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The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath(1940)

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No director has ever generated as many iconographic American images as John Ford, whose sweeping visual style virtually defined the Westerns and war movies that followed in his wake. Ford was a student of heroism. He understood that big-screen visuals, whether or not they were painted on a broad canvas, possessed the power to reveal a bigness of spirit. And that, in many people's minds, is what America is all about.

Ford's gifts are on full display in his adaptation of John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl chronicle, The Grapes of Wrath, which has now been released on DVD by Fox Home Entertainment. Ford and his brilliant cinematographer, Gregg Toland (who would soon collaborate with Orson Welles on a little picture called Citizen Kane), re-created period photographs in such a way that the barren landscape gives way to the equally devastated faces of the people it helped victimize. But the characters' enduring humanity, which lies at the core of this hard-hitting story, is what leaves an imprint on the viewer.

Henry Fonda (also no stranger to iconic work), stars as Tom Joad, an ex-con who, when he leaves prison and returns to his family in Oklahoma, finds that blasts of cruel, sand-spraying wind have devastated the area. He's entered a land of hopelessness where the failed economy has locked the people he loves in a seemingly endless cycle of defeat. But the Joads refuse to surrender so easily. Loading everything they own onto their truck, they head West, where they hope to find work in the rich fields of California. However, when they reach the theoretical Promised Land, they only find a more organized, brutal form of persecution. When his family starts to collapse, Tom responds in ways that he could never have expected, eventually taking a desperate stand for repressed people everywhere.

Any Ford film, no matter how richly rewarding, contains a few drawbacks for today's viewers, and The Grapes of Wrath is no exception. Central among them is Ford's insistence on over-sized, theatrical performances from his supporting characters. Some of the work in this picture is enough to make even the biggest Ford fan roll his eyes. When this happens, though, Ford quickly turns things around with a surprisingly understated tug at the heartstrings, or a stirring passage featuring Fonda. In the end, this is a deeply political picture that can still pack an unforgettable emotional wallop. All evidence to the contrary, dignity never really goes out of style.

You won't find many films from the 1940s that look better than The Grapes of Wrath, and Fox has done everything it can to digitally restore it to its original luster. There are occasional signs of age, but Toland's stark camerawork shines through, true and strong. Many of the shots are simply breathtaking, and should be seen by any fan of black and white photography. Fox even includes a brief documentary that reveals how much they improved the print. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is clean, but nothing special...outside of, of course, a couple of great speeches by members of the Joad clan.

The other extras (which Fox thoughtfully includes on the flip side of a single disc, rather than making you shell out for two) are welcome, but not quite as interesting as you might expect. The movie itself features a brief prologue that was originally attached for its U.K. screenings. The thinking was that British viewers might not understand what the Dust Bowl was all about, and needed a bit of explanation. Today, however, it comes in just as handy in America, since many viewers' sense of history goes back about as far as 1994.

The audio commentaries, by Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw and Ford expert Joseph McBride, unfortunately, are a bit on the dry side. There's an overly-academic tone to their observations that often makes you feel like you should be taking notes while you listen; it's often hard to detect any kind of thrill in what they're doing. Perhaps the most interesting bonuses are a decent Biography episode on the life of maverick producer Daryl Zanuck, although it covers his entire career rather than focusing solely on The Grapes of Wrath, and some "Movietone Newsreels" dealing with the harsh realities of the actual Dust Bowl. You also get a set of so-so outtakes and a trailer for the film, which, by now, is to be expected.

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by Paul Tatara