Top 100 Movie Review: #21 – The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Degrading Capitalism.

I might be in favor of free markets, but damn does this movie show you all the problems with it. 


American Film Institute’s Ranking: #21/100
Awards: Nominated for 7 winning 2 for Best Supporting Actress and Director.
My Rating: StarStarStarStar

I wish things were simpler.

I’ve been inundated with pro-capitalism news. Steven Pinker has no shortage of statistics showing how global poverty is being eradicated, environmentalism is thriving, and wars are being reduced due to the principles of free markets. It’s a compelling and important message to get out there given how easy it is to be nihilistic in present times; we live in the most abundant times, but feel as if we have nothing.

Then, something like The Grapes of Wrath comes along and shows you that all that cheery news has a darkside. There are real people this system grinds up. It makes us lose our humanity. It changes our relationships with each other.

By no means have I flipped to some socialistic view. Hell, if we followed the Joad family for a little longer, the post-WWII years would have lifted many out of this meager existence. However, it has made me rethink what we need to do to minimize the negative effects.

The Grapes Of Wrath - 1940


Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) gets out on parole and is returning to his family in Oklahoma. He comes back to find his home deserted with a squatter in the empty house. The squatter tells Tom about how everything has changed: people are getting run off their land because they can’t afford it. Tom finds his family at a neighbor’s property where they are packing up to leave for California to find new work.

The Joad family sets out for work but only finds trouble in the land of milk and honey. The promises of opportunity were just traps to ensnare impoverished people to make them work for below living wages. The Joad family struggles to find itself.



The life these people live is harsh, and it is harsh for only one reason: making a buck. While capitalism is supposed to be part of the wholesome American diet, it does everything it can to destroy the family nucleus and traditional values.


One of the goals of middle America has always been to be left alone to raise their family in peace. The three prongs of faith, family, and country are the staple of their ethos, but what happens when one of those starts to destroy the other? In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family is no longer the independent and indivisible unit that makes up America. They are torn apart by the monetary system — unable to be sufficient on their own, they no longer have freedom to do what’s best for them.

Ma Joad captures this sentiment with:

There was a time we was on the land. There was a boundary to us then. Old folks died off and little fellars come. We was always one thing. We was the family. Kind of whole and clear. But now we ain’t clear no more. There ain’t nothin’ that keeps us clear. Al – he’s a-hankerin’ to be off on his own and Uncle John’s just draggin’ around. Your Pa’s lost his place, he ain’t the head no more. We’re crackin’ up, Tom. We ain’t no family now. And Rosesharn – she’s gonna have her baby, but it won’t have no family. I’ve been a-tryin’ to keep her goin’ but [she sighs]…and Winfield, what’s he gonna be this a-way? Grown up wild, and Ruthie too! Just like animals. Got nothin’ to trust.


Best quote of the movie per Tom Joad:

“The gov‘ment’s got more interest in a dead man than a live one. “


The movie does a good job of showing how capitalism perverts our relationships with other humans. There are many tertiary characters that demonstrate this.

When the Joad family pulls up to a gas station in California, they meet a cop who is from a nearby county in Oklahoma. They begin to reminisce before the police officer remembers his duty: he needs to tell this poor people to shove off. He cuts off the formalities and tells the Joad family they need to be out of town before nightfall.

When officials for the big farming companies come to throw people off their land, they hide behind their duties to the system instead of answering to the people in front of them. The families begin to plead their case — who is kicking them off their land?

Muley: “And who’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?”

Man: “It ain’t nobody! It’s a company.”

It’s much easier to do bad things when it isn’t person to person.


Capitalism has done some great things, but it isn’t perfect.

Other People’s Takes:

  • Bear, Schmear: I do not see this as a relic of the past to be viewed as ancient and done history. With the current controversy and hatred towards hispanic migrant workers, it’s still happening. The Arvin camp is still there, still in use. In fact, the buildings used in “The Grapes of Wrath” are still there.”
  • The Ramblings of a Confused Man: “The socialist undertones and dissection of the pain caused by a capitalist system left to its own devices now come as part of the package when one hears the title The Grapes Of Wrath, no longer will one be surprised, shocked, and reduced to tears of righteous indignation when these images are presented to them.”
  • Simbasible: “The Grapes of Wrath is technically superb with excellent cinematography, great direction from John Ford and terrific performances from Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda, but it is a movie that was undone by its stupidly short running time and thus many of the greatest plot points from the novel were missing here. It is a good, emotional movie, but overly simplified leading to such a frustrating adaptation.”

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