A. Wallace, whom that same year was running for Vice President with Franklin D. Roosevelt; a message of support for FDR and the New Deal no doubt? At the government camp they are greeted by a seemingly genuine, honest man who looks like FDR and tells them they have washtubs with running water; a world away from the corporate run camps the Joads took residence earlier in the film – all sounds too good to be true? The government is the solution to the Joad’s problems (temporally at least as they end up leaving at a later point), nor at any point in the film do we see any charitable organisations out to help the poor. It’s fairly obvious that The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t exactly lean to the right of politics; evil bankers running people off their land, corrupt police, capitalists treating people like dogs, total collapse of the free market, socialist camp run by the government is only decent place to be in which cops are not allowed to lines of dialogue such as “people are going to win rich, people are going to die”. – A world of oppressor and the oppressed if there ever existed one. Regardless of one’s politics, I still contend The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most emotionally draining films in all of cinema.

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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Ship Happens

If was to sum up Mutiny on the Bounty it would be ‘immensely satisfying’. The actual build up to the mutiny itself is just so immense. Charles Laughton is an absolute beast as Captain William Bligh, a cruel sadist with no reverence for his crew, even more so due to his prejudice against convicts. I can’t stress just how much I love this performance. Shivers go down my back at any of his many outbursts (“Chriiiiiistian!”). For me, this is the ultimate love to hate character that when he finally gets his comeuppance after subjecting his crew to overworking, lashings and other mistreatments, it’s one of the most satisfying movie moments ever. Just like the crew, you grow to hate this character with a passion. On a personal level, I can see many of my old school teachers in Bligh. Ok, they weren’t that sadist but his harsh nature gives me déjà vu of my school days. Bligh is shown however to have a human side though. He does have a friendship with the King of Thatti, the only person who can convince Bligh to be less harsh. Their interactions are the only time in the film Bligh is shown to have a softer side. There’s just something about angry ship captains which make for such memorable characters (Captain Ahab, Captain Queeg, James Cagney in Mister Roberts).

Of course, there is also The King himself: Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian – A figure you would be glad to have as a captain, stern but fair and a man you would happily salute and shout “yes sir!” at. He’s the humanitarian saving grace for a crew ravaged at the hand of Captain Bligh. Like Laughton, the hairs on my back rise at any of his outbursts throughout the film (“I call ship’s company to bare witness, you killed him!”). Supposedly the two intensely disliked each other possibly due in part to Gable winning the Oscar for Best Actor the year before for It Happened One Night over Laughton’s performance in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. This makes the seething hatred between the two characters feels more real making Mutiny on the Bounty a movie of two powerhouse performances. This was Gable’s first role in a period film and he fits well into the historical period. Likewise, I’ve never thought much or Franchot Tone as an actor but he’s very good as Rodger Byam, an idealist seaman who has to make difficult decisions between his loyalty to the navy and tyranny of Captain Bligh.

Then there are the scenes on the Island Tahiti. These were filmed on location and are as romantic as it gets. Tahati seems like a world too good to be true; a tropical drug shop of feast, song, and sleep. A seemingly carefree society in which the inhabitants don’t even know about the concept of money. It’s such a release after the tyranny experienced on board The Bounty, well until we have to return to the ship that is – no wonder a mutiny takes place. Even with the production code in effect, the scenes on the island are still very exotic and it’s defiantly implied Christian and native girl played by Mamo Clark had sex. Shirtless Clark Gable, beautiful exotic women, tropical island paradise, what more do you want? Although I do have to ask; were there really natives who had relations this good with the British Empire?

The life-size recreation of The Bounty pushes the boundaries of set design at the time. From a visual standpoint, the movie excels in the realism department. Likewise, the rousing musical score unleashes the imagination of your inner schoolboy. Oh, and did I mention James Cagney is in this film; yep he’s in there for a brief second. Just when I thought this movie couldn’t get any better.

In defense of the film for being historically inaccurate; this is a movie, a work of fiction, not a documentary (although I highly recommend 1984’s The Bounty, which tells the story with Bligh being the hero and Christian as the villain). Besides, how can we ever truly be sure what happened aboard that ship 200 years ago? Regardless of what really happened, I find the tale of The Bounty is a story of great fascination and one which really sparks the imagination. Mutiny on the Bounty is the seafaring movie all seafaring movies are measured against.