The Time Warner Cable/CBS dispute continues, with all CBS programming blacked out. The two multimillion dollar companies fighting are squabbling over a $1 per customer increase and digital rights. And it is we, the viewers, the people, who are suffering. Naturally.
For the second week in a row I was unable to watch Dexter or Ray Donovan on Showtime (owned by CBS), so I watched The Grapes of Wrath on TCM instead. That’s the 1940 film based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name, his protest novel about how capitalism is a ruthless system of exploitation. How fitting.
I hadn’t seen the film in a long time. It’s been even longer since I read the book. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family forced from their farm by the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. They journey to California along with thousands of others in search of work and a new life.
John Ford was the director, an odd choice because The Grapes of Wrath was regarded as a “leftist” novel, and Ford was a staunch right-winger. But he was also a humanist, and no doubt identified with the plight of the migrant workers in the same way as he did with his ancestors who suffered through the Irish Famine, and with the struggle of the Welsh coal miners whose lives he depicted so beautifully in his 1941 film How Green Was My Valley.
Although his conservatism, and at times, his brand of patriotism, is not my cup of tea, I consider John Ford a great filmmaker. It seems to me that his version of The Grapes of Wrath follows Steinbeck’s novel closely, even the political part. The film was produced 73 years ago, and yet it is a thoroughly realistic portrait of that time, rather atypical for films of the period. Shot in glorious black and white, Ford’s cinematographer was Gregg Toland, who a year later would perform the same duty for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane.
Watching the film this time around, I was stuck by the scene where the Joad family finally finds some work in California. They’ve already been preyed upon, and they show up at a ranch where work is a sure thing. The migrants drive through the barbed wire gates of the ranch in their overloaded vehicles, past the guards who act like Nazi thugs – it’s more like a German concentration camp than an California work camp, an eerie parallel considering not much was known about the Nazi camps in 1940. And, at the same time, a premonition of the Japanese internment camps two or three years later.
The first night, young Tom Joad meets up with some “agitators” who are planning a strike against the oppressive landowners, and he ends up killing a deputy who has in turn killed his friend, the former preacher, Casy.
Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, the basically decent man who finds himself thrust into some violent situations that turn him into an outlaw. Tom Joad’s journey is not just from Oklahoma to California, but also from self-interest to selflessness, and as he becomes a fugitive, his sense of family grows larger to include all humanity.
The climactic scene in the film is when Tom has to say goodbye to his Ma. He figures that since he is already an outlaw, he might as well go out and “do something, maybe find out what’s wrong.” The words he says to his mother are not word for word from the novel, but close enough. It’s doubtful that either Steinbeck or screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had Buddhism on their minds, but I’ve always thought Tom Joad’s short speech is about as good a description of the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as I’ve ever heard.
Ma Joad accepts that Tom must leave but how will she know where he is and if he will be all right?
Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?
Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.
Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.
Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.
Being everywhere . . . being a piece of something that belongs to everyone . . .