THE GRAPES OF WRATH
SUBJECTS — U.S./1929 – 1941, Oklahoma & California; Literature/U.S.;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Families in Crisis; Female Role Model;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Fairness.
AGE; 12+; No MPAA Rating;
Drama; 1940, 128 minutes; B & W. Available from Amazon.com.
Driven off their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression, the members of the Joad family load their belongings into a truck. Like millions of other dispossessed farmers, they head to California in search of work. The screenplay is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Steinbeck.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1940 Academy Awards: Best Director (Ford); Best Supporting Actress (Darwell); 1940 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Fonda); Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Writing. “The Grapes of Wrath” is listed in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film. This film is ranked #21 on the American Film Institute’s List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2006).
Featured Actors: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charlie Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson.
Director: John Ford.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Your child may be asked to read John Steinbeck’s classic novel, from which this film has been adapted, in either an English or a history class. Try to see that the film is viewed only after the book has been read. The information in the Helpful Background section may offer assistance to your child in his or her study of the book. Should interest in the period be shown, you may want to read the passage from President Roosevelt’s inaugural address quoted in this guide and then move to the Quick Discussion Question below.
During the 1920s and 1930s, farmers plowed up grassland on the Southern Great Plains to plant wheat. In 1934 and 1935, in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and the Dakotas, a severe drought killed the wheat plants. High winds blew the topsoil off the land and into huge dunes. Violent dust storms turned the sky black at midday and people had to breathe through handkerchiefs to keep from choking on the dust. About 150,000 square miles of land in the Southern Great Plains came to be called the Dust Bowl.
Because of these conditions, farmers were unable to make their mortgage payments and the banks took the land. Many small farms were consolidated into large holdings owned by corporations and farmed by employees. Hundreds of thousands of once independent and self-sufficient farmers were run off their land. Many emigrated west to California where they became migrant farm workers taking low paid temporary jobs. They were called “Oakies” since many came from Oklahoma, one of the states hardest hit by the drought and soil erosion. They lived in their cars or in camps, usually in miserable conditions. They worked when they could but since the California farmers needed them only at certain times of the year, such as harvest time, they spent many months without work.
When people lose their jobs and homes, families come under stress. Some break up, others get stronger, but adversity changes most families. Some family members will die earlier than they would normally, others will leave home, and some may get into trouble with the law. The relative positions of the various people in the family may also change. The father of the Joad family had been the head of the household on the farm in Oklahoma. By the time the family reached California, he admitted that he didn’t feel useful any more and that he kept thinking of the way it was before the family was forced off their land. By the end of the story, the mother is the strongest member of the family. It is she to whom Tom says goodbye when he leaves. The character of the mother acknowledges this by saying, “A woman can change better than a man.”
The “Reds” referred to in the film are the Communists. The movie shows how at times Red Scare tactics were used to prejudice people against Americans who protested oppressive conditions or tried to form labor unions. For other films in which Red Scare tactics play a role, see Matewan, Native Son, Fat Man, and Little Boy and, by analogy, The Crucible and High Noon.
John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968) received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel The Grapes of Wrath. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Some of his other works are: Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, and Of Mice and Men. These books are appropriate for 14 and 15-year-olds.
Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address delivered in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, is referred to in the film. His most famous sentence is that: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”. However, there is more to this speech which speaks directly to us today. Those portions are set out below.
… This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.
More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.
Did America of the 1930s, treat its small farmers very well? What could have been done to help people like the Joads so that they could stay on their farms? What could be done to help them when they became migrant farm workers?
There is no single right answer to the questions. As to what could have helped the Joads stay on their farm, a good answer should include some protection against foreclosure and information and training on how to farm, including how to protect their land from erosion. Once they became migrant farm workers, the protections that they could have used included, minimally adequate housing, workers compensation insurance, a minimum wage, medical care and education for their children.
2. Remember when the mother and father were talking as they sat in the cab of the truck and the mother stated her belief that the rich men come but their sons are not as strong as the fathers and fall by the wayside if there is adversity. In contrast, families like the Joads just keep on going no matter what adversity befalls because they are “the people.” What was she trying to say and do you agree with it?
3. What did the mother mean when she told her son “We ain’t the kissin’ kind”?
4. Why did Tom Joad have to leave the family?
5. Why was the ex-preacher, Casey, killed?
6. Why did the deputy sheriffs burn transient camps?
7. On a map, trace Route 66 from Oklahoma through New Mexico, then into Arizona and California. Show where the Colorado River flows.
8. Why did the deputy sheriffs need a warrant or a fight before they came into the camp?
9. Tom Joad had a religious belief in “The one big soul that belongs to everybody.” How does this compare to the teachings of Buddha, see Learning Guide to Little Buddha or to “The Force” in “Star Wars”?
1. Who kept the family together and emerged as the person to whom all others turned for support?
2. A theme of this story is that when family circumstances radically change it is the women that keep the family together. The father admits that he is lost and always thinking of the way it had been before. The son-in-law runs away. Tom has to leave to avoid being arrested. Do you agree with Steinbeck that, in general, women can deal with total disruption of their prior way of life better than men?
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)
1. Was it fair that the Oakies were turned out of their farms and left with only migrant farm work to maintain themselves and their families?
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
BRIDGES TO READING
Every child should read The Grapes of Wrath before graduation from high school. While the movie focuses on the Joad family, the novel uses the Joads as an example of what was happening in the Midwest and in California, emphasizing the land that was dying, choked on dust, the crush of hundreds of thousands of migrants flooding into California, the collapse of the farming economy and the tractorization of the small farms. The Pearl, also by Steinbeck, is appropriate reading for children 12 – 14. The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, and Of Mice and Men are appropriate for 14 to 15-year-olds.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- For a detailed description of this film see Greatest Films.