The Great Depression affected everyone throughout the United States, but there is no denying the fact that those in the general Midwest were almost destroyed as a result. The complete social and economic consequences to a few years of drought, financial distress, and the growing applications of technology -- which led towards a social change in job placements -- all affected the farmer's plight. Based on John Steinback's novel, the film The Grapes of Wrath (1940) focuses on this particular plight by showing the journey of one family affected by the changes of American society. Like many of the other farming families of the Midwest, the Joads struggled to survive the changes occurring around them.
Director John Ford focuses the movie on Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), a newly released prisoner traveling back to his family's farm, only to realize that everyone had disappeared. When he gets the story from Muley (John Qualen) -- a loitering farmer who refuses to evacuate the premises -- he realizes that his family has been ordered to remove themselves from their own farm. The "caterpillar tractors" were coming to break their households down. This is but the beginning of Tom's journey, where he and his family undertake the move from Oklahoma to California, where promises of prosperity and oranges "ripe for the pickin'" tantalize them. Unfortunately, this plight of theirs is far from over.
The Dust Bowl
The great Midwest experienced a massive setback during the Great Depression, particularly around the early 1930s. Most of the Great Plains region -- which stretched from central United States all the way to the west -- suffered severe problems when the rains failed to come. Large wheat-growing areas failed to produce, and dust storms ravaged the countryside, to the point where the "dusters" were blowing dry soil away from the ground. Most farming areas at the time period lost their soil, and even more saw their houses littered with the soil displaced by the winds. The areas so affected became collectively known as the Dust Bowl.
Ford begins the film by showing the open scenery ahead of Tom as he walks home. The vast expanse of road is mostly barren, and by the time he reaches the Joad residence, the scenery becomes bleaker. The Joad home is desolate and empty, with no sounds but the movement of strong winds barraging the house and blowing the dry dust away. Later, as the Joad family leaves Uncle John's place for the California, the film images stay on Uncle John's house, showing the audience another result of the desolation that the farmers are experiencing. In a poignant scene between Tom and Muley, Muley relates that "the dusters [are] blowin' the crops away, blowin' us away now."
Manifest to the West
Sharecroppers during the Great Depression were evicted from their households by massive companies who bought rights to the land. The banks, companies, and conglomerations -- where no blame can be pinpointed (an upside for being a collective, faceless entity) -- stripped the farmers from years of having lived in the land. While most farmers took to outrage over the eviction notices, many were overpowered by the Caterpillar tractors that bulldozed the farmsteads. In the film, the industrialized equipment rendered the farmers' arguments useless, as even some of their own people were willing to drive the tractors onto neighboring farmsteads for a mere few dollars a day -- just enough to feed their own families.
To attempt to assuage the farmers' fears, the companies provided an alternative, stating that there would be plentiful jobs opening in California. Many sharecroppers were enlightened by this alternative, even the Joad family looked hopefully into the thought of a bountiful Western United States. "Everybody's leavin', goin' off to California," Muley states to Tom in Grapes of Wrath. In the hopes of being paid higher wages in the West, the Joad family packed everything they had on a single truck and the family of twelve -- including former preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine) -- traveled away from their home.
The movie poignantly shows this arduous journey. As the audience watches the Joad family on their trucks, they see preceding and following trucks of similar make, also driving in the same direction. At some point in Grapes of Wrath, multiple trucks with multiple family members traveled down the same highway in line, showing a scenario that likens that of the pioneer wagons during the colonization of the West. Unlike the older idea…