The Film as a Historical Source

Scene from The Grapes of Wrath

Scene from The Grapes of Wrath

The movie focused much more on the plot of the book than any historical event or person. We see the Joads’ journey from Oklahoma to California, we watch them struggle with the challenges put upon them, and we see them riding off into the distance, ready to survive no matter what. The most important aspect of the film, historically, is the setting. We see the dried out Great Plains, the destitution of camps, and the role of the government versus the landowners throughout the film. No historical figures come forward — everything comes out of a general scope of what the 1930s looked like.

Movie poster for The Grapes of Wrath

Movie poster for The Grapes of Wrath

Both the movie and the book miss the government’s role in pushing farmers out of the Great Plains; were it not for their ceasing the relief programs of Dust Bowl farmers in order to take control of the lands, then not so many refugees would have flooded the West.[1] Both adaptations do point directly to the landowners for the poor wages, working conditions, and opportunity for the refugees who fled their overrun land. They were made in the midst of the Great Depression and at the tail end of the Dust Bowl crisis, too, so they did not yet have the whole picture. History has the advantage in this case. As a result, The Grapes of Wrath is all the more historically significant, almost working itself into an actual primary source on the 1930s. Almost any scholarship – from the 2010s back into the 1940s – mentions John Steinbeck’s novel at least and discusses John Ford’s film adaptation when it focuses further on memory of the Dust Bowl. The film and book make primary and secondary sources nearly one and the same. Everyone involved in the writing and filming process lived to see what the historical account meant to tell, so they could interpret it as the people saw it at the time. This is only in terms of events and society, leaving out politics and people.

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Still from The Grapes of Wrath film

No historical figures show up throughout the movie or the book, but political ideas are certainly present. The Grapes of Wrath is considered an American classic that details the lives and minds of people who struggled during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl storms. It is also a Progressive text. The 1930s saw the tail end of Progressivism (an American party that had close roots to a share-the-wealth sort of idea, highlighting the working class and encouraging unionization) as it tried to change the political landscape, challenging old ideas about Free Market economics and democracy. The book definitely favored this newer ideology, promising that one day the refugees forced off their land and into other landowners’ places would rise up and take back what they deserved as people. The primary antagonist is the very essence of capitalism. The heroes are the working class people and the small government communities are strictly democratic (by which everyone participates and there is no sole leader).[2] The movie does reduce these ideas some by way of cutting out the narration of the workers gathering and becoming angry enough to do something about their situation. Instead, it focuses on the individualism of its heroes and a type of Jeffersonian democracy, in which everyone participates but does not seek a leadership role, that John Ford very much favored.[3] It also cuts out all of the instances in which the Joad family joins with another family to become one unit for the sake of protection and care. It shows Jim Casy becoming an important leader among the strikers and Tom following the former preacher’s footsteps as he leaves his family.

The way that the movie does represent the left-leaning ideas of the book are in the rearrangement of the story. The government camp comes last, whereas in the book it came somewhere in the middle, foregoing Steinbeck’s nearly fatalistic last few chapters and instead offers the camp as the move forward, the progress and the potential final destination. Out of that camp, the Joads’ lives look like they will get easier. Out of Steinbeck’s government camp, they become desperate to find work again and wander into more trouble. The movie makes the government camp to be a logical step in the process to recovery from the Dust Bowl as opposed to that little glimpse into what the world could look like, if only people were allowed to become self-sufficient.

Historically, the movie works better as a primary source than a secondary one simply because there wasn’t enough time between the event and the film to have history form around it. The movie is a political statement that humanizes the people who suffered the wrath of the Dust Bowl and the economics that refused to support them once they’d lost everything. It follows the book in the same regard. Both have a lot to say about the 1930s because it was part of the time, not because they wanted people to look at it as a historical account of what happened.

Scene from The Grapes of Wrath

Scene from The Grapes of Wrath

Still, much of what was said and shown in The Grapes of Wrath has become a historical marker. Even books published in the 1940s turned to this tale to discuss the refugees.[4] Other accounts could not find enough support to be published, even if they were nonfiction.[5] Many of the ideas shared through the book and the film did not even adequately represent the refugees’ thoughts. Dust Bowl refugees were often uninterested in politics and focused more heavily on religion.[6] Neither Steinbeck nor Ford managed to capture that. It was also understood that society could not return to its original agricultural focus on small-scale farming, which was not an issue addressed in either adaptation.[7] Ford’s need to have a happy ending in his films skewed his interpretation of both the book and the historical event. Steinbeck wanted people of higher class to see the migrants as victims of what they endured both economically and socially.[8] Neither could encapsulate the complexity of migrants’ thoughts and beliefs.

So the movie does much better as a primary source – having altered the timeline of the actual historical period and thus becoming essential to its discussion – than it does as a secondary source.

Still from The Grapes of Wrath film

Still from The Grapes of Wrath film

 

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  1. Mathew Paul Bonnifield, The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979), 170.
  2. Charles J. Shindo, Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination, Rural America (Lawrence, Kan.) (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 148.
  3. Ibid., 148.
  4. Nels Anderson, Men on the Move, The University of Chicago Sociological Series (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 27.
  5. Sanora Babb, Dorothy Wixson, Dorothy Babb, and Douglas C. Wixson, On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps, 1st ed., Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Imprint Series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 36.
  6. Shindo, 4.
  7. Anderson, 268.
  8. Shindo, 149.