Orson Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, “John Ford knows what the earth is made of.” Although Welles probably did not intend this to be a cryptic observation, it does lend itself to several interpretations. It could have certain geologic connotations, referring perhaps to the Paleocene epoch, when complex life began to form. It could also refer to the even more complex development that came after—those troublesome bipeds that became us. If all this sounds a bit pompous for a director who spent much of his early career making mostly mindless two-reel westerns, so be it. Yet I would contend that, although The Grapes of Wrath is by no means Ford’s best or most personal film, Ford shares a kinship with John Steinbeck that makes him the perfect choice to bring Steinbeck’s novel to the screen. I would even argue further that I cannot recall any other adaptation of a genuinely great novel that is as good or as fully realized as Ford’s film. So, both interpretations of Welles’s remark are apt. Ford, like Steinbeck, had a unique perspective on man’s place in the natural world, and both shared a spirituality that could simultaneously encompass our glory and our frailty.
Although The Grapes of Wrath (which won Ford his second Oscar) was, more than any other Ford film, a commentary on its own time and a strong statement of his commitment to liberal values, there is already a wistfulness about the loss of a simpler past, a feeling that he would embellish in succeeding films over the next decades. Increasingly, Ford and society would have to rely on memories. This makes the scene in which Jane Darwell literally burns her memories before the family’s move to California one of the most poignant and transcendent moments in 20th-century art. One thinks of Falstaff’s reminiscences of his youth or Lear’s lament over his daughters’ betrayal. This lends the film a timeless and universal quality, not bound by the immediate realities of the Great Depression or the New Deal. It is naked, stark, raw.
I don’t wish to dismiss, however, the film’s success on the more immediate level. For a film made in 1940 by a major Hollywood studio, it was genuinely courageous for Ford (and Daryl F. Zanuck) to suggest that capitalism had failed and that socialism offered a genuine alternative. Henry Fonda, moving from Lincoln to Tom Joad, carried with him an authenticity derived both from American populism and the power of the cinematic tools at Ford’s command. Although the film does temper Steinbeck’s book a bit, as Morris Dickstein suggests in his recent Dancing in the Dark, “Finally, however, the novel and film come together as an almost seamless composite of words and images, fictional characters and performances, an indelible testament to their times.”
I do not fully buy into the common wisdom that Ford’s leftward leanings were transitory and that he became much more conservative with the passage of time. Yes, he respected the traditions and rituals of the military, bolstered by his World War II combat experience at Midway and Normandy (of which he was enormously proud), his O.S.S. filmmaking responsibilities, and his lasting commitment to establish a postwar retreat for the men who had served under him. Yes, his Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) could be superficially read, as it is by my friend Garry Wills, as Cold War propaganda. And yes, he wound up his public life by conveying God’s blessings on the already disgraced Richard Nixon. But the military he venerated had just fought the good war for the preservation of civility and decency. The Cavalry Trilogy was one of the American cinema’s greatest achievements, a veritable visual poem on what it was like to live on the frontier in the 19th century; it was, in effect, the Moby Dick of the movies. At the same time as these films were being made, Ford challenged Cecil B. DeMille’s right-wing putsch to take over the Director’s Guild. And the Ford who praised Nixon was a cancer-riddled old man only months from his death, accepting from the President of the United States the two highest awards ever bestowed on a film artist.
In both in his films and his life Ford, the son of an immigrant Irish saloon keeper, was an ardent supporter of the Irish Revolution. He had shared the same mutually sympathetic feelings he found in Steinbeck with the populist, mixed-race comedian and actor Will Rogers, with whom Ford had made three excellent films just before Rogers’s death. He loved Jack Kennedy, who sprang from the same roots as he did, and he mourned Kennedy’s assassination. He felt compelled to make Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1965) to be certain that the future did not interpret his films as racist. In his declining years, disappointed in his own natural children, he became a genuinely close paternal figure to the black Woody Strode and the gay Brian Desmond Hurst. Ford never bought into—and snarled at—John Wayne’s reactionary politics. If he were alive today, Ford would lock arms with Tom Joad in defense of the “people” against the banks, the corporations, and the shrill know-nothings among us. Like Walt Whitman, John Ford sometimes contradicted himself. But also like Whitman, he contained multitudes.