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#147. Grapes of Wrath - Analysis

The Grapes of Wrath PosterIn 1939 author John Steinbeck took it upon himself to document the plight of the Okies; southwesterners who had been kicked off their land after the Dust Bowl and started off for California in what would be coined the Great Migration. Adapted for the big screen in less than a year after the book’s release, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) single handedly defined the Okie experience, offering a dramatically exaggerated view into a momentous occasion in this nation’s history, that was currently taking place at the time of its release. This paper attempts an investigation into the accuracy of the film The Grapes of Wrath, and looking into the seemingly purposeful removal of minorities, both thematically and from the narrative, as well explore the more blatant examples of factual inaccuracies within the plot.

Even in black in white, the lack of color in the film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath is obvious. Specifically chronicling the trials of the Joad family, a white southern clan from Oklahoma, it is understandable writer John Steinbeck and director John Ford would not focus on the effects the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl had on minorities in America. The immediate problem is, however, minorities are non-existent in their vision. A noticeable omission, neglecting to at least show the existence of California’s Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and African American population, in retrospect, may have been necessary whitewashing. In his article “The ‘Okie’ as Farm Laborer,” author Walter J. Stein explains that during the 1930s over 300,000 whites, from Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas, packed what belongings they may have had and set off for California. “Most of these ‘Okies’ settled into California’s agricultural valleys, where they rapidly supplanted the Mexicans and Filipinos who had dominated the harvest labor force for two decades.” (Stein, 202) Replacing the Chinese and Japanese workers that had been toiling California fields for decades, Filipino and Mexican laborers had been a major factor in the state’s agricultural success. Nancy J. Taniguchi says in “Stigmatizing Okies” that between 1923 and 1929, “…roughly 30,000 Filipinos arrived in California straight from America’s Pacific colony.” (Bakken,153) She elucidates further on the subject, explaining that once the Okies arrived at the cotton fields in California in the mid to late 1930s, they were in direct competition with Mexicans for what she called “the lowest labor rung in agriculture.” This was most likely a predicament Ford did not want to examine in his film. How could white Americans ever be in direct competition for menial labor with minorities? This was a question white California natives asked themselves as well. Although never a slave owning state, Taniguchi discusses at length the history shared between the Sunshine State and non-white labor, summing it up by saying, “The obvious but unspoken assumption here was that brown people got paid less than whites, and new immigrants got paid less than older ones.” (Bakken, 153) When the Okies started migrating in looking for work, it forced California landowners to not only consider the implications of hiring white laborers, but also compare them to their racially varied counterparts. Up until that point hiring Japanese, Indian, and other minorities for labor positions in their fields typically did not result in economic (owning-land) assimilation. Be it passing acts through Congress or obligatory repatriation, Californians always found a way around selling their land to minorities. Because of a shared skin tone, would the Caucasian rancheros be obliged to sell land to the Okies, in spite of the fact that socially they were no different than the Filipinos or Mexicans that worked right beside them? Taniguchi compares the Okie migration to the long cherished American dream of moving westward to seek greater opportunity, but once the Southwesterners arrived in California “their behavior – and their desperation – shocked and scared the already settled white landowner.” (Bakken, 148) The Grapes of Wrath Poster

It seems obvious this idea of white on white discrimination and inequality would have been an enthralling dramatic device to further display how downtrodden the Joads had become in The Grapes of Wrath film. Although edited out of the film all together, racial issues and culturally bred prejudices were in the source material. For Oklahomans of this period, both race and religion were a major source of pride. In his investigation into historical accuracy of the film The Grapes of Wrath and the book from which it was adapted, Stein presents a quote from the novel in which Tom Joad wrongly predicts the treatment of white immigrants in California, offering some insight into how Ford and Steinbeck assumedly worked together to create a more acceptable protagonist. “It should be understood that with this race the old methods of repression, of starvation wages, of jailing, beating, and intimidation are not going to work; these are American people.” Born with the “rights” of being a white-citizen, Tom’s words are a sentiment of the time. Stein explains, “Being American citizens [the white transients] are going to demand the so-called American standards of living… they are going to be the finest pabulum for unionization.” (Stein, 202).  Their willingness to perform the work no other white men in California would, along with their arrogant beliefs of entitlement in reality set the Okies back farther than the evil banking officials and land owners in the film.

The Grapes of Wrath PosterThe historical timeline, context, and factuality in regards to the Okie’s migration into California has been greatly exaggerated and misunderstood. In the opening of the film the American Southwest has been ravaged by dust storms, all but wiping out the crops and any chance at sustaining a living in the area. The banks have taken the land, and farmers like the Joad family are forced to leave. Finding a piece of paper that says farmers in California are looking for thousands of workers, the Joads gamble their entire existence and decide to make the trek out west. After barely surviving the trip, the family arrives in California only to find hundreds of thousands of Southwestern immigrants just like themselves, all fighting for work in corporate owned fields. All of those involved suffered much abuse and injustice, and the film ends with the Joads, now several family members short, back on the road still searching for work. In his article titled “Steinbeck’s Myth of the Okies,” author Keith Windschuttle argues much of the dramatics in the film is just that. While the Dust Bowl in the film (and America’s perception of the Dust Bowl) completely wipes out the farmland in state of Oklahoma, Windschuttle states that “dust storms in the 1930s affected very little of the farming land… while many Oklahoma farms suffered from drought… the only dust-affected region in that state was the narrow panhandle in the far west.” (Windschuttle, 25) James N. Gregory supports these claims in his own article on the subject, “Dust Bowl Legacies: The Okie Impact on California, 1939-1989.” “There was no migration of any consequence from the actual Dust Bowl, because few people lived in the parts of the southern plains that were devastated…” (Gregory, 76) As it turns out, this geographical inaccuracy is just one of many liberties Steinbeck and Ford took advantage of to fashion the most theatrical film possible.

The film’s opening moments give an effective glimpse into the psyche of the despondent farmer forced off his land by the evil, faceless banks. Required to stand to the side and watch while a bulldozer destroys his home, the farm owning patriarchs on display in The Grapes of Wrath invoke a sincere feeling of sympathy from the audience. So Windschuttle’s essay is particularly surprising when he presents information that directly contradicts the idea that banks were solely responsible for appropriating the land. He says, “In two separate studies of the plight of southern tenant farmers in the 1930s, historians …. Have blamed not the banks but the agricultural policies of the New Deal… Some 60% of farms were operated by tenants… during the Great Depression they found themselves victims of FDR’s 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, which required landlords to reduce their cotton acreage.” (Windschuttle, 26) Based off of studies by historians David Eugene Conrad and Donald H. Grubbs, it was government handouts that instigated the landlords’ purchasing of tractor equipment, which cut labor demands. Although the banks are vast corporate entities that convincingly create the film’s instigating action, the government in retrospect seems just as reasonable (and according to Windschuttle factually accurate) a choice.

The Grapes of WrathThe film presents families like the Joads no choice but to go to California. However, as it turns out, the migration of Southwesterners to the west coast was not a new occurrence in the 1930s, despite what the film would have you believe. While Gregory says, “Southwesterners had been coming to California in large numbers since World War I…” Taniguchi expands further, “…the long agricultural depression of the 1920s, leading into the Great Depression of the 1930s.” The film’s set pieces of hundreds of thousands of poor, miserable Okies setting up “Little Oklahoma’s” is accurate to a point, but does not responsibly tell the whole story. Not all travelers of Route 66 into California were broke farmers, stretching their last dollar, making a last ditch effort at stability. According to Gregory, Taniguchi, and Windschuttle, there was a large proportion of southwesterners who were wealthy, educated city folk. “…Only 36% of southwesterners who migrated to California were from farms. Some 50% of these migrants fitted occupational categories such as professionals, proprietors, clerical/sales, skilled laborers, and semi-skilled/service workers.” (Windschuttle, 25) It should also be stated that according to Windschuttle the number of family members making the voyage in the film was typically a lot smaller; usually an average of 4.4 family members composed of a husband, wife, and children. He elucidates further on the subject, explaining that most were young in age. Of the adults who made the journey, 60% were younger than 35-years old.

While perhaps not the most precise account of the real life struggles of the Okies during the 1930s, John Ford’s cinematic adaption of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is wonderfully engaging. A propagandizing masterpiece, the film successfully rewrote history, convincing viewers for over 70-years into believing a falsely exaggerated reality. The whitewashing of the film may have been out of necessity to limit the running time, or an attempt to avoid unwanted attention on what was commonly understood to be Okie’s feeling of racial superiority. It too does not seem to matter that the Joad’s plight did not exactly represent those of the Okie majority, and that the Great Migration of the 1930s may in fact have been less of an exodus, and more of an annual cycle. No matter the errors, or the dramatic inaccuracies in the name of artistic license, The Grapes of Wrath stands tall today not as a historical document, but as a wonderful film.


Work Cited

 Ford, John, Dir. The Grapes of Wrath. Perf. Fonda, Henry. 20th Century Fox:

         1940, Film.

Gregory, James. “Dust Bowl Legacies: The Okie Impact on California, 1939-

         1989.” California History. 68.3 (1989): 74-85. Print

Bakken, Gordon Morris. Taniguchi, Nancy. “Stigmatizing Okies.” California

         History: A Topical Approach. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2003. 220.  


Stein, Walter. “The ‘Okie’ as Farm Laborer.” Agricultural History. 49.1 (1975):

         202-215. Print

Windschuttle, Keith. “Steinbeck’s Myth of the Okies. (Critical Essay).” New

        Criterion. 20.10 (2002): 24+ General OneFile. Web. 20 May 2011

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