John Ford's 'The Grapes of Wrath' is more than just your standard rites-of-passage viewing for burgeoning movie-buffs. It exists beyond any semblance or notion of a timeless classic because its name and the images from this most excellent motion picture have ingrained themselves into our cultural collective consciousness. The film is best watched as something to be experienced, one which successfully captures a particular moment in time with genuine honesty and concern. The Darryl F. Zanuck production of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is an enduring masterpiece of American cinema, permanently etched into history because it forever carries the immense weight and emotion of the period it so brazenly and accurately depicts.
Even before Zanuck optioned its adaptation rights, Steinbeck's novel about a disenfranchised family making the arduous journey from Oklahoma to California had already garnered a great deal of controversy. Rumors and talks of it being made into a movie only added fuel to the fire, even catching the attention of government officials like J. Edgar Hoover for a short while. Many, including the book's publisher, feared the plot could be perceived as "red-baiting" or generating sympathies for socialist left-wing causes. Told from the point of view of families competing for strenuous, low-paying labor in order to survive, it's easy to imagine their apprehension over how audiences would react. As Roger Ebert has pointed out in his "Great Movies" review, the fact the movie was ever made is also ironic because both Zanuck and Ford came from staunch conservative backgrounds.
No matter the changes or difference between the novel and its adaptation, Ford's 'Grapes of Wrath' stays true to Steinbeck's telling of a family's epic struggle to remain intact and endure at a time of terrible socio-economic crisis. Because of its frighteningly uncanny parallels to our current financial situation, the tale becomes a universal one which any working-class family can relate to. The chase for the ever-elusive American dream is tragically hindered by those with the wealth and ownership of the things people need in order to live. One of the film's most powerful and touching scenes comes from Muley's flashback of farmers forced off their land by the banks. The story's message of social justice is unmistakable, a major focal point of the narrative that rings just as true as ever.
Tom Joad, played to absolute perfection and a persuasive earnestness by Henry Fonda, is our perennial hero. Or better yet, he's an accidental anti-hero, a man desiring simply to do good for his family but slowly discovering the real fight to be against an uncompassionate system effecting more than his immediate circle. Recently paroled, Tom's criminality and position as social outcast, along with ex-preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), provides him with the freedom to expose the faults, inequities and weaknesses of modern civilization — a common element in some of the best works of fiction. It is mostly through his eyes — the eyes of a convicted murderer and lawbreaker — that the audience comes to also realize the unfairness of society and of those with power. And Fonda does a phenomenal job in having us see beyond the character's past and identify with the good man he is.
The movie also contains other amazing performances within the Joad family, a name which alludes to the Biblical Job — their will and drive to persist in light of their situation continuously tested by uncontrolled, outside forces. Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar that year for her role as Ma Joad, is one such example that is as memorable as it is inspiring. Aside from the performances and story are the technical details of the production and Ford's expert eye, directing this wonderful motion picture with the strokes of artistic genius. With gorgeous cinematography by Gregg Toland, the film captures the era and ordeals of working-class families with somber, striking realism, employing elements of the noir genre to express the anxieties and fears of the people who miserably lived it.
'The Grapes of Wrath' is a marvelous masterpiece of American cinema that should be more than merely watched for its historical value and importance. It is a piece of art that is experienced for beautifully capturing and expressing a particular period in history, drawing viewers' sympathies to its epic tale of survival, conveying the human spirit's will to endure in spite of the outside forces wishing to crush it. It is a film that struck a chord with audiences when it first premiered and it lives on as a poignant story.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of John Ford's 'The Grapes of Wrath' comes courtesy of Twilight Time for a limited run, a couple months early prior to the official release from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The BD50 disc appears to be Region Free and arrives inside a blue, eco-cutout keepcase. At startup, it goes straight to still screen which gives viewers the option to watch the original U.S. release or the U.K. theatrical version. The difference is a few title cards at the beginning which provide a cultural/historical context for foreign audiences. After the selection is made, the same still appears on the standard menu selection with music playing in the background.
John Ford's historical drama makes the trek to Blu-ray with smashing results, looking better than it ever has before. Immediately apparent, the video has been significantly cleaned up and polished, but the overall quality of the presentation is gorgeous, retaining a visible grain structure throughout from beginning to end. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode displays a wonderfully crisp and bold contrast balance with lots of clean, vibrant whites and excellent clarity into the far distance. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the high-def picture also comes with exceptional black levels, considering its age. Shadows are deep and true while the small details in the background are never overwhelmed and remain perceptible in most every poorly-lit scene, of which there are many. Definition of the fine objects and textures are striking, allowing viewers to see every smudge of dirt, sweat and wrinkle on the faces of the Joad family.
Only so much can be done with the recording of a nearly 75-year-old movie, and yet, Fox surprises with this amazing DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. Despite being limited to the center channel, the lossless mix offers an appreciable wide soundstage with excellent fidelity and superb presence. Vocals and character interactions are clean and pitch-perfect, allowing for every inflection and emotional fluctuation in the powerful dialogue to be heard without issue. Dynamics and acoustics are sharply detailed, creating a highly-impressive image with lots of distinct activity in the background. Listeners can make out leaves rustling in the distance, the aimless chatter of people living in the camps and feel the chill caused the howling winds surrounding the Joad farm. The music can be a tad too bright at times in the upper end, but likely originates in the original sound design because aside from that, this is a brilliant high-rez track.
Aside from linear notes, still gallery and restoration comparison video, pretty much all the bonus material from the 2004 DVD release is ported over.
John Ford's 'The Grapes of Wrath' is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made and continues to resonate with the same emotional impact and beauty as it did when it originally premiered. From the performances of Henry Fonda, John Carradine and Jane Darwell to the gorgeous cinematography by Gregg Toland, the film lives on as a true masterpiece of American cinema, eloquently capturing and articulating the will and strength of the human spirit. The enduring classic arrives on Blu-ray with an exceptional audio and video presentation and a healthy collection of supplements. Overall, the quality of the disc is worth the asking price. This is one of those movies that rightfully belongs in any true cinephile's library. A must own.